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Response to Review of The Royal Touch in Early Modern England

I would like to thank Benjamin M. Guyer for reading and reviewing my book, and I am delighted that he found the chapters dealing with the royal touch during the Stuart age so convincing. He also looks favourably on the medical aspects of scrofula and the royal touch, noting that this is one of several aspects of my book that covers new ground. Another is its use of ‘history from below’, again something that Guyer appreciates: whereas older discussions of the royal touch see it solely as a tool for projecting monarchical authority, my work also addresses the great demand for royal healings, especially during the 17th century. In terms of Guyer’s critique, he raises two questions concerning my methodology, and in the interest of scholarly debate I will now respond to these points.

The first issue is how I have defined the royal touch: a religious ceremony that was performed by the monarch in imitation of Christ that was intended to cure scrofula by the laying on of hands. Concrete evidence, much of it administrative, proves that the royal touch was practised by Edward I, Edward II and Edward III, and then all of the Tudor and Stuart monarchs apart from William III. Before Edward I a tiny amount of anecdotal evidence suggests that Edward the Confessor and Henry II both attempted to heal by touch, although I should clarify that there is no evidence that Henry III did so. Guyer criticises me for differentiating between ‘the royal touch as a liturgically enacted event’ and ‘the ad hoc healings’ performed by kings prior to Edward I. What needs to be stressed is that Edward the Confessor did not hold healing ceremonies. Instead, a posthumous account of the Confessor’s life tells us that on one single occasion he was solicited by a young woman with scrofula who had been told in a dream that the king’s touch would heal her. He obliged and also washed her sores, and the woman was later cured. Similarly, Henry II is said to have healed one young woman of scrofula, although she later developed paralysis. In my book I discuss the Confessor as an interesting precursor to the royal touch, while leaving open the question of the scale and method of Henry II’s therapeutic practices, about which even less is known. Despite the frustrating paucity of evidence, I am sure that Guyer would agree with me that both cases are revealing in relation to English sovereigns imitating their French counterparts, as the royal touch originated in France around the year 1000, and as part of notions of royal charisma, especially the idea that the monarch could act as a conduit for God’s healing powers. Yet there is a significant difference between a king who did not practice any official healing rites being asked once to lay his hands on an individual who had scrofula – Edward the Confessor – and a king who held regular healing ceremonies, who touched almost 10,000 scrofulous people – Edward I. This is why I have defined the royal touch as a ceremony that was performed by the sovereign.

Guyer asks why I have defined the royal touch with ‘strict reference to liturgy’ because if ‘no one at the time’ defined it this way, ‘why should we?’. In fact, although I have defined the practice ceremonially, I have not defined it ‘with strict reference to liturgy’. This is because although the early modern ceremony was structured around a liturgy comprising prayers and passages from the New Testament, we do not know if the medieval practice was structured in the same way. However, we do know that the Plantagenet kings touched the sores of their supplicants, and made the sign of the cross over them, and gave each person one penny. By defining the royal touch ceremonially, I am actually adhering to the medieval and early modern definition. In other words, as I spell out in my book, the monarch was only thought to be able to heal by touch during the ceremony. Thus prior to the ceremony the sovereign galvanised themselves for their healing role by prayer, by hearing a sermon, and sometimes by fasting, all of which suggests that they needed to be purified before they could provide spiritual healing; and at the end of the rite the sovereign’s hands were ritually cleansed in public to signify that their therapeutic role was over.

When questioning my definition of the royal touch, Guyer also asks whether there was any conception of it before Edward I. There was indeed, especially given the healing activities of French monarchs as well as other non-royal healers who also offered tactile therapy throughout Europe. Yet the evidence relating to the royal touch in 11th- and 12th-century England is so scarce – one wonders if the story of the Confessor is even a legend? – that it makes no difference to the analysis of the rest of the history of the royal touch.

