This gold coin was minted in England under the authority of James I in 1606–07. It was known as an ‘angel’ for its depiction of the archangel Michael slaying a dragon on the obverse or front face of the coin. The reverse depicts an English galley ship with the monogram ‘I’ (for James as ‘I’ was used for ‘J’ in Latin), a rose and the King’s arms.
The inscription on the obverse reads ‘IACOBVS. D: G: MAG: BRIT: FRA: ET. HI: REX.’, which is an abbreviated form of the Latin text: ‘iacobus deo gratia magnae britanniae franciae et hiberniae rex’ (James, by the grace of God, King of Great Britain, France and Ireland). The inscription on the reverse reads ‘A. DNO: FACTVM. EST. ISTVD:’, or ‘a domino factum est istud’ (This is the Lord’s doing) from Psalm 118.
The coin is pierced for use in the ceremony of touching for the king’s evil. It is the ‘golden stamp’ (Macbeth, 4.3.155) that Malcolm describes in his eye-witness account of Edward the Confessor performing this ceremony in England.
Royal touch and the king’s evil
English and French monarchs of the medieval and early modern periods practised a healing rite to cure subjects of the king’s evil or scrofula – a tuberculosis infection of the lymph nodes. In this ceremony, which reinforced the idea of the monarch as a divinely appointed agent of God, the monarch would touch the diseased person, hang a gold angel on a ribbon round their neck and say certain prayers. The practice was started in the 11th century by Edward the Confessor and ended in England in 1714 with the death of Queen Anne.
In Shakespeare’s day Protestant monarchs had mixed feelings about a practice so Roman Catholic in nature, but touching was an important opportunity for royalist propaganda that helped confirm the legitimacy of a monarch’s rule in the face of opposition, for example after Elizabeth was excommunicated by the Pope. When James I came to the throne he spoke out sceptically against the superstitious rite, but soon gave in to pressure from his English counsellors and took it up. These monarchs attempted to emphasize the role of prayer and human faith or imagination rather than magic, but the nature of the ‘miracle’ was still somewhat ambiguous.
Royal Touch in Macbeth
Malcolm’s account of seeing royal touching during his time in England provides a godly counterpoint to the demonic magic and prophecy of the witches in Macbeth. However, as a report of off-stage action in another country it is too remote to offer any real hope or counteraction to the dark forces of the play. It highlights the absence of the kingly quality of divine healing in Macbeth and even in Malcolm, although it does associate the latter with a general semantic field of healing in a play riddled with the language of sickness and disease.
The inclusion of the reference to the royal touch of the English King is often thought to be straightforwardly flattering to James I, but Edward the Confessor – although pious and saintly – was a more ambiguous role-model for monarchy. He allowed the erosion of royal power and left (as Elizabeth did) an uncertain succession that threw England into chaos. It is possible that this reference to him in Macbeth contains as much warning to as praise for James as a king of England.
- Article by:
- Kiernan Ryan
- Gender, sexuality, courtship and marriage, Tragedies
The tragedy of Macbeth revolves around the question of what it means to be a man, argues Kiernan Ryan.
- Article by:
- Diane Purkiss
- Tragedies, Magic, illusion and the supernatural
Diane Purkiss discusses Renaissance beliefs about witches and shows how, in Macbeth, Shakespeare blurs the line between the witches and Lady Macbeth.
- Article by:
- Andrew Dickson
- Tragedies, Power, politics and religion
Shortly after James I took the throne, he announced that he would be the new sponsor of Shakespeare's theatre company, which renamed itself the King's Men. Andrew Dickson explains how the royal sponsorship affected the company, and the ways in which the playwright's later works engage with his transition from an Elizabethan to a Jacobean subject.