The King’s Evil: Touch Me, Your Majesty

Here’s the King, curing some Evil.

Disease was very common during the Restoration. In spite of the medical advances of the seventeenth century, there was much about the human body and disease in particular that remained mysterious. Magic was still believed to cure any number of ailments, and people often relied on superstition to treat illnesses. Executioners made most of their money by selling off pieces of dead convicts: their clothes, the noose, and even body parts were sold to Quacks for the making of charms thought to cure everything from headaches to bad luck. 

One of the most mysterious of these illnesses was the King’s Evil. I know how it sounds, but it’s not chlamydia. The King’s Evil, or scrofula, is tuberculosis of the lymph nodes of the neck. It was called the King’s Evil because it was believed that only the touch of a King could cure it. 

The disease often went into remission on its own, so the Royal Touch appeared to work. Kings had been touching people afflicted with scrofula as far back as Edward the Confessor. Robert Herrick even wrote a poem about it:

O! lay that hand on me,
Adored Caesar! and my faith is such,
I shall be heal’d, if that my KING but touch.
The Evill is not yours: my sorrow sings,
Mine is the Evill, but the cure, the KINGS.

-Robert Herrick, “To the King, the cure the Evil.”


While he waited in exile, touching those afflicted with the King’s Evil was one of the few royal duties Charles II could perform. As soon as he was back on the throne, people flocked to him to cure it, and he touched 1,700 of them within his first two months back.

Charles took his duty very seriously. Before long, a system was worked out whereby the afflicted would visit the King’s chirurgeon on Bridges Street in Covent Garden for what we would think of as a referral, and the King would see the afflicted personally on Wednesdays and Fridays, often in the Banqueting Hall. Once the system was up and working, he began to see up to 4,000 people per year, seeing more than 90,000 total between 1660 and 1682. 

Louis XIV touched those afflicted with the King’s Evil in France, but there were those who believed that he lacked the divine gift so generously demonstrated by Charles II:

All lawful monarchs, God’s viceregents are
And by his Princely Patent govern here; 
But all have not an equal grant from Heaven. 
The Cure o’ th’ Evil to Britain’s Monarch’s given! 
Whose royal touch hath healed our leprous land, 
‘Tis therefore TREASON not t’obey’s command.

-John Gadbury’s Almanac, 1666.

There you have it. If you are unlucky enough to be afflicted with scrofula, you’d better make sure the monarch touching you is British. 


In other news, Virtue’s Lady is out today. If wondering what happened to Mark and Jane has been driving you crazy, now you can find out! The buy links are below. 

My blog tour is well and truly under way, and today you can find me talking about different aspects of the book all over the place. I’ll be stopping by Nicole Hurley-Moore’s blog with a post about the plot and why I wrote it the way I did, and I’ll be visiting Susan Hughes with a post about seventeenth century marriage. I also made it to Tara Quan’s blog with a writing tip, and The lovely Christa Maurice has a fun excerpt for us today as well, so be sure to stop by and tell us all what you think. 

Without further ado, I’m going to go throw some confetti around and find something bubbly to drink. It’s Release Day! Woohoo!

Illegitimacy: ‘Unnatural’ Birth in Stuart England

James Scott, 1st Duke of Monmouth,
eldest illegitimate son of Charles II and Lucy Scott.

The Restoration is seen as a period of almost legendary promiscuity. In the years following the Merry Monarch’s return, business for actresses and prostitutes was booming, domestic servants were prey for their masters, and many couples cohabited before they married, sometimes for years. Charles II himself had a dozen illegitimate children that he acknowledged, but the recorded rate remained at or below three percent of all births. Was this down to the growing popularity of condoms, dodgy statistics, or something worse? 

The truth is a little bit of all three. 

