Mar 202012



An ‘angel’ of Charles 1st, so called because of the image of St Michael slaying the dragon on the front (obverse). Originally worth one third of a pound, by the Stuart period inflation had changed its value to ten shillings. The reverse shows a ship flying the royal pennant.

This coin was pierced so that it could be used in the ceremony of ‘touching for the King’s Evil’. It was believed that the disease scrofula  could be cured by the touch of the king, and thus it was also called the King’s Evil.  Sufferers of the disease who were touched by the king were presented  with a gold angel to hang around their neck, as an amulet to reinforce the cure. This was one of the perks of  being a King by Divine Right, you could go around curing the common people…. as such it was not confined to Great Britain – even the French monarchs were empowered!

Henry IV of France touching sufferers of the King’s evil.  From André Du Laurens, De mirabili strumas sanandi vi solis Galliae regibus…. Paris, 1609.

One of the last people to be touched for the King’s Evil was reputedly the infant (later, Doctor) Samuel Johnson, who was presumably cured of scrofula, if nothing else, and who went on to become one of the greats of the eighteenth century. Young Master Samuel was born in 1709 and if he was touched by Queen Anne this would have had to have been before his fifth birthday, when the Queen died. Her Germanic successors were distinctly unhappy about the superstitious practice, and allowed the ceremony to die out. In Scotland the Stuart “pretenders” continued the practice well into the eighteenth century.

Scrofula is a variant of tuberculosis that most commonly affected lymph nodes in the face and neck. This is how the diarist John Evelyn describes the ceremony (in the reign of Charles II)

His Majesty began first to touch for ye evil, according to custom, thus: ….the chirurgeons cause the sick to be brought or led up to the throne, where they kneeling, ye King stokes their faces and cheeks with both his hands at once,…. When they have all been totched [sic],… the other chapelaine kneeling and having an angel of gold strung on white ribbon on his arme., delivers them one by one to His Majestie, who puts them about the necks of the touched as they passe….

And for Richard Hall, how come he had a Kings Touch-piece? I have no idea. By then the angel was no longer being minted and would have been of bullion value only (i.e. not in general circulation, but worth whatever was the corresponding weight of gold). But there it is, right at the bottom of his list of coins, after the ‘2 Jacobus’ (i.e. gold twenty-five shilling coins of James 1st) and the ‘Prussian ducat’:

Perhaps it shows Richard was more superstitious than he let on! An interesting link is that I used to collect angels, and ‘stepped the mast’ with one minted in 1497 when the replica of John Cabot’s ship The Mathew sailed to Newfoundland in 1997 to commemorate the discovery of Canada 500 years before.  (The Mathew is generally to be found lurking in Bristol harbour. Lift the mast and you should find my coin, though possibly a little flattened having been squashed under the mast for ten years and more!)

It is there to bring the ship good luck, just as one was almost certainly placed under the mast of the original Mathew. So, an interesting coin: the angel. When it was first minted it was in response to demand from …lawyers, since their standard unit of charge was measured in one third of a pound (six shillings and eightpence, for purists). Employ a lawyer to draw up a deed in the 1400’s and the chances are that you would have paid him an angel. And I suppose that is why I was drawn to collect angels – a link to my medieval predecessors!

 Leave a Reply