Tag Archive: kings

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.



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.

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.

A ward at Hotel-Dieu in Paris.

It could be thought that the times of the Renaissance and the Reformation dealt a fatal blow to all of the marvellous beliefs which surround the royal miracle.  This did not happen, and the touching of scrofula would even benefit from considerable prestige during the XVIth Century.  The account ledgers which have come down to us indicate the number of sick who were touched by the sovereigns over the course of a year.  From October 1507 to October 1508, Louis XII touched five hundred and twenty-eight sick people.  In 1528, Francois I touched one thousand, three hundred and twenty-six, then nine hundred and eighty-eight the following year, and one thousand, seven hundred and thirty-one in 1530.  In 1569, the year of civil war which saw the victories of Jarnac and of Montcontour, young Charles IX had alms distributed to two thousand and ninety-two scrofulous people he had touched.  The French kings also continue to let foreigners who expect healing from them to benefit from their powers.  The Spanish, despite the numerous wars which pit them against the French, are particularly numerous to solicite their help.  When they are in a foreign country, notably Italy, Charles VIII, Louis XII or Francois I do not hesitate to heal those who present themselves to them, in Naples, in Genes or in Bologna.  In Rome, on 20 January 1495, Charles VIII touches five hundred people, which suscitates “extraordinary admiration among the Italians”.  We have already evoked the episode when Francois I, arriving in Spain after having been taken prisoner at Pavie, is assailed by numerous scrofulous people who ask him to cure them, in Barcelona, then in Valencia.  The President of Selve writes a few days later to the Paris Parliament to inform it “such a very great number of scofulous sick people…  with great expectation of being healed that, in France were never seen in such great crowd”.  The poet Lascaris is able to add, in Latin verse:

Here it is therefore that the king, with a gesture of his hand, heals scrofula;

A captive, he has not lost the favours of On High

By this indication, oh the most holy of kings

I think to recognize that your persecutors are hated by the gods.

Louis XI touches the sick once a week.  The seances are spaced more under Charles VIII and his successors.  In the course of his travels, Francois I consents, notably in Champagne, to perform the miracle, but things are organized so as the King only has to intervene on the occasion of the principal religious festivals, Palm Sunday, Easter, Ascension, Pentecost, Corpus Christi, Assumption or Christmas.  On 8 July 1530, the wedding of Francois I to Eleonor of Austria, celebrated at Roquefort near Mont-de-Marsan, is the occasion for the King to demonstrate the miraculous powers attributed to the dynasty.  Such organization implies that the King is able to touch dozens, or even more than a hundred people in only one seance.  In September 1528, Francois I touches two hundred and five scrofulous people at Notre-Dame de Paris.  The day of the Assumption in 1527, he touches roughly the same number in the cloister of the episcopal palace in Amiens and, in a camp near Saint-Jean-d’Angely, Charles IX accomplishes the rite on All Saints’ Day in 1569.  After verification that the sick are really ill, and after the King has taken Communion (both bread and wine), he touches the wounds with his naked hand and makes the sign of the cross, before pronouncing the consecrated formula:

“The King touches thee, God heals thee”.

The tradition continues also in Tudor England with Henry VII and Henry VIII, but the disappearance of the Chaplaincy archives, which contained the statement of the sums distributed to the sick, prevents us from precisely evaluating their number.  The liturgy which accompanies the miraculous touching is more complex than in France.  The King recites a Confiteor and receives the absolution of his Chaplain before hearing a reading of two passages from the Gospels, the verse of Saint Mark consecrated to the miracles performed by the Apostles and the beginning of the Gospel according to Saint John, pronounced in all of the benediction formulae.  The healer sovereign remains seated and the sick are brought to him one after the other.  A first time, he touches their wounds then, when all have passed in this way before him, they come back a second time to be marked by the sign of the cross.  This sign is traced with a gold coin pierced with a hole;  immediately after his gesture, the sovereign hangs the coin around the sick person’s neck on a ribbon.  In France, the scrofulous also receive alms but this is given discretely by an ecclesiastic (two royal ecus each).  The big difference between the two rituals resides in the fact that the English coin, the angel, has by now become a talisman endowed with its own power, since the War of the Roses during which the Lancaster sovereign did everything to valorise the scrofula miracle.  Already familiar with the medicinal rings which appeared in the XIVth Century, the King of England’s subjects are naturally disposed to believe in the curative virtues of this piece of gold.  Certain believe so much in it that a fruitful trade in them starts to grow, leading some sick people to believe that any contact with the King is unnecessary, that the simple wearing of this talisman is enough to relieve them.  These attempts grow so much that a royal proclamation in May 1625 makes it known that

