A ward at Hotel-Dieu in Paris.
The triumph of Century of Light thinking will be fatal for the myth of the healer king, although at the article “scrofula” in Diderot’s Encyclopedie, only the miracles performed by the King of England are questioned. There is no doubt that at this epoch, enlightened minds, including those which remain attached to absolute monarchy, now only see in the touching ceremony the persistence of a superstition born in dark ages. Limited to a certain intellectual elite which still remains discrete on this point, questions about sacred royalty increase all throughout the XVIIIth Century, until the disappearance of the touching rite, firstly in England, then in France.
In England, James II, like his brother Charles II, sees many sick coming to him, more than four thousand in May 1685 alone. Secretly attached to the project of restoring Roman Catholicism, he modifies the ritual in use since James I to go back to the liturgy contemporary to Henry VII, which includes prayers in Latin, invocations to the Virgin and the saints, and the tracing of the sign of the cross on the wounds. As for William of Orange, he is totally sceptical about the healing power that many of his subjects persist in attributing to him. He will not perform the touching of scrofula. On the other hand, Queen Anne, raised to the throne in 1702, returns the following year to the tradition of the royal miracle. One of her subjects, Jeremie Collier, the author of an Ecclesiastic History of Great Britain, notes that
“attempting to contest the reality of the healing power of the sovereigns, is to advance the worst excesses of scepticism, deny what our senses tell us and push incredulity to the point of ridiculousness”.
It is on 27 April 1714, three months before her death, that Queen Anne performs the miraculous rite for the last time.
The princes of the House of Hanover will not take on this ancient tradition. The Whigs, who support the new dynasty, reject anything which could recall the sacred royalty of former times, which doubtless explains the rapid disappearance of the touching of scrofula. The Elector of Hanover, James I’s great-grandson, who was raised in the strictest Protestantism, mounts the English throne in 1714 and naturally refuses to touch scrofula. When an English lord asks him to perform the rite on his son, he does not hide his irritation and advises the annoying gentleman to go to the Stuart Pretender and ask him. Which the gentleman does and sees his son cured, thereby becoming a fervent partisan of the Jacobite camp. True or false, this story shows the state of mind which was prevalent at the time, both in this German Prince, a total stranger to England, and in part of British public opinion.
Exiled, James II and his son continue, in France, Avignon and Italy, to perform the rite. A Jacobite pamphlet calls the English to revolt and proclaims that they will be held
“for unworthy of the knowledge that they have of this marvellous power and the benefits that they can take from it, if they disdain it or neglect it”.
The partisans of the new dynasty reply through Doctor William Beckett who, in his Open and Impartial Enquiry on the Antiquity and the Efficacity of the Touching of Scrofula, opposes rational criticism to the superstition invoked by the partisans of the Stuarts. In 1747, the author of a General History of England makes the mistake of slipping into his work a few lines in which he advances, speaking of the Heir to the Stuarts, that he is
“the eldest of the direct-line descendants of a race of kings who, in truth, over long centuries, have possessed the power of curing the scrofulous by the royal touch”.
This passage unleashes the Whig newspapers, and the City of London takes away the unfortunate author’s pension… It must be pointed out that the son of James II appears threatening at this time and that, back in Scotland, he has again been touching scrofula. The military defeat of Culloden would soon annihilate his hopes of regaining the throne. The memory of the royal miracle disappears with the death of his brother, which occurs in Rome in 1807. For Hume,
“the practice of touching was abandoned for the first time by the present dynasty, which observed that this custom was no longer capable of impressing the population and was ridiculous in the eyes of all men of good sense…”
The arrival of the Hanovers, which occurred in 1714, therefore dealt a fatal blow to the sacred dimension of English royalty. The foreign nature of the new dynasty, and the absence of any reference to Divine Right in the Parliamentary system which will be put into place, will lead, earlier than in France, to the disappearance of the supernatural character attributed to political power.
The Kings of France continue to perform this rite throughout the XVIIIth Century. Popular fervour remains since, in October 1722, the day after his Coronation, Louis XV touches two thousand, four hundred scrofulous people in the Saint-Remi park at Reims. Under the reign of the Bien-Aime [Beloved] tradition is shaken up. It is in fact accepted that the King can only proceed to the rite after having taken Communion. But, several times, he is forbidden to take Communion by his Confessors, because of his amorous exploits. This situation occurs at Easter in 1739 and 1740, and at Christmas in 1744. This interruption of the miracle, consecutive to the King’s misconduct, has a very negative effect on public opinion. And even more so in that at the same moment, the philosophers, as well as Montesquieu in his Lettres persanes, are beginning to ironise about the “magician King”. As for Saint-Simon, he no longer hesitates to speak of
“this miracle that is claimed to be attached to our kings’ touch”.
For Voltaire, who takes William III of England for model,
“the time will come when reason will begin to make some progress in France, [and] will abolish this custom”.
Louis XVI still touched the scrofulous the day after his Coronation, but doubt is already installed perhaps, since the formula
“The King touches thee, God heals thee”
has been replaced by
“The King touches thee, may God heal thee”.
The nuance is significative of a certain scepticism as to the results of the miraculous treatment.
In 1825, Charles X wants to restore the splendours of the Reims Coronation and the question is raised as to whether or not to resuscitate the touching ceremony. Many in the royal entourage oppose it for it is feared
“to furnish a pretext for derisions of incredulity”.
An Ultra priest, Abbot Desgenettes, and the Archbishop of Reims, Monsignor Latil, are however convinced of the necessity for
“mending the strands of time”.
Rejecting the wishes of the inhabitants of Corbeny who are clamouring for the King’s return to Saint Marcoul’s tomb, they gather all the scrofulous that they can find, in a hospice bearing the saint’s name, in Reims. After a lot of hesitation, Charles X makes up his mind, on 31 May 1825, to touch the scrofula of around one hundred and twenty unfortunates who expect to be cured by him. The chronicler of the Ultra gazette La Quotidienne prudently states that
“if the King, in accomplishing the duty imposed by ancient custom, approached these unfortunate people to heal them, his just mind made him feel that, if he could not cure the wounds of the body, he could at least sweeten the unhappiness of the soul”.
This will be the last performance of the royal rite, mocked by Beranger in his Sacre de Charles le Simple.
The time of sacred monarchy is definitely over but the triumph of rationalism has not dissipated the memories of ancient times. In the general disenchantment in the world, the miracle of the healer kings still exercises, for all those who cultivate a “long memory” buried inside the deepest part of the collective memory of the European peoples, a certain power of fascination, a faraway echo of an order of things that has disappeared, a “nostalgia of the being” which is inseparable from belief in the mystery of the world.