A ward at Hotel-Dieu in Paris.

Royalty’s sacred character triumphs in the XVIIth Century through the absolute monarchy of divine right.  This new form of political order, imposed by Richelieu and Louis XIV on a more than reluctant traditional aristocracy, still has recourse to the royal mystique born of ancient times, to legitimize itself.  The legislators can affirm as much as they like the rational character of absolute monarchy, by seeking models from Antiquity, Byzance or even the Holy Scriptures, the adhesion of the People to the regime still reposes on the supernatural relationship between the sacred monarch and his subjects.

Is this an archaic survival in a century whose elite is impregnated with the intellectual heritage of Antiquity, and is already turning toward Cartesian reason?  Marc Bloch has resumed the situation perfectly:

“To understand even the most illustrious doctors of the monarchy, it is good to know about the collective representations, the legacies of preceding ages, which were still very much alive at their epoch […].  As in the case of all the theologians, their work consisted mainly of cloaking with an intellectual form the very powerful sentiments diffused around them, and with which they themselves were more or less unconsciously impregnated.

Numerous treatises, works of publicity agents today forgotten, very well reflect what could be the common opinion of the times on the royal question.  The Bishop of Evreux, Robert Ceneau, affirms in 1597 that

“the majesty of the kings of France cannot be said to be totally laic.  Of this we have diverse proofs:  firstly, Holy Unction which draws its origin from Heaven itself;  then the celestial privilege of healing scrofula, due to the intercession of Saint Marcoul…”.

For Andre Duchesne in 1609

“our great Kings are never held for laic, but invested with Sacerdotage and Royalty both together”.

In 1672, Balthazar de Riez adds, in his eulogy of the dynasty, that

“the Coronation renders royal persons sacred and in a way sacerdotal”.

This very particular character attributed to the royal person was confirmed by Pope Paul III in 1547 – at an epoch when his difficult relations with Charles Quint led him to become closer to the Valois.  He underlines that

“the very Christian Kings received, from the hands of the Archbishop, as a benefit sent by Heaven, the Holy Unction and the gift of healing the sick”.

Belief in the supernatural powers of the sovereigns has therefore not weakened in the XVIth and XVIIth Centuries.  However, the fussiest theoreticians of absolutism no longer evoke royal healings;  they leave these questions to the briefer political literature.  This will even popularise a new belief, the one which claims that Clovis had been the first king to heal scrofula.

It is against this background of popular beliefs that the rite continues to be performed under Louis XIII and Louis XIV, on the occasion of the great religious feasts.  Its prestige does not weaken, including in other countries, particularly in Italy and Spain.  It is always a fairly cosmopolitan crowd which gathers around the sovereign when he proceeds with the miraculous touching.  However, in 1635, a certain Alexander Paricius Armacanus publishes a Mars gallicus which presents the healing of scrofula as a simple gift from God, which cannot be interpreted as a sign of holiness or any superiority whatsoever of the French monarchy.  The author who hides behind this curious pseudonym is none other than Jansenius whose faithful followers – known by the name of Jansenists – would soon create numerous difficulties for absolute monarchy.

A few original minds, notably at Court, certainly raise doubts, in private, about the supernatural capacities accorded to the King by tradition, but the immense mass of his subjects does not question the sacred custom born in the depths of the ages.  Some go even further:  they reserve this privilege for the King himself.  It is with this aim that an Archbishop of Bordeaux, Henri de Sourdis, intervenes about the seventh sons who claim to heal scrofula.  He forbids them to exercise this power

“since the privilege of touching such sick people is reserved for the sacred person of our very Christian King…”.

At this same epoch, in England, the English monarchy is even more strict about the question:  it is in no case tolerated that any individuals can appropriate for themselves royal prerogative.  Which still conserves all its strength, as is shown by the case of Lord Poulett’s daughter.  Seriously scrofulous, she is sent to the Court to be touched.  Upon her return, Lord Poulett takes up his pen to thank his sovereign:

“The return of a sick child relieved to such an extent brings life back to a sick father…  It was a great joy for me that His Majesty deigned to touch my poor child with his blessed hands;  by this, God’s benediction helping, he has given me back a child that I had so little hope of keeping that I had given instructions for the return of her cadaver…,  she has returned healthy and safe;  her health is improving every day;  the sight of her gives me each day occasion to recall His Majesty’s gracious goodness toward her and toward me and to give thanks to him in all humility and in all gratitude…”

When the Civil War erupts, Lord Poulett, who was originally a Puritan, will place himself under the King’s banner…

Charles I of England

During this same Civil War, the Royalists draw up several propaganda pamphlets which insist on the sovereign’s healing power.  When the King, a prisoner, is brought to London in February 1647 by the Parlementarian commissionaries, crowds of sick gather around him, bringing with them the coin that, according to the traditional rite, he must attach around the patient’s neck.  After the execution of Charles I, the rite of touching disappears right throughout Cromwell’s dictatorship.  The Heir to the Throne accomplishes the hereditary miracle in exile.  A veritable organization, perfected by an imaginative shipowner, takes to the Netherlands, where the Prince is residing, English scrofulous sufferers who cross the Channel to benefit from a cure, the reality of which no-one doubts.

Barely restored to the throne, Charles II, who is still in Breda, has organized for the occasion on 30 May 1660, a solemn seance of touching scrofula.  The sacred dimension of royal prerogatives could not be better affirmed.  Scarcely having set foot in his capital, he has to receive a crowd of sick people at Whitehall.  From 1665, an anonymous work gives an account Of the excellency and efficacy of the Royal Hand and other treatises, of similar inspiration, soon follow, with the aim of strengthening the legitimacy of the Stuarts.  Charles II well understood the importance of the touching rite since, from May 1660 to September 1664, twenty-three thousand sick benefited from it, and another six thousand, six hundred and ten between February 1684 and February 1685, the last year of his reign.  In all, around one hundred thousand throughout the quarter of a century that this King was on the throne.  He too relieved foreigners, particularly Germans and Dutch, as well as Colonials from faraway Virginia.


To be continued.