“people who were previously cured, having disposed of the gold coins otherwise than it was intended, have by this suffered a relapse…”

A new attitude will of course question the reality of the royal miracle.  A few lines, written in 1535 by Michel Servet in a translation, bears witness to the awakening of a certain scepticism:

“Two memorable things are reported about the Kings of France:  firstly that there exists in the Reims Church a vase eternally full of chrism;  sent from Heaven for the Coronation, with which all of the kings are anointed;  secondly that the King, by his contact alone, heals scrofula.  I have seen with my own eyes this King touch several sick people suffering from this affection.  If they were really brought back to health, I didn’t see it.”

Six years later, a new edition of the work deletes the last sentence and replaces it with the following:

“I have heard it said that many sick people regained their health…”

In France, as well as England, one does not cast aspersions on the King’s miraculous powers.  On the other hand, diverse foreigners will question the healing powers of the sovereigns.  This is particularly the case of Italian thinkers, but their words are from original and curious minds;  they cannot exercise the slightest influence on the mental representations which then prevail in the christian European societies.

To be continued.

A ward at Hotel-Dieu in Paris.

The rules imposed on the sick who go on a pilgrimage to the tomb of Saint Marcoul are very precise.  Admitted inside the brotherhood in exchange for a small sum of money, they are submitted to diverse food interdictions, must also avoid touching metal objects and wear gloves for this.  It is also necessary to attend the Priory’s church services, for a period of nine days.  This nine-day period is not rigorously respected.  Some do not have the possibility of remaining there for nine days and can have themselves represented by inhabitants of the place, who are thereby constrained to the same interdictions.  Back home, the faithful who had come to solicite the saint must, in the case of a cure, have their curate fill out a certificate which is sent back to the Corbeny Priory.  A good number of these documents have come down to us and bear witness to the immense popularity enjoyed by the cult of this saint in the XVIIth and XVIIIth Centuries.  All of the North of France, Liege country, ducal Lorraine, Alsace, but also Auvergne and the Dauphine sent sick people to Corbeny.

Such success can be explained by the wave of disasters (war, epidemics, famines…) which struck the last centuries of the Middle Ages;  christians, desperate about not finding any human help, turn more to the thaumaturgical saints.  But above all, this success is born of the association which is naturally established between the healing capacities of Saint Marcoul and those of the King of France.  The saint and the King are in fact invested with the same power of healing scrofula.

When and how did this association between the King and Saint Marcoul become established?  The Corbeny monks, anxious to valorise their community even more, answer this question by invoking a visit to Corbeny by Saint Louis [Louis IX] before his Coronation, which does not appear very probable.  On top of this, the custom which takes the king to Saint Marcoul’s tomb in Reims is not yet established under Philippe le Bel [Philippe the Beautiful].  There is some doubt as to the itinerary followed by Louis X le Hutin [Louis the Angry] in 1315 but, in 1328, Philippe VI de Valois takes the same direct route as his uncle Philippe le Bel after the accomplishment of the royal consecration.  On the other hand, his successor Jean le Bon [Jean the Good] goes to Corbeny two days after his Coronation and, after him, no sovereign until Louis XIV seems to have avoided this custom, except for Henri IV, consecrated as we know at Chartres, because of the occupation of Reims by the troops of the Ligue.

The royal visit takes place according to a precise ceremonial.  A procession goes to meet the monarch, who receives the saint’s head from the Prior and carries it to the church, before praying before the shrine.  From the XVth Century, a royal pavillion lodges the illustrious visitor.  In 1654, there is a variation during the consecration of Louis XIV, as Mazarin, worried about the insecurity which reigns in the region, has the Saint Marcoul shrine brought from Reims.  The same thing occurs during the consecrations of Louis XV and Louis XVI.  Prayers before the saint’s relics become an obligation for those who have just received the royal unction.