The second issue is how the royal touch fitted into a Protestant culture. I am surprised that Guyer thinks that my book ‘operates with a strong binary between Protestants and Catholics’, whereby I ‘assume that Catholics believed in miracles while Protestants did not’. The royal touch exerted a broad appeal throughout early modern England and France, and beyond, because it was usual for both Catholics and Protestants to believe that health and medicine were closely related to religion. The primary cause of disease and misfortune was often said to be sin, with healing dependent on prayer and redemption (which in turn helps to explain why the ceremony became codified around a liturgy of prayers and biblical passages). When scrofulous people supplicated God’s representative on earth for a cure, the hope must have been that this would please the Almighty who might then grant their request. It is true that Protestants were meant to be cautious about miracles, and to subscribe to the reformed doctrine of the cessation of miracles (p. 71), but as Jane Shaw for one has pointed out, miracles still kept happening in post-Reformation England.(1) Like Catholics, Protestants believed that God was present in the world, meaning that a complete denial of miracles was problematic. For the theoretically minded, the answer was to differentiate between Catholic miracles which were seen as illusions or shams, and Protestant ones, which were re-framed, and so, for example, were more likely to happen at home than at a holy place.  Yet the royal touch did not miraculously cure everyone, and when we are told that it worked it was more likely to bring about an incremental improvement. So not everyone who was touched expected to be healed in the immediate way that the bible recounts miraculous healings.

There is no doubt that the royal touch was most popular during the Stuart age, that is, after the Reformation, and that it reached its apogee during the Restoration period (1660–88). One explanation for this is that even after the Reformation the ceremony still contained some Catholic elements, such as the monarch blessing the sores by making the sign of the cross over them. It was the Stuart sovereigns who kept reforming the rite in order to make it less ‘superstitious’ or Roman Catholic, and more Protestant in character, thus increasing its appeal in a country prone to rabid anti-Catholicism.  The issue is not that Protestants were ‘less inclined to ceremony’ so much as that they were hostile towards what they perceived to be ‘superstitious’ rites and gestures. But, as I make clear in my book, superstition is in the eye of the beholder, as is evident from the case of touch-pieces. Each person who was touched for scrofula by an early modern English monarch was given a commemorative gold coin to wear around their neck as a memento, known then as an Angel and today as a touch-piece. These were specifically designed to include words and images that were thought to aid recovery, including an image of the ship of state which had a cross as its main mast until James VI and I removed it as it was thought to be too Popish to wear an object with a cross on it. There is a wealth of evidence from the Stuart age attesting to ill people wearing their touch-piece in the hope that it would help cure their scrofula after they had been touched. This can initially seem confusing because Protestants were meant to shun amulets, yet on reflection there are a number of possible explanations for the popularity of touch-pieces within a Protestant culture. It could be indicative of the messiness of lay belief and an attachment to some of the old ways; or, given the changes made to the royal touch ceremony, the prevailing view might have been that the touch-pieces were Protestant amulets, which made them acceptable; or perhaps people’s pragmatic desire for a cure overcame certain religious scruples.(2)

Lastly, in relation to Guyer’s question concerning how open English Protestantism was to ceremony, my own view is that Protestants in Stuart England were indeed more open to it than might sometimes be thought – or at least to some ceremony. Obviously William Laud and Charles I pushed their ceremonial agenda too far, with disastrous consequences, but at the same time the royal touch was increasing in popularity. This was because, as mentioned, it was a reformed practice whereas Laudianism was castigated as being akin to popery. It is also worth remembering that the royal touch was a regal ceremony, and that the royal court and calendar both revolved around services and observances. The monarchy was bound up in ritual and display including daily occurrences such as public worship and formal dining, and less frequent events like coronations, royal entries, and washing the feet of the poor each Maundy Thursday. The royal touch belonged within this ceremonial setting.


  1. Jane Shaw, Miracles in Enlightenment England (London and New Haven, CT, 2006).Back to (1)
  2. The survival of magical practices in England after the Reformation is well known to scholars: see Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic (Oxford, 1971) for an excellent account.Back to (2)