A ward at Hotel-Dieu in Paris.

We could question the exceptional aspect of the French and English cases, and the absence of comparable rites in other kingdoms.  At the beginning of the XIth Century in France, about a hundred years later in England, sacred royalty conserves a supernatural character which it had acquired during the High Middle Age.  It is within this very precise mental framework that the political action of the two dynasties – which need to impose their legitimacy at this moment – introduces the touching of scrofula as a constituting rite of the monarchy.  The Capetians in France, Henry Beauclerc across the Channel, succeed in this enterprise despite the certain hostility of a Church then engaged in the Gregorian Reform and, over the centuries, the tradition is established, to the point of becoming indiscutable.  In other lands, circumstances did not lend themselves to a comparable evolution and the thaumaturgical power therefore remained attached only to these two Western royalties.

It is even appropriate to add that the English monarchy more or less completed this sacred attribute by its capacity for accomplishing another miracle, that of the “medicinal rings”, a rite which clearly appears from the XIVth Century.

Each year, on Good Friday, the English kings worship Christ’s Cross, in fact the “cross of Gneyth”, a miraculous relic stolen from the Welsh by Edward the Confessor, of which it was said that a piece of the true Cross had been inserted into it.  Placed at some distance from the relic, the king prosterns himself then drags himself, on his stomach, towards the divine insignia.  A practice described by Jean d’Avranches like this:

“In this gesture of worship, the stomach must be pressed to the ground;  for, according to Saint Augustin, in his commentary on the 43rd Psalm, genuflexion is not a perfect humiliation;  but he who humiliates himself by pressing himself completely on the ground, has nothing remaining of him which allows an increase in humiliation.”

This rite spreads throughout all of Roman Catholic Europe but, from the reign of Edward II, it is followed by a new practice, which is to be seen until the reign of Mary Tudor.

Once the prosternation rite is finished, the sovereign approaches the altar and places on it a certain quantity of gold and silver in the form of beautiful coins, then he takes these coins back, replacing them with an equivalent amount in coins of lesser value.  The florins or esterlins recuperated in this way are used afterwards to make rings for fingers, which have the reputation for curing certain illnesses in those who wear them.  Their curative virtues are particularly against epilepsy, which gives them the name of “cramp rings” in England.

The origin of such a power is firstly to be looked for in the tradition of christian marvels.  Joseph of Arimathia, who had buried Christ’s body, also had the reputation for having been the evangelizer of the British Isles and to have introduced the art of curing epileptics with rings.  Another legend has Edward the Confessor intervening again.  The Good Friday rite evoked earlier appears nearly three centuries after his reign, but a ring plays an important role in the legend of the holy King.  According to the Vie composed in 1163 by Abbot Ailred of Rievaulx, Edward, approached one day by a beggar, wanted to give him some money but, finding his purse empty, he gave him a ring.  The poor man who was soliciting him was in fact Saint John the Apostle.  Seven years later, two English pilgrims who were in Palestine, met there a beautiful old man, Saint John in person, who gave them back the ring, asking them to return it to their king and to announce to him that he was soon awaited in Paradise.  This tradition met with great success in the public, and the Anglo-Norman monarchy was able to recuperate it, as Henry III, who gives his son and heir the name of Edward – which is new for the sovereigns of the Norman and Plantagenet line – has the scene of the meeting of the two saints painted on the walls of Saint John’s Chapel in the Tower of London.  In Westminster Abbey, where the body of Edward the Confessor lies, the monks also show the faithful a ring found on the saint’s finger at the moment of the transfer of his remains into a new shrine, in 1163.  Osbert of Clare confirming that Edward had been buried with his ring, it is accepted that it is the one given to Saint John and, around 1400, John Mirk affirms that

“the ring which was, for seven years, in Paradise”

can be seen in the famous monastery.

It is only in the XVIIth Century, however, that the first texts establishing a connection between Edward’s ring and the miraculous cures performed at the end of the Good Friday rite appear.  Edward the Confessor is therefore placed, for the minds of the time, at the origin of the touching of scrofula and the rite of the healing rings.  Nothing permits us however to accord the slightest historical foundation to these beliefs.  They come, in fact, from a collection of superstitions which connect epilepsy to demoniacal possession, and suggest that Good Friday is particularly propitious for delivering patients from this ill of “cramps”.  There are at this time, in other countries, comparable practices, in France, in the Germanic world and in Italy, where Bernardin of Sienna evokes these magical recipes, which do not at the time have any connection to royal power.  The consecration of coins called to furnish the material for healing rings is exclusively connected to the fact that they have been offered as goods on the altar;  it is in this way that they acquire their magical power.  The intervention of the English monarch remains totally secondary here.  He only recuperates a superstition very widespread elsewhere.  Royal intervention, which operates in a regular fashion from Edward II to Mary Tudor, did however take on a specific dimension in England.  The king who cures scrofula is naturally able to also relieve epileptics, in the minds of the times.  Edward II’s unpopularity doubtless encourages him to reinforce the sacred character of the royal person by endowing it with a supplementary healing power, but the old magical recipe recuperated in this way will gradually transform itself into a new royal miracle.  The initial offering and the “buying back” which follows, lose their importance, the consecration given by the royal hand becoming the essential element of the rite from then on when, originally, it was closely connected to the influence of the altar and the cross.


To be continued.