Curiously, this tradition is perceived as very ancient from the epoch of Charles VII, when it only goes back a century at the most at this time.  The Chronique de la Pucelle reports in fact that

“for all time, the kings of France, after their consecrations, had the custom of going into a priory named Corbigny”.

Saint Marcoul’s renown is such that, in the end, the merit for the king’s miraculous powers is attributed to him.

From 1484, but perhaps before that, Charles VIII touches the scrofulous after having finished his prayers before the saint’s tomb.  The sick are then only six, but they will be eighty in 1498 after Louis XII’s consecration.  From Henri II, foreigners mix with the crowd of patients and, in the XVIIth and XVIIIth Centuries, thousands flock to Corbeny or to the Saint-Remy park in Reims.  From Louis XII, it is accepted that the King can only start to touch scrofula after a detour by Corbeny.  A practice which worries the Reims canons, anxious to reaffirm the decisive importance of the unction in the attribution to the sovereign of his thaumaturgical virtues.  They take upon themselves to remind young Charles VIII of this, telling him that:

“By the virtue of the Holy Unction

Which at Reims receives the noble King of France

God by his hands confers healing

Of scrofula, here is the demonstrance.”

The “demonstrance” is only a sort of living tableau, created on the occasion of the consecration, and representing the famous gift to the kings of France.  However, at the same epoch, the monks of Saint-Riquier decorate their Treasury Room with a fresque which shows the King of France kneeling near Saint Marcoul who is transmitting his healing power to him;  the words are:

“Oh Marcoul, your scrofulous receive from you, oh doctor, a perfect health;  thanks to the gift that you make to him, the king of France, doctor too, enjoys over scrofula an equal power…”

In the XVIIth Century, representations of Louis XIV with the thaumaturgical saint beside him are frequent.  They can be found at Saint-Riquier, at Abbeville and at Tournai.  The saint’s cult meets such success that those who benefit from the royal touch think that a veritable and complete cure will only be possible if they go to Corbeny afterwards.  Such a deviation worries the clergy of Reims, anxious to reserve the healing power for the unction.  However, if the Church is attached to this rite which closely connects it to the French monarchy, it doesn’t want to question the cults of the saints either, because of their success among the People.  The treatise De la beatification des serviteurs de Dieu et de la canonisation des saints by Cardinal Prosper Lambertini, future Pope Benedict XIV, therefore states that

“the kings of France have obtained the privilege of healing scrofula in virtue of a grace which has been given to them, either during the conversion of Clovis, or when Saint Marcoul asked it of God for the kings of France…”.

In fact the idea of the intercession of Saint Marcoul is born at the end of the Middle Ages, when the first royal pilgrimages to Corbeny occur:  these voyages, interpreted as giving thanks, were going to be enriched by a last element.  The myth of the healing of scrofula will accept the fact that the seventh boy born after six other boys in the family would also possess the miraculous gift.  They go to Corbeny to impregnate themselves with the saint’s virtues and receive there a certificate which gives the precision that they have acquired his thaumaturgical powers.  The Carme of Place Maubert in Paris thereby acquires a great reputation for curing scrofulous Parisians.


To be continued.

A ward at Hotel-Dieu in Paris.

The supernatural power of the kings comes, without any doubt, from superstitions anterior to christianisation, from those obscure times when king-priests favourised the maintaining of the order of the world through their magical power.  Unconscious survivors of the original myths buried in the dust of time, belief in the healing powers of kings must be placed in the context of the mythical abundance which characterizes distant epochs, an abundance from which many leftovers came down to us, in the form of religious or folkloric traditions, until the last centuries of the Age of the Kings [Ancien Regime] in France.  This includes the beliefs relating to the healing powers of Saint Marcoul, which were to be largely confounded with the tradition of the royal touching of scrofula.

If we believe the story told about him by the monks from the Nant Monastery – in the Coutances Diocese – at the beginning of Carolingian times, Marcoul was born in Bayeux in the VIth Century and was a contemporary of King Childebert I and of Bishop Saint-Lo.  The Norman invasions forced the Nant monks to flee, taking their relics with them.  They came to seek protection from Charles the Simple and he installed them North of the Aisne, in a domain called Corbeny where, in February 906, is founded a monastery destined to shelter the relics of the saint which will never be brought back to the Cotentin.  The last Carolingians leagued this pious foundation to the Saint-Remi Monastery of Reims, which made it a Priory, and it conserved this status until the Revolution.  The First World War, well-known for the devastation caused in this region of the sadly renowned Chemin des Dames, destroys the last ruins of the building which still existed at the beginning of the XXth Century.

