King’s evil and the royal touch
In the Middle Ages it was believed in England and France that a touch from royalty could heal skin disease known as scrofula or the ‘king's evil’. Scrofula was usually a swelling of the lymph nodes in the neck caused by tuberculosis. The practice began with King Edward the Confessor in England (1003/4-1066) and Philip I (1052-1108) in France.
Subsequent English and French kings were thought to have inherited this ‘royal touch’, which was supposed to show that their right to rule was God-given. In grand ceremonies, kings touched hundreds of people afflicted by scrofula. They received special gold coins called 'touchpieces' which they often treated as amulets.
By the late 1400s it was believed that you could also be cured by touching a type of coin called an angel, which had been touched by the monarch. After angels ceased to be minted in the 1620s the same effect was said to be achieved by touching a gold medallion embossed much like the old coin.
Some monarchs touched many people. King Henry IV of France touched up to 1500 victims at one time. The last English monarch to carry out this practice was Queen Anne, who died in 1714, but it continued in France. Louis XV touched more than 2000 scrofula victims and the last French monarch to do this was Charles X in 1825.
F Barlow, `The King's Evil', The English Historical Review, 95/374 (January 1980), pp 3-27
M Bloch, The Royal Touch: Sacred Monarchy and Scrofula in England and France (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973)
R Porter, The Greatest Benefit to Mankind (London: HarperCollins, 1997)
An infectious disease that is caused by a bacterium first identified by Robert Koch in 1882. The disease usually affects the lungs first, and is accompanied by a chronic cough.