Greatrakes ‘the stroaker’

Published in Early Modern History (1500–1700), Issue 1 (Jan/Feb 2007), News, Volume 15

GREATRAKES, Valentine (1628–83), healer, was born on 14 February 1628 in Affane, Co. Waterford, the son of William Greatrakes, farmer, and his wife Mary, third daughter of Sir Edward Harris, chief justice of Munster. The Greatrakes were among the smaller English Protestant landed families who settled in south Munster in the 1580s. Valentine attended the Lismore free school until the age of 13, when in 1641 his family took him to Devonshire to escape the Irish rebellion. After an absence of five or six years he returned to Ireland and spent a year at Cappoquin Castle, Co. Waterford. In 1649 he was commissioned as a lieutenant in the parliamentary army under the command of Col. Robert Phaire in the horse regiment of Roger Boyle, first earl of Orrery. After his regiment was disbanded in 1656 he returned to his estate and was made a clerk of the peace for County Cork, a JP and registrar for the transplantations. These offices were almost certainly due to the patronage of Phaire (who became governor of Cork) and of Orrery. After the Restoration Greatrakes appears to have lost these offices and a portion of his estates. In 1666/7 he spent some time in Dublin pleading his case at the court of claims.
In 1662 Greatrakes began to feel that he had the power to cure people of scrofula, a lymphatic form of tuberculosis, also known as ‘the king’s evil’. At first he kept it a secret but eventually told his wife, who also had some ‘small skill in chirurgery’. His first patient was a boy from Lismore who was diseased around the eyes, face and throat. After a number of healing sessions the boy improved, and soon people with all manner of ailments flocked to Affane. Greatrakes set aside three days of the week for healing and used his stables, barns and malt-house as temporary lodgings for the sick. He also attended to the sick in the nearby town of Youghal. The dean of Lismore summoned him to a consistory court c. 1664 and attempted to stop his activities since he did not have a physician’s licence to practise medicine. Greatrakes felt that charity and compassion did not (regardless of the church’s ruling) require formal licensing, and continued with his work, aided by friends and allies including Phaire (whom he successfully treated in May 1665) and Orrery (who witnessed many ‘miracles’ at Charleville Castle).
His fame spread further afield, and in January 1666 he travelled to Warwickshire in response to a request from Lord Conway of Ragley Hall to heal his wife, who suffered from severe headaches. He was unable to ease Lady Conway’s pain but during three or four weeks at Ragley Hall is said to have healed about 40 people in the neighbourhood. He soon obtained the sobriquet ‘the stroaker’ because he healed by stroking his patients on the afflicted parts of the body, sometimes rubbing on his own saliva. Patients usually needed to have a number of sessions before they felt the full benefit. During the act of stroking, patients felt that their pain was transferred to their extremities before being completely dispelled. Greatrakes saw himself as a peculiar instrument of God, and prayer formed an important part of the treatment; he took no payment for his services.
Later in 1666 he was ordered by Lord Arlington to have an audience with Charles II. Greatrakes did not perform very well in the royal presence but did rather better at his lodgings in Lincoln’s Inns Fields. Edmund Berry Godfrey, the prominent London office-holder and merchant, was captivated by Greatrakes and maintained a very intimate correspondence with him. Charles II’s apparent dislike of Greatrakes was no doubt related to the king’s own failure at ‘touching for the king’s evil’. A number of critics attempted to undermine Greatrakes’s credibility in a series of pamphlets such as David Lloyd’s Wonders no miracles (1666) and Henry Stubbs’s Miraculous conformist (1666). Greatrakes responded by printing his Brief account of Mr Valentine Greatraks (1666) in the form of a letter to Robert Boyle, the eminent scientist. Appended to the account were 53 testimonials from respected citizens who described how they had been cured by him. He made a second journey to England in 1668.
Disillusioned by adverse publicity, Greatrakes decided to spend the rest of his life in obscurity, farming his estate in Affane. During these years he confined his healing practice to the sick people whom he came across. Among those who visited him at Affane was John Flamsteed, the first astronomer royal. Greatrakes’s ‘stroking’ did not ease his rheumatism, but Flamsteed was impressed by his humility and compassion. Greatrakes died on 28 November 1683 at Affane.

Daniel Beaumont is a former editorial assistant with the Royal Irish Academy’s Dictionary of Irish Biography.

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