Saint Marcoul was a thaumaturgical saint, like a lot of similar saints, but it seems that he did not originally have any particular “speciality”.  His miraculous powers manifested themselves in the XIIth Century.  The Prior of Corbeny noticed that the village had suffered a series of catastrophes and was worried about the lack of earnings for his community caused by the financial distress of his tenants.  He then decided to send his monks to accomplish a “relic tour”.  Raising the patron saint’s shrine onto their robust shoulders, the monks travel through Champagne and Picardie where, more or less everywhere, the relics accomplish numerous miracles.  The story which reports this curious voyage does not however make the slightest mention of the healing of scrofula.

In the XIIIth Century, a great stained-glass window in the Coutances Cathedral represents Saint Marcoul treating a hunter whose insolence toward him had been punished by a fall from horseback.  There is still no mention of scrofula on this representation.  At the end of the XIIIth Century, the text of a sermon reveals to us however that

“this saint received from Heaven such grace, for the healing of this illness known as the King’s Evil, that one sees flocking to him, a crowd of sick people coming also from faraway, barbaric countries and from neighbouring nations”.

Why this new specialisation of the saint?  It could be thought that the thaumaturge’s name alone predisposes him to act against scrofula.  It includes mar, a mediaeval adverb which evokes ill, or evil, and coul, that simple phonetics could assimilate to the neck [cou in modern French;  col in Old French], the whole evoking the “ill [or evil] of the neck” characteristic of scrofula.  In the same way, Saint Clair was invested with particular powers for treating affections of sight [clair meaning “clear” (also “light” in connection with colours)]

From the XIVth Century, the saint, who until then had only had a regional reputation, in his Normandie of origin and on the banks of the Aisne, acquires much greater notoriety from the contact with Champagne and Picardie.  It takes on such a dimension that Notre-Dame Church in Mantes claims to possess his true relics, along with those of his two companions, Cariulphe and Domard, after the discovery of a burial containing three skeletons.  This discovery having occurred on the road leading to Rouen, it is possible to imagine that the monks from Nant fleeing “the fury of the Normans” had abandoned their precious burden catastrophically in this place.  This will be the origin of a dispute which will continue until the XVIIth Century.  The monks of Corbeny recall the conditions of the foundation of their Priory under Charles the Simple and the miraculous apparition in the sky, during a procession with the saint’s shrine, of three crowns seen by more than six thousand of the faithful.  They reject without discussion the pretensions of the Mantais, but the remains placed in the collegial church of their town nonetheless have the reputation for having several times cured scrofulous people.

Other sanctuaries claimed to possess relics of the saint.  Some are to be found in Carentoir in the Diocese of Vannes, at Moutiers-en-Retz in that of Nantes, at Saint-Pierre-de-Saumur, at the Abbey of Saint-Valery-sur-Somme, at Mondidier, at Abbeville, at Valenciennes in Argonne, at Dinant, at Naumur, in numerous Wallon or Brabancon villages, at Cologne, at Tournai, at Angers, at Saint-Riquier-en-Ponthieu, at Archelange in Franche-Comte, at Notre-Dame de Liesse…  Some of the saint’s precious remains, given by Queen Anna of Austria, arrive in 1666 at the home of the Carmes of Place Maubert in Paris.  Many brotherhoods are formed in his name at Amiens, at Soissons, at Brussels…  But the glory of the thaumaturgical Corbeny saint is essentially connected to the pilgrimage to his tomb from the XVth Century.  Haberdashers and travelling salesmen, of whom he is the patron saint, sell medals and images of Saint Marcoul during their travels, as well as sandstone bottles containing water sanctified by the immersion of one of his relics.  This water is applied to the sick parts of the body, but some of the faithful think that it is better to drink it to accelerate the cure.

To be continued.

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.

A ward at Hotel-Dieu in Paris.

