Charles II touching a patient for the King's evil, circa 1680. Picture Credit: The Print Collector/Getty Images)

The King’s touch

What Diana and French philosophy can teach us about the need for monarchy

Artillery Row

“Of course you’ve read Marc Bloch on this?”

I was tempted to say “Yes” but it was never a good idea to bullshit Christopher Hitchens, who’d read everything.  

We were well into a languid, discursive Dupont Circle lunch. The kind that left me muddled and sleepy and Hitchens perfectly prepped to finish some brilliant essay for Vanity Fair.  

A gaudy soap opera

I was in Washington on a TV series and book about Diana.  I worked for Brook Lapping Productions, at the time (about the turn of the Century) probably the most respectable and high profile TV company in the UK. We were known for award winning series that were deeply researched and ever-so high minded. The war in Northern Ireland, the Beirut Hostages, Watergate, that kind of thing.  When I told Hitchens that we were looking at Diana his first response was “Well that’s disappointing, do you really think the royals are worth your time?’

I was probably in the same camp then.  Royal reporting was the stuff of tabloid exaggeration, a gaudy soap opera. And never more so than during the “War of the Waleses’ as newspaper-serialized biographies from her side and from his fought for our attention, punctuated by the release of embarrassing phone conversations between the main players.

ITV had asked us to do something different, to use the techniques of our other programmes, dig into the competing accounts and evaluate Diana’s story fairly. But were royal people a fit subject for serious analysis? Hitchens didn’t think so. His republicanism was about contrasting the power and self-confidence of a citizen against the foolish faith and infantilization of a subject

Which, as it happens, is exactly what French historian Marc Bloch had written about back in 1923. His focus was “the royal touch’, the ancient belief that the King’s hand could cure the sick. Bloch set out to expose the “tricks’ of royal power, how people in authority manipulated the ignorance and superstition of those they ruled so as to keep them in their place. So far, so Christopher Hitchens.  But then it got more complicated. For Bloch became deeply interested in the reasons why ordinary people wanted to believe this kind of thing and, in fact, at times demanded that the trick be played upon them. Over to him:

If an institution marked out for particular ends chosen by an individual will is to take hold of an entire nation, it must also be borne along by the deeper currents of the collective consciousness.

Now that’s quite a thought.  In the case of the royal touch he discovered that it was a highlight of the Royal year in France and England between the 11th and 16th Centuries, accompanied by a special liturgy and sanctioned by the Church.

Countless witnesses testified to its success and it only died out after seven centuries of sustained popularity and unclouded glory.

Why did the custom last so long when people could clearly see that it usually didn’t work? Bloch’s answer is the enduring power of collective illusion. 

Public opinion was unanimous in affirming that substantial numbers of sufferers were healed. The age of Faith did not demand that wonder-workers should always display an unvarying efficiency. Such is the happy optimism of believing souls.

There is a story from the early years of Diana’s royal life that’s both touching and disturbing. Visiting a home for the blind she encounters a man who says that he is sad not to be able to see her for he’s heard that she’s very beautiful. Without a pause she takes both his hands and places them over her face. He beams with pleasure.  

Shockingly intimate but also very Diana. Throughout her life she had a gift for connecting to strangers and knowing how to react in circumstances where most if us would just feel embarrassed. It’s something she employed for the benefit of numerous causes, from Aids care, through homelessness to land mines. 

You either get it or you don’t

Christina Lamb is a tough-minded war reporter who accompanied Diana to Angola when she famously walked through a minefield.  As much a natural republican as Christopher Hitchens she’d been deeply sceptical of the whole affair, imagining Diana being tastelessly photographed in front of victims. She promised her friends that her pen would be sharp. And yet she was bowled over by the Princess’ dedication to the cause, her toughness in the face of  sharp political criticism from the government in London and her assured professionalism on the road — using her celebrity to good effect. 

It was astonishing because she seemed to have this gift for making people feel she truly understood and cared, and when you saw it up close it didn’t feel cynical at all. She has this kind of aura about her. A force of personality, a mix of fame and care. It changed my view of her completely.

There was one little girl who’d trod on a mine and she was in a terrible condition in this ward. It was horrific. You could see she hadn’t got long to live. Diana just sat with her, that was all. So after she moved on I spoke to her in whispered Portuguese and she asked who that was. “A Princess from England” I said.  And she said to me “Is she an Angel’? And I found that so moving. This girl died a few hours later and it pleased me to think that one of the last things she saw was this beautiful lady who she thought was an angel.

“Oh Phil that is such guff!” is what Hitchens would probably say to all that.  In fact I think he did because there was a second lunch some months later.  And yes, it’s sentimental.  We don’t live in the age of Kings any more. We don’t believe in angels or the Royal touch.

The popular spirituality of teddy bears at the roadside

Or do we? Most of us assume without question that a visit from a famous person can make a hospital patient feel better, or ease the final days in the life of a sick child. How many stories have you read about a pop star recording a message that might rouse a coma patient?  Actors and singers are frequently asked to appear at the bedside of the dying or speak to them on the phone. It’s an unsettling request. We don’t know what to say or how to act.  But Diana did, and she knew that a momentary physical connection could make a difference to an individual life and, sometimes, to a larger social cause.

OK nobody in a hospice expects a celebrity visit to cure them. Nobody in a homeless shelter expects a pop star or a princess to get them a new flat. But you’ll still find many people who say that it was a thrill of a lifetime. 

Like the scenes we are watching in Edinburgh and London at the moment, you either get it or you don’t.  If royal healing worked at all it did so because a moment’s proximity to greatness, amid ceremony, song, and gaudy costume, lifted the sufferers’ morale. There’s a magic to it, the happy optimism of believing souls. And in this respect, as I’m sure Marc Bloch would agree, there’s a plausible connection to a celebrity’s dazzling arrival in a ward or a shelter, royal or otherwise. 

This isn’t about faith it’s about those “the deeper currents of the collective consciousness’, the popular spirituality of teddy bears at the roadside, the way people support each other at funerals, the surge of joy we feel at a children’s Christmas concert. 

And the feeling of standing in a crowd in the rain waiting for a coffin to drive by.

Oh there’s a trick. Hitchens was dead right about that. But there’s also quite definitely a need.

Phil Craig and Tim Clayton’s book Diana Story of a Princess is published by Hodder and Stoughton.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover