In 1666, Great Britain was hit with an outbreak of the plague, the Great Fire of London, and it survived an attack by the Dutch. This annus mirabilis, or Year of Wonders, was also the year that a wealthy farmer from Ireland, Valentine Greatrakes came to England. Greatrakes had achieved notoriety in his home country because he seemed to be able to cure a disease - the king’s evil, or scrofula, which is an infection of the lymph nodes. It was said that only the monarch could cure the illness, hence its name. Greatrakes reportedly would gently “stroke” the diseased area, and many claimed to be relieved of their symptoms.
Greatrakes was invited to England to cure the chronic headaches of a member of the nobility, Anne the Viscountess Conway. While he was unable to help the Viscountess, he traveled the countryside curing those with the king’s evil and other ailments. He was a terrific sensation, and he was immortalized by pamphleteers Henry Stubbe and David Lloyd. In April of 1666, the natural philosopher and founder of the Royal Society, Robert Boyle, was witness to several of Greatrakes’ various purported cures. Although he made copious notes and experiments, Boyle could not arrive at a good explanation for how Greatrakes appeared to cure the afflicted.
Because it was thought only the monarch could cure the king’s evil, Greatrakes’ claim to cure the king’s evil provoked an unspoken challenge to the divine right of the monarchy. After surviving a bloody civil war, newly restored King Charles II could not ignore this subversive opposition to his authority. Additionally, Greatrakes had fought on the side of Cromwell during the war; Cromwell overthrew the reign of Charles I, who was executed in 1649. In 1666, Charles I’s son, Charles II had only recently returned from exile in 1660 to restore the monarchy. The figure of Greatrakes only seemed to complicate Charles’ new monarch status and remind the populace afresh of the civil war.
To address those shades of politics past, Charles II summoned Greatrakes to perform his cures before him at Whitehall. Greatrakes obliged, and while Charles II was not impressed, he allowed Greatrakes to continue unimpeded, diffusing the politically fraught situation. It’s also possible that Boyle’s observations and experiments made Greatrakes less of a political challenge and more of a scientific oddity.
After his trip through England, Greatrakes returned to Ireland and lived the rest of his life farming his estate, no longer feeling compelled to cure.
Robert Boyle's notes: British Library Additional MS 4293, 53v.
David Lloyd, Wonder No Miracles, or Mr. Valentine Greatrakes gift of healing examined, (London 1666).
Henry Stubbe, The Miraculous Conformist: or an Account of Several Marvelous Cures Performed by the Stroking Hands of Mr. Valentine Greatrakes (Oxford, 1666).
VALENTINE GREATRAKES AND THE YEAR OF WONDERS
England and Ireland, c. 1560s
Frontispiece from, John Browne,
Adenochoiradelogia; or, An anatomick-chirurgical treatise of glandules & strumaes, or kings-evil-swellings (London: printed by Thomas Newcombe for Samuel Lowndes, 1684).
"The Manner of his Majesty Curing the Disease Called the King's-Evil," engraved by Frederick Hendrick van Hove, 17th century. Printed for Dorman Newman, London.
Robert Boyle helped to found the Royal Society in England, as well as helping to establish scientific methodology in the practice of natural philosophy. He utilized air pumps to create vacuums, and "discovered" Boyle's Law that describes the relationship between the pressure and volume of gasses.
The Project is funded by the Wellcome Trust for the History of Medicine.