Recognizing that a temporal sovereign is capable of accomplishing miraculous cures, is to establish the sacred character of the monarchy, which is what the Gregorian Reformers want to avoid at any price…  They will go as far as talking about “the false works” of those who claim that a prince is able to heal the sick, not because he is holy but by the simple fact that he reigns.  This attack must be placed in the very precise context of ecclesiastic resistance to the survival of some traditional paganism.  However, the Church does not wish to oppose popular opinion too openly, which is clever.  It contents itself, for two centuries, with ignoring or pretending to ignore the touching of scrofula, which is almost never evoked in ecclesiastical literature.

The only two exceptions are found with two authors whom we have already met, Guibert de Nogent in France, Pierre de Blois in England, and all this doubtless explains the poverty of our sources concerning touching for the whole period up to the XIIIth Century.  When, from this moment, allusions to the royal touch become more numerous, the aim clearly seems to be to accentuate the religious character of the royal rite.  Geoffroi de Beaulieu therefore claims that Saint Louis [Louis IX of France] was the first to introduce the sign of the cross into this practice

“so that the cure was attributed more to the virtues of the cross than to the action of royal majesty”.

A few decades later, the conflict which opposes Philippe le Bel to the Papacy is the occasion for a vigorous affirmation of the healing powers of the Capetian sovereign.

A little treatise, drawn up at the time and translated under Charles V by Raoul de Presles, presents the proof which founds the just cause of the Kings of France.  It is the constatation of

“these miracles which are known to everyone, which allow our Lord the King to pronounce the Word of the Gospels according to which Our Lord Jesus-Christ answered the lies of the Jews by saying to them:

‘If you do not want to believe in me, believe in my works.’

“As, by hereditary right, the son succeeds the father at the head of the kingdom, so also by a manner of hereditary right does one king succeed another in the power of performing these miracles that God accomplishes through them as if they were his ministers… “

The historian Guillaume Guiart and the monk Ive de Saint-Denis write similar words, and the Norman Dominican Guillaume de Sauqueville exposes, in a sermon, that the King of France merits the name of “son of David” for David signifies “valiant hand”, that hand so necessary for the healing of the sick:

“Any prince inheriting the Kingdom of France, as soon as he is anointed and crowned, receives from God that special grace and that particular virtue of healing the sick by the contact of his hands:  so one sees those suffering from the King’s Evil coming to the King from many places and diverse lands… “


The considerable work accomplished by the Dominican Lucquois Tolomeo, who dies in 1327 while he is Bishop of Torcello, contributes more to installing this image of healer king.  To contribute to the glory of Charles d’Anjou, the brother of Saint Louis, Tolomeo spreads propaganda on the miraculous effects of the Capetian royal touch.  Completing the Traite du gouvernement des princes by Saint Thomas d’Aquin, he introduces into it passages concerning the healing of scrofula, passages which are therefore invested with all the authority from which, later on, Saint Thomas, the “Angelic Doctor”, will benefit.  In 1280, it is Charles V himself who evokes his healing power, in a charter accorded to the Reims Chapter:

“It is by this chrism that Clovis himself and, after him, all the kings of France, my predecessors and myself in turn, during the Consecration and the Coronation, God being propitious, received the unction by which, under the influence of divine clemency, such virtue and such grace are poured into the kings of France that, by the contact of their hands alone, they defend the sick against the scrofula ill;  which is clearly demonstrated by the evidence of the facts, tested on innumerable people.”

It is to be noted elsewhere, with Charles V’s reign, an evident tendency to valorize any supernatural dimension of monarchical power.  It is also at this epoch that the Capetian sovereign takes the name of “very christian”.  In fact, the kingdom is then coming out of a very serious crisis, marked by the defeats of Crecy and Poitiers, by the painful peace of Bretigny, by a bloody Jacquerie and by the rising-up of the Parisians led by Etienne Marcel.  Those close to the sovereign therefore have an evident interest in promoting a royal propaganda which insists on the sacred dimension of the monarch.  This will also be the case under Charles VI, with the treatise drawn up by the monk Etienne de Conty.  In the XVth Century, reference to the healing powers of the kings of France and of England has become banal;  it seems to be accepted by all, even if it manifestly annoys certain foreign authors and certain pontiffs.  These last are worried that the supernatural virtues recognized in a Charles VII or a Louis XI would eventually justify their revendication of independence toward Rome.