Most people did not marry until they had the means to establish independent households, causing many to delay marriage until later in life or to never get married at all. The mean male age at first marriage was between 27.1 and 28.1 years, and for women it was between 24.8 and 27. Men and women both commonly lived independently of their families before they married, if they ever did, and many couples cohabited. Between 1600 and 1649, roughly twenty-five percent of babies born in England were born within eight months of the wedding. Coward points out that: “Before the mid-eighteenth century marriage did not begin with a church wedding service; marriage was a process that began from the moment of the betrothal and was concluded by a ceremony in a church. As a result, conception often took place before the marriage process ended.” (2)

It is worth mentioning that this only takes into consideration the weddings and births that were formally recorded. Many marriages, particularly among the poor, had no church service and nothing more than a verbal contract. (4) Furthermore, many births went unrecorded, and the high rates of miscarriage and infant mortality make it impossible to get even a ballpark estimate of how many pregnancies occurred outside of a formal marriage, however it was defined. As many as three out of four children born in London could expect to die before the age of six. (3)

Astoundingly, the rate of illegitimacy only rose above three percent once during the entirety of the seventeenth century. (2) I find this hard to believe. Charles II probably accounted for most of those himself. He had twelve that he acknowledged, many becoming dukes and countesses, but most illegitimate children would not have fared so well. (4) Seen as unnatural and inherently untrustworthy, surviving illegitimate children would carry the stigma of their births with them their whole lives. 

So in an age known for promiscuity, why were the numbers of illegitimate children so low?

Condoms continued to grow in popularity throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. They were used primary to defend against syphilis and other venereal diseases, but also to protect against pregnancy as Casanova himself had advised. Unfortunately, the sheaths made from linen, sheep gut, or fish skin were a poor protection against pregnancy as they were held in place by ribbons and perhaps prayer, and were commonly re-used. Linen, of course, is porous, and would not have been a very reliable form of contraception. (5)

Infanticide was tragically common. “Unmarried mothers, terrified of the life of prostitution and destitution that they saw an inevitable after the shame of bearing an illegitimate child, covered up their pregnancies, and when their child was born either left it exposed to the elements to die, or abandoned it by a hospital or a workhouse where they hoped it might be given the chance to live.” Their short lives kept hidden, these births were unlikely to have been recorded in the parish records. (3)

There was a significant increase in prosecutions for infanticide in the seventeenth century. The Act to Prevent the Murdering of Bastard Children of 1624 required the woman to prove her innocence rather than for her accusers to prove guilt. Women employed as domestic servants were especially vulnerable to sexual advances or abuse by their employers. Between 1703 and 1772, twelve percent of the women executed at Tyburn were hanged for infanticide and a large proportion of those had been employed as domestic servants. (1)

Any woman bearing a stillborn child ran the risk of being accused of infanticide. As for the fathers, Worsley points out that: “Men were never criminalized in the same way for becoming parents outside marriage – how could they be? The master who made his maid pregnant had huge power over her. Society saw him as the deputy of the king, indeed of God, in the little kingdom of his own household. To criticize him would be to suggest that there was something wrong with the social order, and this was impossible.”(6)

The poor were not the only people having illegitimate children. As we know, Charles II and Louis XIV had at least a dozen each. Worsley explains that it was not that illegitimate children were not born into high society, but that their births were more easily kept quiet. “In the chapel of the Georgian St James’s Palace, some babies mysteriously ‘dropped in the court’ were baptized; no one knew who their mothers were, but various Maids of Honour seemed suspiciously willing to stand as godmothers.” (6)

Taking into consideration what we know of the limitations of parish records for this period, it seems likely that the true number of illegitimate births was much higher than that estimated three percent. Stillbirths, infanticides, and abandoned children would not have been counted, and others would have been spared the stigma if their parents married fast enough. As for the number of babies ‘dropped in the court,’ I couldn’t find an estimate. 

Sources
1. Brandon, David, and Brooke, Alan. Tyburn: London’s Fatal Tree. Sutton Publishing Ltd, 2004.
2. Coward, Barry. The Stuart Age: England 1603-1714. Longman Group UK, 1980.
3. Moore, Lucy. The Thieves’ Opera. Viking, 1997.
4. Picard, Liza. Restoration London. Phoenix Press, 1997.
5. Tannahill, Reay. Sex in History. Scarborough House, 1992.
6. Worsley, Lucy. If Walls Could Talk. Walker & Company, 2011.

A Fortune on Friday Street: Finding the Cheapside Hoard


In 1912, workmen were excavating the cellar of 30-32 Cheapside on the corner of Friday Street when they discovered a fortune in jewelry hidden in a wooden box. Containing more than four hundred pieces of jewelry from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, what became known as the Cheapside Hoard was the find of a lifetime and a historian’s dream come true. 

