A ward at Hotel-Dieu in Paris.

The religious Reformers are not at first opposed to royalty.  It is true that Luther, but also Calvin whose Institution chretienne is dedicated to Francois I, does not question the principle of monarchy.  Neither does Henri Estienne in 1566 who, in his Apologie pour Herodote, attacks all the saints who owe their healing reputations to a play on words, but carefully omits citing Saint Marcoul.  No-one then contests the royal miracle, which is very prudent.

In England, the healing rites are still accomplished by Henry VIII after the rupture with Rome, then by his successor Edward VI who continues to consecrate the medicinal rings on Good Friday.  However, in the end, the wariness that miracles attributed to saints inspire in the Protestants, carries within itself questioning of the kings’ supernatural power.  In 1603, a pontifical spy describes to Rome King James I of England’s repugnance to accomplish the touching rite

“saying that he did not see how he could heal the sick without a miracle;  and miracles had ceased and were no longer done…”.

From the end of the XVIth Century in England, the consecration of the medicinal rings would not survive assaults from the new mentality.  Already under Edward VI, voices are raised to find superstition in this practice which is more than two hundred years old.  Mary Tudor’s reign gives an ultimate reprieve to the “cramp rings”, but the Good Friday ceremony silently disappears from the beginning of Elizabeth I’s reign.  A reaction against the Roman Catholic awakening which marked Mary Tudor’s reign, this discrete abandonment is doubtless a concession to the most determined Protestants, particularly as it permits the maintaining of the other rite, that of touching scrofula, which contributes so much to the perennity of the prestige of the monarchy.

The Queen continues, in effect, to heal the scrofulous, conserving the traditional ceremony, and nothing allows us to imagine that popular belief in her healing power has weakened.  It must however deal with the hostility of the Roman Catholic minority which considers Elizabeth to be an heretic, and with that of the most radical Protestants, those who will become the Puritans, convinced that these practices are the most abominable superstitions.  To react to those who risk damaging the prestige of English royalty, William Tooker writes in 1597 a Treatise on the healing charisma which, dedicated to the sovereign, exalts the royal miracle.  Five years later, William Clowes, one of Elizabeth’s surgeons, publishes, in English, a Treatise on the Healing of Scrofula by the Kings and Queens of England.

Charles I of England

A fervent partisan of absolutism, James I is nonetheless very reserved about the touching rite, which is doubtless explained by the rigorous Calvinist education that he had received in Scotland.  A constrained thaumaturge who insists on justifying touching by presenting it as simply a prayer to God, the first Stuart king abandons however the practice of tracing a sign of the cross on the sick parts.  He will nevertheless continue to hang the gold coin, having talisman value, around the necks of the sick.  But the text engraved on it is modified to abolish the word “miracle”  At the same epoch, Shakespeare, who seems to be unaware of his King’s hesitations about his miraculous powers, evokes in Macbeth

“the most miraculous work of this good King”.

It could also be a piece of advice to the monarch for him not to neglect a faculty which contributes to the foundation of his prestige and his legitimacy in the minds of his subjects.  Charles I, raised in Anglicanism, asks fewer questions, he quite naturally practises the touching rite, to the satisfaction of the great majority of his subjects, the only opposition now coming from those Puritans who detest superstition just as much as royal absolutism.

In France, the Reformed Church followers are prudent at first and do not question the royal miracle, in the measure that, for a long time now, they have been waiting for the sovereign to give them complete religious freedom.  Certain minds already display veritable scepticism however by their silence.  In his treatise on surgery, Ambroise Pare consecrates a whole chapter on “scrofules et ecrouelles” without once citing the royal touch.  The start of the civil wars has doubtless led some to question more explicitly, which is at least what is implied by a Jesuit, Louis Richeome, the author in 1597 of Trois discours sur la religion catholique;  among other things, he is indignant about the

“gift of healing scrofula given to the very christian kings of France, the disbelief or impudence of a few French people, surgeons with bad hands and worse conscience, and certain mockers of Pliny drugged by the stupidities of Luther who have tried to exhaust and bring down this miracle by calumnies…”.

During the conflict which pits the ultra-catholics of the Ligue against Henri III, the King’s miraculous gift serves as a pretext to question the sovereign’s legitimacy.  It is said in fact that the King has been incapable of healing a scrofulous member of his entourage.  After his assassination, things become worse.  Canon Meurier writes a Traite de l’onction which is supposed to be a warning to the French People for it not to accept Henri IV as King.  Henri was still a Protestant at the time and, as Reims was under the control of the Ligue, he could not hope to be crowned there, so the kingdom’s scrofulous could never again be healed.  Henri de Navarre pragmatically converts himself back to Roman Catholicism and is consecrated at Chartres, where he receives a rather particular unction, with oil which had been given to Saint Martin by an angel…  Starting from Easter Sunday 10 April 1594, he touches scrofula in Paris which the royal troops have just entered.  Several hundred sick (from seven hundred to nine hundred according to the authors of the time) present themselves to benefit from the accomplishment of a rite that the Parisians had forgone for six years, since Henri III had been chased out by the uprising of the Ligue.  During the following years, the King touches thousands of sick, one thousand, two hundred and fifty on Easter Sunday 1608 alone.  The Bearnais well understood, as the good politician that he was, that the work of reconciliation and reconstruction that he had undertaken passed not only by victory over dissidence and by efficient administrative measures, but also by the strengthening of the monarchy’s prestige.  Nothing can better favourise this plan than the exaltation of the miraculous powers attached to the monarch.

Clever propagandists also contribute to this necessary work.  In 1609, Doctor Andre du Laurens writes a treatise on Le Pouvoir miraculeux de guerir les ecrouelles, divinement concede aux seuls Rois tres chretiens, a work re-edited several times over the course of the following years.  Coming out of religious battles, out of this terrible “time of troubles” which the kingdom had known for roughly forty years, the revival of the royal myth passes naturally by the exaltation of the sovereign’s healing powers.  As on other occasions, these difficult times end with a very strong re-affirmation of the sacred character of royalty.


To be continued.