The best proof of the success of the touching of scrofula at the end of the Middle Ages doubtless resides in the fact that it finally appears, in 1488, in the sacred iconography, on a stained-glass window which no longer exists, at Mont-Saint-Michel.


Recognized throughout the whole of Europe from the XVth Century, this thaumaturgical power of the kings of France and of England naturally suscitated, in other countries, attempts to attribute comparable virtues to princes from local dynasties.  A few isolated witness reports and a few fabulations of posterior erudites were not enough to demonstrate the existence of such rites in Denmark, Hungary or in the territories of the Habsburgs.

It is possible that the kings of Castille had had a reputation for healing certain nervous illnesses.  An Aragon, Carlos de Viana, enjoys the same reputation.  Some miracles were attributed to him after his death, miracles in which Louis XI seems to have believed.  Placed in the Poblet Abbey, his body is the object of a cult up until the XVIIth Century.  Among his relics, his hand is particularly honoured, for tradition says that its contact is enough to deliver the scrofulous from their ill.  The pretensions of the Spanish dynasty have no future, however, and in 1525, at the end of the Pavie disaster, Francois I, a prisoner in Spain, sees coming to him numerous scrofulous people who expect to be healed by the King of France, even though he has been defeated.

To be continued.

A ward at Hotel-Dieu in Paris.

The sick also received a small amount of money corresponding to a denier in England, higher in France but reserved for those who come from afar.  The accounts that the distribution of this money entails permit to evaluate the quantities of patients concerned by the rite of touching.  Several hundreds, often more than a thousand, each year, during the reign of Edward III of England, and the King’s Chaplain, Thomas Bradwardine, bore witness that the miracles accomplished by his master were confirmed

“by the healed sick, by the people present at the moment of the miracles or who had seen the effects, by the peoples of nations, by universal renown”.

The disappearance of the accounts established in France deprive us of comparable figures to those of England, but everything leads us to think that the sick who flock to the King in France are no less numerous than those who await their cure from the miraculous virtues of the English sovereign.  Many foreigners, Spaniards and Italians notably, made a long voyage to benefit from the royal touch.  Under Philippe le Bel, some of the sovereign’s subjects come from very far, from Toulouse, Bigorre, Auvergne, Bourgogne [Burgundy] or from Bretagne [Brittany] – although, at this epoch, it is still quasi independent.  It is interesting to note that the Capetian King is also solicited for his touch by sick people coming from Bordeaux, the continental capital of the King of England.  In December 1307, while the King is residing in Nemours, a certain Guilhelm, from Hauban, in Bigorre, comes to ask the grace of being touched, after having made for this, in the middle of Winter, the long and dangerous journey which has led him from the banks of the Adour to those of the Loing.  The fact that he had imposed such an ordeal upon himself says a lot about the prestige of his King’s healing powers.  They draw to him as many faithful as the great sanctuaries of the time.


Having remained silent for a long time about the healing of scrofula, the doctors of the Middle Ages begin to mention it in the XIIIth Century.  In Book III of his Compendium medicinae, Gilbert l’Anglais evokes

“scrofula, also called the King’s Evil because the kings cured them…”.

We have to wait for the French authors contemporary to Philippe le Bel for medical men to be more prolix.  Bernard de Gourdon, several anonymous authors and Henri de Mondeville, the King’s Surgeon, abundantly evoke His Majesty’s powers.  For Henri de Mondeville, the sovereign can be compared to Christ himself:

“In the same way that Our Saviour, Lord Jesus-Christ, in exercising the surgery of his hands, wanted to honour surgeons, in the same way and in the same fashion our Serene Sovereign, the King of France, honours them, themselves and their state, in healing scrofula by simple contact.”

The admiration that the thaumaturgical power suscitates is not unanimous however and, around 1325, a Flemish surgeon from Ypres, whose first name is Jean, is a lot more reserved:

“You will be told now that a lot of people believe that God has given the King of France the power of healing suppurating scrofula by a simple touching of the hand;  according to what these people believe, a lot of touched sick people are healed;  but sometimes do not heal.”

