Valentine Greatrakes: the cure for a broken heart?
Valentine Greatrakes (1618-1682), otherwise known as ‘The Stroker’, was an Irish faith healer who toured Ireland and England during the 1660s, displaying his abilities on the ill and diseased. His speciality was curing the ‘King’s Evil’ (now known to be scrofula, or Mycobacterial cervical lymphadenitis for the scientifically inclined), so called because of the belief that only the King’s touch, and few others, could cure the afflicted (a tradition that continued until George I deemed it to be ‘too Catholic’).
A former Cromwellian soldier, Greatrakes became famed for his healing and was championed by several intellectuals of the day, including Robert Boyle, largely regarded as the first modern chemist, to whom Greatrakes addressed a letter in 1666 entitled A brief Account of Mr. Valentine Greatrakes and divers of the strange Cures by him performed, which included a number of certificates from the higher echelons of society confirming the validity of Greatrakes’ cures.
However, not everyone was convinced, as can be seen in Wonders no Miracles, written by David Lloyd in 1665, after witnessing Greatrakes’ stroking at the house of Captain Cressets, where the healer apparently almost killed a man with a sore leg. The letter, addressed to ‘a Revered divine, living near that place’, immediately establishes Lloyd’s viewpoint on these ‘groundless, and ill contrived pretences’ with an opening attack on Greatrakes’ Christianity, or apparent lack thereof, as through these displays he ‘pretend[s] to Gods [sic] Seal’ . Further to this, Lloyd believes the accused to be ‘unsettled of the mind’ due to his ‘being bred up in loose times, and a more loose way’. Whilst Lloyd may seem almost sympathetic to Greatrakes’ apparent delusional state, he is not slow to list other such examples (12 in all) of individuals who became convinced of a divine power within them, including ‘The Venetian that undertook to live without food, and the tenth day heard a Voyce saying to him, Arise and eat two Egges.’
Lloyd continues his tirade by subsequently attacking Greatrakes’ seemingly charitable act of not accepting money for his services, believing that ‘He may have a greater design than mony; let him gain Reputation the first quarter, and he shall not fail of mony the next.’ Furthermore, the financial cost his followers, or as he calls them, ‘Jack-Puddings’ (a contemporary buffoon character), face through their devotion to him is seen to far outweigh the authenticity of the healer’s displays, the successes of which Lloyd explains thusly: ‘Accidents may perform many of his slight cures, and yet he have the credit of it.’ Lloyd concludes his letter with the following: ‘though you and other Revered Persons, may think charitably the man means no hurt, all men confess, as well as our Society, that hee [sic] can do no good.’
After his tour of England, Greatrakes returned to Ireland. He died on 28th November 1682, with his name and reputation largely unblemished. To this day, Greatrakes remains a common figure in faith-healing folklore, including mentions in several novels. The play Blackwater Angel, written by Jim Nolan and first performed in 2006, depicts a fantasised version of his time in England, portraying Greatrakes as a man riddled with self-loathing and self-doubt.
This Special Collections Spotlight article was contributed on 13 February 2015 by Richard Sellens, Library Graduate Trainee 2014-2015.