Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Touching for the King’s Evil

JMS Pearce
Hull, England

The old word scrofula is now seldom seen in medical writings. Nor are the words ague, buboe, and podagra. Despite their romantic, descriptive appeal, they have been swept aside by the jet stream of the current epidemic of maladroit, often high-tech words, phrases, acronyms, and initialisms.

Scrofula, the “King’s Evil,” or “struma,” referred to swollen lymph nodes, often in the neck or axillae caused by tuberculosis.1 It derives from the late Latin scrōfulae, meaning swelling of the glands, a diminutive of scrōfa, a breeding sow, which was supposed to be subject to the disease. The nodular roots of figwort (Scrophularia nodosa) were likewise thought to resemble swollen lymph nodes, and according to the Doctrine of Signatures might therefore be useful in treating scrofula.

Healing was sometimes sought by the ancient practice of ceremonial touching carried out by royalty (Fig 1).2 This was popularly supposed to be curative—healing by the King—hence the misleading name, “King’s Evil.” Not until 1882 was the causative mycobacterium tuberculosis discovered by Robert Koch. In the 1940s, Waksman and Schatz introduced the first effective antituberculous drug, streptomycin, for which Waksman controversially received the 1952 Nobel Prize.

Fig 1. Left: 15th-century manuscript depicting Clovis I (AD 496) healing the scrofulous following his coronation. Via Wikimedia.
Right: Charles II touching a patient for the King’s Evil. In Adenochoiradelogia, London: John Browne, 1684. Via Wikimedia.

Medieval physicians knew that scrofula might occasionally remit spontaneously; this was taken as evidence of a divine miracle. King Edward the Confessor (r. 1042–1066) introduced a ritual of touching the afflicted for the King’s Evil, later named scrofula, c. 1400. He touched an estimated 1,736 people.

The royal touch of Edward the Confessor was vividly related in Shakespeare’s Macbeth (Act IV, Scene 3):

A most miraculous work in this good king;
Which often, since my here-remain in England,
I have seen him do. How he solicits heaven,
Himself best knows: but strangely-visited people,
All swoln and ulcerous, pitiful to the eye
The mere despair of surgery, he cures,
Hanging a golden stamp about their necks,
Put on with holy prayers: and ’tis spoken
To the succeeding royalty he leaves
The healing benediction.

In France, the sainted King Louis IX (1214–1270) performed frequent touching—usually stroking the skin of the affected area. He applied it mostly for scrofula but it was also used for convulsions, rheumatism, and blindness until Elizabeth I confined its use to treating scrofula. Touching became a royal duty, demonstrated in public healing ceremonies that showed that monarchs ruled by God’s will, the divine power of Kings, effected by anointed hands.

A routine was established in which the afflicted would first obtain a signed, sealed certificate from the churchwarden of their parish indicating that they were suffering from scrofula. The person then went to the Palace of Whitehall to be examined by one physician and two surgeons, who provided a ticket for the royal healing ceremony—usually held on a Sunday. The royal touch3 conceded to the monarch the role of an anointed agent of Christ, “the only one who could heal.” A chaplain would read from Mark 16:18:

They shall lay their hands on the sick, and they shall recover.

Charles II (1630–1685), following the example of his father Charles I, touched as many as 4,000 people a year. He gave the subject a gold coin known as an Angel, hung around the neck to be worn constantly to avert recurrence of the illness. Such was the public demand that several patients were trampled to death in the rush to be healed.4 Boswell recorded that in 1712, the sickly infant [Dr.] Samuel Johnson was touched by Queen Anne for the King’s Evil, but without benefit.

Figure 2. Gold coin given to Samuel Johnson by Queen Anne on March 30, 1712 at the last royal touching ceremony in Britain.

This practice continued for centuries, although in the eighteenth century many monarchs and scholars including Voltaire were skeptical, and the royal touch erratically declined under the reigns of Henry VII, Henry VIII, and Elizabeth I.

Queen Anne (d. 1714) was the last English monarch to touch for the King’s Evil in England. However, Louis XVI at his coronation in June 1775 temporarily revived it by touching supposedly some 2,400 people. The last French king to do so was Charles X of France, who in 1824 at his coronation touched 121 people with scrofula at the behest of respected court physicians.

End note

  • * Clovis was the King of the Franks and northern Gaul from AD 481 to 511, during the transformation of the Roman Empire into Europe. Born a pagan, he adopted Christianity and posthumously was treated as a saint by the people.


  1. Taylor A. The King’s Evil. London, Harper Collins, 2019.
  2. Crawfurd R. The King’s Evil. Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1911.
  3. Toynbee MR. Charles I and the King’s Evil. Folklore 1950;61(1):1-14.
  4. Birkwood K. Touching for ‘the King’s evil’: a short history. Royal College of Physicians, May 10, 2019. https://history.rcplondon.ac.uk/blog/touching-kings-evil-short-history

JMS PEARCE is a retired neurologist and author with a particular interest in the history of medicine and science.

Spring 2024



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