Though no one knows for certain, it is believed that the hoard belonged to a goldsmith who had stashed it in his cellar during the English Civil War. The house was part of what had been Goldsmith’s Row, the center of jewelry manufacture in London since the middle ages. The whole street burned down in the Great Fire of London in 1666, and new houses were built on top of the ruins of the old ones, hiding the hoard for three hundred and fifty years. 

Even though we’re pretty sure where it came from, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to suggest an alternate theory in The Southwark Saga. We first met Mark, Jack, Will, and Harry in Tyburn when they were all still robbing coaches as highwaymen. Although they have given it up by the beginning of Virtue’s Lady, old habits die hard, and they find out that it’s more difficult to stay on the right side of the law than they thought it would be. 

You may remember Harry bemoaning the loss of an enormous stash of treasure when you first met him in Newgate…well, he left that treasure under the floor of his old girlfriend’s house on Friday Street. The money from the sale of even a portion of what’s under there could solve a lot of problems in Southwark, if only they could find a way past her father to get inside…

Today, most of the hoard is kept at the Museum of London, with some pieces at the V&A and the British Museum. If the Museum of London is a little far for you to travel right now, they have a great collection of photos of some of the hoard’s best pieces on their website here.

For an excellent, in-depth piece about the Cheapside Hoard complete with video and stunning photos, visit GIA’s website here.

Dark Roast: Drinking Coffee in the 17th Century

A Midnight Modern Conversation. Hogarth.

In The Southwark Saga, the coffee is terrible. Sally regards it with suspicion in Tyburn, and it’s one of the first bad things Jane smells as she arrives in Southwark in Virtue’s Lady. But how bad could it have been?

Pretty bad. Here are the instructions they were using: 

“Take a gallon of faire water & boyle it until halfe be wasted, and then take that water one pint, and make it boyle, & then put in one spoonful of the Powder of Coffee and let it boyle one quarter of an hour, stiring of it two or three times, for fear of it running over, and drink it as hot as you can, every morning, and fast an houre or two after it.” (1)

Although the coffee was powdered, it would have been likely to leave a thick sludge at the bottom of a cup (if not in the rest of it). When Jane says that she could have stood a spoon up in it, she isn’t exaggerating. Drinking it very hot would go a ways to disguise the burnt taste of coffee powder and well water left to boil too long in a pot over a fire. It would have been rare to add milk to it. People did not commonly drink milk because it was thought to be unsafe, and they were probably right. As for sugar, it was sold in loaves that had to be broken up and pounded before it could be added to anything, let alone coffee.

It was a far cry from Starbucks, but they were lucky to have it. 

Coffee was a luxury drink like tea or chocolate, but became popular in England before either of the others. Coffee houses were a predecessor to the men’s clubs of eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, frequented primarily by men (and perhaps women of ill-repute). The first coffee house in England was opened in 1650 in Holborn, and by 1663, there were 82 of them in London alone. 

Now when we think of Britain, we think of tea. Samuel Pepys mentioned drinking it as early as 1660, but it wasn’t until after Catherine of Braganza married Charles II in 1662 that tea came into its own. Her affection for the drink from her native Portugal started a trend among the wealthy that only intensified as tea became more readily available with the founding of the East India Company. (2)

When Jane returns to drinking tea after trying Mark’s coffee, she can barely taste it. For a truly interactive experience, try boiling up some coffee powder when you’re reading The Southwark Saga. Your taste buds will never be the same again.*

(1) Picard, Liza. Restoration London. Phoenix Press, 1997. P. 158
(2) UK Tea & Infusions Association: Catherine of Braganza. 

*Or go to your coffee house of choice. I hear they admit women now. 

Cantarella: Potent Renaissance Poison Made from Insects

As you now know (and probably could have guessed), I’m a big fan of the Borgias. What’s not to like? Every other week, it seemed like somebody was poisoning someone else with something called cantarella. Because I become fixated on odd little details, I had to know what it was, and now it’s part of my database of poisons (yes, I have one of those. You don’t?). 

So what was it?

Cantarella was a poison that was rumored to have been used by the Borgias (among others). Although it appeared in literature as something that could mimic death, cantarella was probably made from arsenic, like most of the common poisons of the era, or of canthariden powder made from blister beetles, and was highly toxic. Cantharides are now more commonly known as Spanish Fly. 

Poisoning your enemies with bugs.
Because f*** you, that’s why.


Although it was rumored to have been used by the Borgias, it was definitely associated with the Medicis. Aqua Toffana, or Aquetta di Napoli, was a potent mixture of both arsenic and cantharides allegedly created by Italian countess, Giulia Tofana (d. 1659). Colorless and odorless, it was undetectable even in water and as little as four drops could cause death within a few hours. It could also be mixed with lead or belladonna for a little added toxicity

In case you’re wondering how one would catch enough blister beetles to do away with one’s enemies, cantharides were surprisingly easy to come across. They were also used as an aphrodisiac. In small quantities, the powder engorges the genitals, so it must have seemed like a good idea at the time. In larger quantities, however, it raises blisters, causes inflammation, nervous agitation, burning of the mouth, dysphagia, nausea, hematemesis, hematuria, and dysuria.

Oh, and death.

The powder was brownish in color and smelled bad, but mostly went unnoticed with food or wine. So the next time you’re watching the Borgias (or re-watching, in slow-motion, as Cesare smolders through three seasons of political intrigue), pay attention to the poison, because the symptoms are all there. Nicely done, Neil Jordan. Nicely done. 

The Beauty Secrets of Lucrezia Borgia

Here she is holding a dagger.
Battista Dossi, 1486

The Borgias were a prominent family in Renaissance Italy who are remembered in infamy to this day. Although they produced two popes (Callixtus III and Alexander IV) and contributed to the Renaissance as major patrons of the arts, they are remembered for the crimes there were accused of committing, including but not limited to: adultery, incest, murder, bribery, simony, theft, and poisoning. The lives of the family of Pope Alexander IV were so sensational, in fact, that Showtime made a series about them (If you enjoy good looking men in leather trousers running about garroting people, it’s on Netflix).

Pope Alexander IV’s daughter, Lucrezia (1480 – 1519), was a renowned beauty and may have been the subject of many great works of art, although she only has one confirmed portrait. She was described as having “heavy blonde hair which fell past her knees; a beautiful complexion; hazel eyes which changed color; a full, high bosom; and a natural grace which made her appear to ‘walk on air.’” 

She was blonde, but she was Spanish by descent and the rest of her family was dark, so how did the most famous femme fatale of the Renaissance lighten her hair before there was Clairol?

Portrait of a Woman by Bartolomeo Veneto, detail


It’s generally believed that this color was achieved by rinsing it in a mixture of lye and lemon juice before exposing it to sunlight. The longer it was exposed, the lighter it would become. This process would take a long time for anyone, but imagine how much longer it would take if your hair fell past your knees. To give you some idea, there is an account that on one occasion, Lucrezia postponed a journey for days just to wash her hair. (1) 

Days. 

She wasn’t the only one doing it, either. Bleaching recipes were common in medieval cosmetic texts, and most of them include using lye or ashes in a rinse. There must have been something to it, because the practice of lightening hair with lemon juice has remained popular to this day. Elle Magazine even has a helpful guide to lightening your hair with lemon juice and sunlight a la Lucrezia Borgia, only they’ve replaced the lye with chamomile tea for a less caustic rinse. Whether you want to follow in the footsteps of your smokin’ hot foremothers or you’re just curious, you can read their recipe here

A lock of Lucrezia’s famous blonde hair is kept in the Ambrosian Library in Milan to this day.

(1) Pointer, Sally. The Artifice of Beauty. Sutton Publishing, 2005. 

Of Cakes and Kings (With their Heads on or Otherwise…)

Guest post by Hannah Methwell

Bosse. The Pastry Shop, 1632

Now I am a somewhat bloody-minded historical novelist. I write about a rather ruffianly troop of Oliver Cromwell’s cavalry, all very rough and manly, and they spend a deal of their fictional career engaged in violent mayhem. 

Which is all very well, but when not smiting the heathen hip and thigh, what would an Ironside officer, circa 1642, do with himself at home? 

