The Healing Touch of Class 

In the past, the touch of a reigning monarch’s hand was thought imbued with healing powers, and for centuries, this widely held conviction persisted. 

The implicit belief in the supernatural healing powers of sovereigns is a relic of the ancient doctrine of the divinity of kingship. The ancient Sumerians first developed the concept of divinely ordained kings, descended from heaven as primary intermediaries between God and humankind. It was believed in ancient cultures that kings and rulers were sons of the Holy Sun. Therefore, in line with priestly tradition, the first Egyptian king, a certain Menes, meaning ‘the sole light’, and all subsequent ruling sovereigns were seen as the living image of the sun-god Ra. Similarly, the early Babylonian and Mesopotamian monarchs were worshipped as gods in their lifetime. The emperor of China was regarded as the ‘Son of Heaven’ and the chief priest of his people. The same notions also existed about Mayan, Aztec, and Incan rulers. Even in modern times, vestiges of this ancient belief remain in many cultures. For example, the word king in Thai means ‘god of the land.’ In the same context, the Japanese emperor has been viewed as a god throughout history, and in the twenty-first century, Emperor Akihito continues to bless land and crops.

The exalted status of monarchs and rulers was believed to impart distinctive excellence on them. Hence, they were credited with healing powers, which their subjects thought they could pass on by their touch. The priest-kings of ancient Egypt and Babylon; the Roman Emperors Constantine, Vespasian, and Hadrian; and the Norwegian King Olaf were known to heal by touch.

In England, Edward the Confessor was the first monarch credited with such powers, before the Norman Conquest in 1066. Throughout the reign of the Tudors, the touch of the king’s hand for healing seems to have been regularly performed. King Charles II (1630–1685) is reputed to have touched up to 600 people at one sitting and up to 92,100 during his reign. 

The touch of kings was believed especially to heal scrofula, a tubercular disease of the lymph glands, which on this account came to be called The King’s Evil. On Easter Sunday in 1686, King Louis XIV of France is said to have touched 1,600 scrofula sufferers. Queen Anne in 1712 was the last English monarch credited with the healing touch. During that year, she is reputed to have touched 200 sufferers, among them, the then infant Samuel Johnson who later became one of England’s great literary figures.5 French kings continued the custom until 1825.

A factor, which, of course, must be mentioned, is that scrofula was only rarely fatal, and the disease was naturally prone to lengthy periods of remission or spontaneous cures. But the superstitious believed all miraculous cures of the disease came from the divine touch of kings, and consequently, all failures were simply put down to a lack of faith.


This is a web preview of the "Strange but True: A Historical Background to Popular Beliefs and Traditions" app. Many features only work on your mobile device. If you like what you see, we hope you will consider buying. Get the App