A few decades later, starting from the 1360’s, the writings of Doctors Guy de Chauliac, in France, John of Gaddesden and John of Mirfield, in England, give their “scientific” approval to the royal rite.  Elsewhere, foreign doctors (Italians or Aragons like the famous Arnaud de Villeneuve) remain silent on this subject, which concerns princes of whom they are not the subjects.  The medical practitioners of the time admit, however, that recourse to the healer sovereign is fully part of their therapeutic panoply and, in his Lis de la medecine, Bernard de Gourdon explains that you must

“have recourse to the surgeon; or otherwise, go to the kings…”.

In his Medicinal Practice, John of Gaddesden affirms that

“if the remedies are inefficient, the sick person must go to the King and be touched and blessed by him;  …  as a last resort, if all else fails, then he should deliver himself up to the surgeon”.

The doctors of the time are therefore the first to admit the therapeutic virtues of the royal touch but, at this epoch of faith and omnipresence of the divine, it goes without saying that the attitude adopted by the clerics to the thaumaturgical miracle takes on much greater importance.  It so happens that the Church, which has contributed to making the royal function sacred, notably at the Carolingian epoch, is worried, from the XIth Century, about the confusion thereby established between spiritual power and temporal power.  This confusion encourages a good number of sovereigns, the German Emperor, the Capetian King or the English Monarch, to make a stand several times against the Roman Pontiff.

To affirm the clear separation of the spiritual and the temporal, and to assure the subordination of the second to the first, the Church begins to put into place what could be called the Gregorian Reform, from the name of Pope Gregory VII who is one of its principal artisans.  Gregory VII is at the time engaged in the interminable conflict which has been opposing him for years to Henri IV of France.  The Pope draws up twenty-seven decisions united in the Dictatuo papae which attempts to diminish the laic grip on religious affairs.  So, the 1075 Council forbids, under threat of excommunication, a king or a lord to accord religious investiture to any ecclesiastic.  Henri IV does not submit to this, which provokes the Investitures Quarrel.  In 1081, in a letter which has remained famous, the Pope affirms that temporal sovereigns have no part in supernatural graces, whatever their terrestrial powers may be.  They are incapable of transforming bread and wine into the body and blood of the Lord, and they cannot be assimilated to the exorcist,

“the constituted spiritual emperor for chasing out demons”.

The Pope even denies any miraculous power to the kings:

“Where among the emperors and kings do we find a man who, without even mentioning the Apostles or the martyrs, has equalled by his miracles Saint Martin, Saint Anthony or Saint Benedict?  Who is the emperor or the king who has ressuscitated the dead, given health back to lepers, and sight to the blind?  Look at Emperor Constantine, of pious memory, Theodose and Honorius, Charles and Louis, all friends of justice, propagators of the christian religion, protectors of churches.  The Holy Church praises and reveres them;  it does not indicate that they shone by the glory of such miracles…”

Gregory VII is mainly thinking here of the German Emperor, and he makes no precise allusion to the healing power attributed to the Capetians since Robert the Pious, that is to say, for three-quarters of a century.  It is clear that, from now on, the ecclesiastic apparatus is going to be wary of the kings’ pretensions to miracles.

To be continued.

A ward at Hotel-Dieu in Paris.

The minds of the time attributed a power to all that was sacred, a power which was most often benevolent and only perpetuated the system of belief which prevailed at the time of paganism.  In Roman Gaul, where we have multiple examples, patients give certain water sources the task of relieving their ills.  Transferred to the innumerable saints who are themselves the heirs of traditional polytheism, this capacity for healing will quite naturally be accorded to some sovereigns who, in the minds of their peoples, will keep for a long time this sacerdotal dimension, formerly attached to their functions.  Royal sanctity, coming from the unction received on the day of the Coronation, is sufficient to give thaumaturgical power to the prince.  It is in these conditions, particular to the time, characterised by an omnipresence of the divine and the sacred, that must be placed the apparition of miraculous healings attributed to the French and English monarchs.  Minds are disposed to accord them the credit, but the rite must also take form and be imposed, which will be done by certain sovereigns, anxious to reinforce the legitimacy of their power in this way.