In the case of Captain Holofernes Babbitt, the answer is – hang around the kitchen hoping for cake. Known for it. Every time his good lady appears in those books, she’s either trying to feed him, or fatten up somebody else in his troop. Het Babbitt is a lady after my own heart. 

But what? Parliamentarians? Puritans? With cake

Cakes. Custard tarts. Fruit pies. Biscuits. Cheesecake. You betcha. 

Cake in the seventeenth century did not, on the whole, come as a snack, but rather, as part of a course at dinner in which multiple dishes would be set forth. A menu from a 1594 recipe book, “The Good Huswife’s Handmaid for the Kitchen”, gives the somewhat exotic guidance for a two-course dinner as: 

Brawne and Mustard. Capons stewed in white broth: a pestle of Uenison vpon brewes: A chine of Beefe, and a breast of Mutton boyled: Chewets or Pies of fine Mutton: three greene Geese in a dish, Sorrell sauce. For a stubble Goose, mustard and Uinigar: after Alhallowen day a Swanne, sauce Chaudron: A Pigge: A double ribbe of Beefe roasted. Sauce Pepper and Uinigar. A loyne of Ueale or breast, sauce Orenges: Halfe a Lambe or a Kid: Two Capons roasted, Sauce Wine and salt, Ale and salt, except it be vpon sops: Two pasties of fallow Deere in a dish: a Custard: A dish of Leash. 

The second course. 
Jellie, Peacockes, sauce Wine and Salte: Two Connies, or halfe a dozen Rabbets, sauce Mustard and Sugar: halfe a dozen of Pigions, Mallard, Toyle, sauce Mustard and Uergious: Gulles, Storke, Heronshew, Crab, sauce Galantine: Curlew, Bitture, Bustard, Feasant, sauce Water and Salt, with Onions sliced: Halfe a dozen Woodcockes, sauce Mustarde and Sugar: Halfe a dozen Teales, sauced as the Feasants: A dozen of Quailes: a dish of Larkes: Two Pasties of red Deare in a dish: Tarte, Ginger bread, Fritters

Pieter Claesz. Still Life With Turkey Pie, 1627


Fruit, both candied and fresh, would be a given at this type of formal dinner. As we can tell, the “sweet” dishes are a minority, but expected as part of both courses. (Leash – if you’re curious – is leche lombard, another kind of spiced baked custard.) 

But back to the cake thing. Without baking powder, and thus without self-raising flour, the “sponge” cake didn’t arrive until way after the 17th century. Het Babbitt’s baked cakes would have been sweetened, enriched bread doughs – possibly, but not necessarily, baked in cake hoops, wooden or metal versions of our modern cake tins which stood on a plank in the oven. A 1617 recipe book, “A Daily Exercise for Ladies and Gentlemen”, gives the following recipe for sugar cake: 

Bake a pound of finewheat flower in a pipkin close couered, put thereto halfe a pound of fine Sugar, foure yolkes and one white of egs, Pepper and Nutmegs, straine them with clouted creame, and with a little new Ale yeast, make it in past, as it were for a Manchet, bake it in a quicke ouen with a breath fire in the ouens mouth, but beware of burning them. 

(I feel your pain regarding the burning. Every time…) 

Rosewater, nutmeg, cinnamon, and cloves were popular flavourings in period cakes. What is interesting is that honey as a sweet ingredient in confectionery doesn’t seem to appear in any of the period recipe books I’ve consulted, apart from in one recipe for apple and orange tart where the orange peel is stewed in water sweetened with honey before it’s added to the apple puree. There’s a lot of talk of strewing with sugar, and a deal of sweetening with same, but I have as yet been unable to find an authenticated recipe using honey, apart from an uncooked gingerbread recipe from Gervase Markham’s “English Housewife” (1614): 

 A Seventeenth Century Cookbook


Take a quart of honey clarified, and seethe it till it be brown, and if it be thick put to it a dish of water; then take fine crumbs of white bread grated, and put to it, and stir it well, and when it is almost cold, put to it powder of ginger, cloves, cinnamon, and a little liquorice and aniseeds; then knead it, and put it into moulds and print it; some use to put to it also a little pepper, but that is according to taste and pleasure.

Hannah Methwell
Read more of Hannah’s posts and find her books on her blog, An Uncivil War