Go back to article: A history of amulets in ten objects

A gold angel

Around the same time that our first object was used by Pepys, a healing practice that similarly drew upon hidden powers was taking place. The disease was known as ‘scrofula’ or ‘King’s Evil’, and its remedy was based on the notion that monarchs had the power to heal by touch. This ‘Royal gift of healing’ had been a tradition in England and France since the eleventh century, and continued for around 700 years (Lindemann, 1999, pp 80–1; Ettlinger 1939, p 161; Toynbee, 1950).[22] Whilst centred on the invisible haptic powers of the sovereign, in the early modern period (around 1500–1750) a tangible material also played a central role in this cure. This object – our third amulet – was a metal coin, usually gold and often called an angel, strung through with a ribbon and placed around the sufferer’s neck after he or she had been touched, as ‘a Token of His Sacred Favour, and Pledge of His best desires for them’.[23]

Figure 3

Colour photograph of the front and reverse side of a coin amulet of healing

Amulet Three – Gold angel, object number A641050

This particular example was gifted by Charles I, on the throne between 1634–49.[24] The theory behind this curative practice was clear; it was the royal touch that held the curative power. Yet the reality differed. Testimonials were common in early modern texts (whether medical or otherwise) and were almost always ordered according to the characters’ rank.[25] As such, primary texts discussing the ‘King’s Evil’ including John Browne’s Adenochoiradelogia written in the later seventeenth century are littered with first-hand accounts of those who, upon losing their gold coin, were re-inflicted with the illness and only recovered once the material process was repeated, or the original coin was found. Whilst Browne’s scepticism for the gold forming an effectual part of the cure is evident, the examples he provides are nonetheless carefully selected by people ‘of Quality’ – esquires, ‘honoured’ doctors, members of Cambridge colleges, knights, and those of respected social standing:[26]

One Thomas Costland, (as another remark of His Majesties favour) living near Oxford, and having many Strumous Swellings about his Neck, for which he had been touched and cured; but upon leaving off his Gold, his Swellings seized him afresh: the Gold being new strung, and put again about his Neck, his Swellings suddainly abated, and he to his dying day continued ever after in health, without any appearance of relapse.[27]

Figure 4

Black and white engraving showing a scene where King Charles Second attempts to cure subjects of scrofula

Charles II touching a patient for the King’s Evil (scrofula) surrounded by courtiers, clergy and general public. Engraving by R White

For one so careful to disregard the sole power of the coin, it is interesting that Browne provides a multitude of personal examples of the cure only working if the gold remained in contact with the body, eagerly and fervently noting the correspondent or patient’s high social status as if to legitimise the use of and belief in the material facet of this cure. Moreover, Browne’s very impetus for writing this treatise – in part to argue that gold was not the essential or most important part of the remedy – indicates the widespread fervour of this very belief.[28] He would not have needed to argue with such ardour if not vexed by the weight of power given to the gold angel in this cure for scrofula. What this amulet tells us is that despite the elaborate nature of the ceremony, those from the lowest to the highest strata of society made the journey to be healed, were granted audience with the monarch, and given a gold token. This was a disease where an object played an undeniably crucial part of a process of healing, universal across social rank and irrespective of wealth.[29] Perhaps most importantly, this gold angel exemplifies two important interconnected notions about the power of amulets – the significance of their situation, and their important relationship with the corporeal. Just like Pepys’ use of the hare’s foot, and like the Luna Park Billiken around 250 years later, the gold angel was efficacious only when kept on the body.

Figure 5

Colour photograph of a dried folded caul with envelope

Amulet Four – Caul in envelope, object number A132443

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/191103/003