The second representative of the Capetian dynasty, Robert the Pious, is associated with political power by his father from 987, the date of his accession to the throne.  The new masters of the kingdom dispose only of a not yet well-established authority, while the prestige of the Carolingian dynasty still persists.  The Assembly which chooses Hugues Capet at Senlis, thereby starts an elective principle which proves redoubtable for the new reigning family in the end.  Some high-ranking clerics – Adalberon de Laon, who participated in the royal election, and Abbon – do not hesitate to consider the elective model for the designation of kings to be normal, and contest the principle of hereditary succession, to justify the Capetian usurpation.  In these conditions, it can be imagined that the sovereigns of the new dynasty are determined – like the Carolingians before them with the help of the unction – to reinforce their legitimacy by attributing supernatural powers to themselves, which valorise them in comparison to their predecessors.  Robert II’s reputation for piety must have facilitated things.  The initiative doubtless came from patients convinced that the contact of a pious king was going to assure them a rapid cure, but it is probable that it was the sovereign himself and his entourage who knew how to use it to their best advantage.  It is also certain that the King and those close to him were intimately convinced of the reality of the healing power which emanated from the monarch.  The “successes” of the touching – for there were certainly some – were sufficient to establish the tradition, regularly taken up by Robert II’s successors in the measure that it contributed to the prestige of their line.

Robert the Pious has been dead since 1031 and two sovereigns, Henri I and Philippe I, have already succeeded him, when Henry I Beauclerc – who will be the first English king to touch scrofula – receives the Crown.  The fact that he also cures this malady has led Marc Bloch to think that he was above all thinking to imitate his Capetian rival by relying on the memory of Edward the Confessor, the famous Anglo-Saxon healing king, as we have seen.  He wanted to appropriate the memory of this prestigious king, at a moment when the pretensions of the Papacy were aiming to deprive the sovereigns of their sacred dimension, the better to submit them to spiritual power.  Having appeared around the year 1000 in France, one century later in England, the rite of touching is finally reserved for the king alone.  The magical power, the healing power, no longer belongs, like before, to a whole race, a whole family.


The apparition and the recognition of this particular power therefore imply the affirmation of hereditary succession which only benefits the eldest son;  they are closely connected to the emergence of the new monarchies which will be, over the centuries, at the origin of the great dynastic States to which the tradition of touching scrofula will confer considerable power and prestige.  Born of a general mental climate, of a collection of beliefs strongly impregnating the minds of the time, the regular practice of this touching of scrofula is also doubtless the aim of a political will which knows how to accord itself to public expectations at an epoch which is profoundly marked by the sense of the sacred and the hope of a miracle.

In the beginning, the French and English rites appear identical, but a few differences pop up over time.  We know for example that, according to the treatise by Etienne de Conty which is composed at the beginning of Charles VI’s reign, the water in which the French sovereigns wash their hands after having touched the sick is collected and drunk by the patients for nine days, which guarantees their complete cure.  A belief whose trace is not found in England where the King will take on the custom of giving the scrofulous a coin.  The royal gesture is accompanied by the pronunciation of diverse formulae about which Geoffroi de Beaulieu reports, concerning Saint Louis [Louis IX of France], that they are

“appropriate for the circumstance, and sanctioned by custom, perfectly holy also and Catholic”.

They are the same “holy and religious” words that Philippe le Bel will teach on his death-bed to his successor, the future Louis X le Hutin.  We do not know what these words were that were pronounced all through the Middle Ages, for the famous formula “The King touches thee, God heals thee” seems only to appear in the XVIth Century.  On the contrary, the English sovereigns appear only to have said prayers at the moment of touching the sick.  This fact is attested as early as Edward III and leads to a whole fairly complex liturgy starting from Henry VII and Henry VIII.  In any case, the English King seems to have given a veritable benediction to the patients who came to him, very early on.  Therefore, he acts much more like a priest than a king.  Under Saint Louis, the King touches the sick every day, usually after Mass.  Those who arrive too late to benefit from the healing powers can spend the night in the Palace where they are lodged and fed before soliciting the royal touch on the following day.  It is still the same under Philippe le Bel but, under Louis XI, the sick are only presented to the monarch once a week.  All those who want to benefit from the touching grace must submit to an examination permitting to verify that they are really affected by scrofula.

To be continued.

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