We have recently finished cataloguing a small collection of 18 royal proclamations dating from the reigns of King Charles II (1662), through William and Mary to Anne (1702).
Part of the Library’s ephemera collection, the proclamations have a similar overall design. Most have a royal coat of arms at the top of the sheet above a title/summary in large type and a more detailed body in a smaller font below, that begins with a large, ornately decorated initial letter. A printer’s statement concludes at the foot of the sheet. They are all about 36 x 28 cm.
The most fascinating proclamation reflects concerns in the wake of the Great Fire of London in September 1666. Its aim is to help maintain public order by issuing instructions to keep a supply of fresh food coming into markets across London at Bishopsgate, Tower Hill, Smithfield and Leadenhall, in order to feed the people following the destruction of the capital. We have all heard about the fire, but to read a single sheet which actively played a small part in the aftermath, to my mind, creates a sense of genuine awe as history comes alive in front of me.
The 40 year period our proclamations cover was one of turbulent change in the British monarchy. Charles II had been crowned following the period of the Commonwealth and he reigned for 25 years. He was succeeded by his brother James II, a Roman Catholic and our last Catholic monarch. James II was at odds with Parliament and the nobility, the issue of religion being a major problem throughout this period. James was deposed by his Dutch son-in-law, William of Orange and his wife Mary, who ruled jointly until Mary’s death in 1695. William was succeeded in 1702 by Anne, Protestant daughter of James II.
During this time there were rebellions and bloody reprisals. Those responsible were hunted out, tried for treason and executed. Warrants were issued for their arrest in the name of the monarch, and also for more unexpected purposes such as the return of missing guns following skirmishes between the army and rebels, as one of our proclamations shows.
Proclamations were a method through which the monarch communicated commands to the masses. One proclamation tells us that they were ‘published and affixed in some open place in every market town’ in the realm. Intended for temporary display over 400 years ago, then pasted over by new ones, few of these have survived. Our earliest one, ‘For the better ordering of those who repair to the Court for their Cure of the Disease called the Kings-Evil’, dates from 1662 and concerns the laying on of hands by Charles II to heal those afflicted by scrofula (who were instructed to queue in an orderly manner for the honour). Until the early 18th century it was commonly believed that the monarch had a divine power to heal by touch.
People were informed of the death of William III and his succession by Anne through a proclamation dated 8 March 1701. Another proclamation issued the same day formally stated Queen Anne’s ‘great concern … for the preservation of our [Protestant] religion’. She was also concerned about the corrupt practice of ‘selling of offices and places in her household and family’, as a proclamation issued in July 1702 stated.
Although the majority of our proclamations aren’t medical in content, they broaden out the picture of what was happening in England between 1662 and 1702. Religion filtered down into most aspects of life. Additionally, the constant battles, rebellions and upheavals must have affected many people. These 18 proclamations provide a small slice of social and political context for the medical works in the Wellcome Library produced contemporaneously with them.
Author: Stephen Lowther is a Cataloguing Librarian at the Wellcome Library.
List of royal proclamations by monarch:
Charles II (1660–1685)
EPH+50:1 (undated. 1662?)
William III and Mary II (1689–1694)
William III (1694–1702)