A Horse Cures the King’s Evil in 1688
Is this the story of a miraculous horse, an astute farmer or just a good joke?
In his diary, Alexander Shields recorded the following:
‘August . I was told, by ane eye witness, of a horse in or about the foot of Annandale, that cured the King’s evil by licking the sore, unto which many country people resort from all quarters.’ (Wodrow, Analecta, I, 179.)
The King’s Evil, or Scrofula, is a skin disease which causes bluish-purple ‘cold abscesses’, or sores, on the neck. Today, the disease can be treated in most cases, but from the Middle Ages to the eighteenth century, English and French rituals promoted the idea that the disease could be cured the Royal Touch. When the Scottish Stewart dynasty took over in England in 1603 they continued to perform it. Although Charles II (d.1685) lived in a more sceptical age, the picture above shows that he, too, fulfilled his royal duties. Only with the last of the Stewarts, Queen Anne (d.1714), did the ritual cease to be part of the royal calendar of duties. What on Earth are we supposed to make of Shields’ report that a horse was curing the King’s Evil?
A Miraculous Horse?
On one level, Shield’s account is a straightforward record of an allegedly miraculous horse that could cure the King’s Evil. It appears that the horse had attracted a popular following in the South West of Scotland, as Shields claims that the ‘country people’ resorted to it ‘from all quarters’. Given that the folk of of the South West of Scotland had almost no change of ever encountering their king, it is plausible that the licking horse was an option.
However, there is little doubt that Shields, as a Reformed probationer minister and leader of the Society people, had a huge distain for what he would have seen as a “Popish” superstition among the country people.
An Astute Farmer?
It is entirely possible that the owner of the licking horse genuinely believed that it could cure the King’s Evil. There was also, almost certainly, money to be made from the ownership and promotion of a such horse. Was this a case of a farmer or packman using an old nag to fleece the gullible? We do not know.
A Satirical Joke?
Alexander Shields had a sense of humour. At times it can be difficult to imagine militant Covenanters enjoying a good joke, but that is one possible interpretation of Shields’ text.
The Royal Touch was a symbol, or sign, of the divine authority of the monarch. It illustrated their elevated status in what many in the seventeenth century saw as a divinely ordained hierarchy that placed monarchs above the People and below God. Shields, however, did not believe in the divine right of kings or that the soul of a monarch was any more special than that of any of the People.
Shields; record of the horse may well reflect his sense of humour, which is occasionally evident in his writings. However, Shields was also referring to reports of a licking horse in Annandale. That raises the possibility that the story of the horse reflects popular political satire of King James and his pretensions to absolute monarchy. Within months the Revolution of 1688 would break out in Scotland. Was it the King who was being compared to a nag? We do not know.
The ‘Eye Witness’
In the same entry in his diary, Shields also records that ‘in the parish of Dornoch, the Curat[e] is turned Popish.’ (Wodrow, Analecta, I, 179.)
Shields had possibly received that information from the same eyewitness who saw the licking horse, as Dornock parish also lies at the foot of Annandale. The curate, or minister, of Dornock was Alexander Finnie, a minor poet who particularly enjoyed poking fun in verse at the extraordinary love life of the Presbyterian minister, David Williamson, aka. Dainty Davie. (Fasti, II, 245.)
Who the eyewitness was is not known, but they may have recently returned from England on Societies’ business. Dornock parish was used as an exit and entry point for some Society people crossing into England via the Sandy Wath, or Dornock Ford, a drove route across the sands of the Solway at low tide from Dornock to Drumburgh in Cumberland.
For other wonders in Scotland of the 1680s, see here.
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