- The Irish Stroker and the King: Valentine Greatrakes, Protestant Faith Healing, and the Restoration in Ireland
During the second week of April 1666 the eminent natural philosopher Robert Boyle witnessed several cases of apparently wondrous healing in London. In one case a six- or seven-year-old boy complained of blindness in one eye occasioned by a case of smallpox. The healer, an Anglo-Irish Protestant named Valentine Greatrakes, examined the afflicted eye, “spit into it . . . , and rubbed it a little with his finger.” The boy subsequently “felt pains and pricking in the parts about the eye,” which Greatrakes dispelled by stroking “three or four times over with his fingers.”1 Several days later, Boyle recorded that a woman troubled for more than a year by “a great thickness of hearing” also received treatment. Greatrakes “put his fingers in her ears and (as I remember) a little stroked them.” The deafness promptly vanished, replaced by “a great pain that resided in the fore part of her head.” Greatrakes addressed this pain by laying hands upon the woman. “Having stroked her,” Boyle recorded, “he presently dislodged the pain, and after . . . [he had] chased it from place to place about her head . . . , at length she told us that both her pain and the deafness were gone.”2 Other cures crossed into the realm of the bizarre. For example, in one case a forty-five-year-old woman suffering from dropsy and deafness “snatched some of [Greatrakes’s] urine [End Page 170] and drank it, some of which she also put into her ears.” Over the next day her afflictions disappeared in dramatic fashion as she “vomited out of her mouth several pieces of thick skin drawn over with blue veins like to a fresh bladder” and “brake great store of wind . . . , and then she made water in very great quantity, as four, five, or six gallons in 24 hours . . . , so that at this present day the skin of her belly is as empty as a glove or purse.”3 All of these sufferers seemed to recover fully.
In the early spring of 1666, Valentine Greatrakes—known to contemporaries as the “Irish stroker”—attracted considerable attention in England, demonstrating his skills at Raglan Castle, the Warwickshire home of Lord Edward Conway (third Viscount Conway and third Viscount Kiltullagh) and Lady Anne Conway, at Worcester, and in London. Witnesses of his cures included a number of fellows of the Royal Society (including Boyle, John Willis, and John Sydenham), prominent natural philosophers and metaphysicians (including Henry More, Benjamin Whichcote, Albertus Otto Faber, and Joseph Glanville), and members of Charles II’s court (including the poets Andrew Marvell and John Denham, and the king’s cousin Prince Rupert). The stroker’s work also triggered a short-lived print war when Henry Stubbe, a minor pamphleteer and later antagonist of the Royal Society, announced that Greatrakes’s cures were modern-day miracles that rivaled those of Christ and the apostles. Focusing on Greatrakes’s ability to cure scrofula—an affliction traditionally cured by English monarchs in the ceremony of the royal touch—Stubbe’s work also seemed to suggest a leveling of the sacred powers of the king.4 In the context of 1666, when the English nation and crown [End Page 171] faced multiple political and social crises, such radical claims provoked a significant backlash from various quarters.5
Understandably, most historians who have explored the Greatrakes case have focused on these dramatic developments in England. Greatrakes’s earlier experiences in Ireland, however, have received significantly less attention. At the end of his 1666 visit to London, Greatrakes penned a long memoir addressed to Robert Boyle and entitled A Brief Account of Mr. Valentine Greatrakes, and Diverse of the Strange Cures by Him Lately Performed. Although confused in both organization and argument, the memoir included several clues about the stroker’s motives. A close reading of his description of his life in Ireland during the 1650s and early 1660s and an appreciation of the wider contexts informing his memoir suggest that Greatrakes was offering a criticism of late Stuart policies in Ireland. Greatrakes underscored his New English background and implicitly criticized the...