The Royal Touch
by Francis MacNutt (from the April 1993 issue)
Would you believe it? The famous (or infamous) King Henry VIII of England conducted healing services! And the last of the French monarchs, Louis XVI, shortly before the French Revolution, also celebrated healing services!
I had never heard of this. What started my investigation was reading a book on the life of King Charles II last summer in England. An entire page of this biography was devoted to the Royal Touch as exercised by King Charles, the Merry Monarch. Now, Charles II was hardly a model of saintliness, his court was noted for adultery; he used to slip out the side entrance of the palace for regular trysts with the celebrated actress, Nell Gwynn, one among his many mistresses.
Recently I just completed reading an entire book (The Royal Touch, Bloc, Marc. The Dorset Press, NY, 1989. 441 pp.) on this phenomenon of the Royal Touch and am amazed that most of us have never even heard about it.
It all seems to have begun in France way back, perhaps as early as King Clovis, but certainly with King Louis VI (1108-1137) who laid his hands on the sick for their healing. At first, the King's healing power was seen as a general cure, but by the time of Louis VI, it centered on curing scrofula. We don't see much scrofula these days but in medieval times it was common. A foul-smelling variation of tuberculosis, scrofula caused inflammation of the lymph nodes - and was especially featured by putrid sores in the neck area. From the time of Louis VI until the last French King (Louis XVI), the kings were regarded as having the power to cure scrofula by divine right. (Those of you in the healing ministry know what that cost in energy!) The prayer he used was, "The King toucheth thee; the Lord healeth thee." So, for 600 years, the kings of France prayed for healing. It only came to an end when the guillotine came crashing down on French royalty.
In England, too, the Kings (who were kin to the French) picked up on this and learned to exercise the Royal Touch to cure the "King's Evil" (scrofula). Tradition has it that King (Saint) Edward the Confessor (who died in 1067) healed the sick. By the time of Henry II (who died in 1189) an historian wrote that, "the king is himself holy; he is the Anointed of the Lord"; the proof of this was that God used him to heal sufferers of their scrofula. From then on until the Calvinists gained control, the English Kings and Queens laid hands on scrofulous patients in regular healing services.
Queen Elizabeth I, for one, was faithful to this custom. Then James I, brought up by Scotch Calvinists, stopped the custom as being superstitious and Catholic, but Stuart Kings, Charles I and II (Anglicans) restored it, until finally it was laid to rest with the Stuarts' exile, and the accession of William of Orange.
There is so much more to be said about this intriguing subject; for example, the English kings added another healing specialty by blessing rings on Good Friday and these were used to heal epilepsy. Henry VIII used to give these rings to visiting foreign nobles as a mark of his special favor.
There are some significant things we can learn from this fascinating history of the Royal Touch. The first is very positive; it shows that a lively belief in God using people to heal remained among orthodox Church leaders during most of the church history through the 18th century. It did not die out in the 4th century, when the Emperor Constantine was converted and helped make Christianity socially respectable. It is, of course, well known that healing through the saints continued in the Catholic tradition until the present time. What died out was a lively belief in healing through living persons, especially the laity, except occasionally during Extreme Unction.
The bad news, though, is that the Royal Touch represents yet another example of the restriction of the healing prayer. Ordinary Christians were deprived of any vital belief in their own ability to pray healing prayers. The narrowing of belief in God's healing power represents a very human struggle for control and power.
Connected to this was the limiting of prayer for healing scrofula to the monarchs of France and England, who were regarded as having the privileged power due to their sacred royal anointing by a Pope or bishop, coupled to their descent as first-born of their royal family.
Healing, then, came to be used as a means of proving something, rather than simply as an expression of God's mercy and compassion towards the sick and suffering.
1) The proof value of healing for the Church was that miracles proved that the Catholic Church was the true church. (The pre-Vatican II theology that I learned in the seminary denied that miracles could be worked in Protestant churches and left it an open question as to whether miracles could take place in the Orthodox churches. This defensive teaching subsided after Vatican II.) Furthermore, miracles also proved the heroic virtue of saints and authenticated their lives as models for our imitation.
2) The proof value of the Royal Touch for the monarchs of France and England was that healing showed that they were true Kings or Queens of the royal blood and sacred persons. For example, in the Wars of the Roses the houses of York and Lancaster boasted that their claimant to the throne was the only one who could truly exercise the Royal Touch. To increase the number of the sick who flocked to their particular claimant as king, they upped the traditional penny (a day's wages for a common laborer) that formerly was given to those who received the Royal Touch, to a gold 'angel' (as valuable as a physician's fee!).
In itself this little known history is fascinating. But beyond that it helps us understand why the healing ministry was so diminished over the centuries and has been handed to us in such a puny, undernourished condition. It shows that a desire to control, by saying that "only we", or even in the case of the monarchs, "only I" can lay hands on the sick, - deprived ordinary Christians, ordinary laypeople, like us, of the marvelous privilege of praying for the sick with a lively expectation that they might be healed.
If the King or Queen of England was the only person in the kingdom praying for healing and the King was deposed what happens to the healing ministry? Nobody is left. It's finished.
A wonderful thing is that the people - the ordinary people - were always looking for Jesus to heal them. Even when the supply of Christian healers had dwindled to one, the people had great expectations. For instance when Charles I lost his battles and was turned over to Oliver Cromwell by the Scots, people still flocked to him to receive the Royal Touch as he traveled on his sorrowful way.
So, when the healing ministry began to be revived, the people were still there, waiting! "These signs will follow those who believe... They will lay hands on the sick who will recover" (Mk 16). Not just kings or queens, not just saints, but those who believe.