Greatrakes, Valentine (1628–83), healer, was born 14 February 1628 in Affane, Co. Waterford, son of William Greatrakes, farmer, and his wife Mary, third daughter of Sir Edward Harris, chief justice of Munster. The Greatrakes (other spellings include Greatorex, Greatorix, and Greatraks) were among the smaller English protestant landed families who settled in south Munster in the 1580s. William Greatrakes senior, the grandfather of Valentine Greatrakes, was a tenant of Richard Boyle (qv), 1st earl of Cork. By 1640 William Greatrakes junior owned at least sixty acres and rented 160 acres more in Co. Waterford. During the 1650s the family was able to consolidate their estate, and they acquired some freeholds and leaseholds from the city of Exeter. Valentine Greatrakes attended the Lismore free school until the age of 13. In 1641 his family took him to Devonshire to escape the Irish rebellion. There he continued his studies with his mother, his maternal uncle Edmund Harris, and the German minister John Daniel Geteus. After an absence of five or six years he returned to Ireland and spent a year at Cappoquin castle, Co. Waterford. In 1649 he took a commission as a lieutenant in the parliamentary army under the command of Col. Robert Phaire (qv) in the horse regiment of Roger Boyle (qv), Lord Broghill (later 1st earl of Orrery). After his regiment was disbanded in 1656 he returned to his estate and was made a clerk of the peace for Co. 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 the earl 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 in order to plead his case at the court of claims.
In 1662 he began to feel that he had the power to cure people of scrofula (also known as the ‘king's evil’), a lymphatic form of tuberculosis. 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 Salterbridge in the parish of 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 to healing and used his stables, barns, and malthouse 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 license to practise medicine. Greatrakes felt that charity and compassion did not (regardless of the church's ruling) require formal licensing, and he continued with his work, aided by friends and allies including Phaire (who he successfully treated in May 1665) and Orrery (who witnessed many ‘miracles’ at Charleville castle).
His fame spread further afield and he was asked by Viscount Conway (qv) to heal his wife, who suffered from severe headaches. In January 1666 he travelled to Ragley Hall in Warwickshire. He was unable to ease Lady Conway's pain but during the three or four weeks that he stayed there he is said to have healed about forty people in the neighbourhood. He was well received in the city of Worcester and was given a civic reception. 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 the extremities before being completely dispelled. He saw himself as a peculiar instrument of God, and prayer formed an important part of the treatment. He did not take any payment for his services, except travelling expenses from Lord Conway for his journey to England. Later in 1666 he was ordered by Lord Arlington to have an audience with the king. Greatrakes did not perform very well in the presence of Charles II but he did rather better at his lodgings in Lincoln's Inns Fields. Edmund Berry Godfrey, the prominent London officeholder and merchant, was captivated by Greatrakes during this time and kept 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 (qv), the eminent natural philosopher and scientist. Appended to the account were fifty-three testimonials from respected citizens who described how they had been cured by him. He made a second journey to England in 1668.
After his London experience he appears to have been disillusioned by the adverse publicity and decided to spend the rest of his life in obscurity, farming his estate in Affane. It is likely that he was also involved in barrel-making and the other allied trades connected to the ironworks along the River Blackwater. Little is known of the last two decades of his life. It would seem that he avoided public attention and confined his healing practice to the sick people that 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. He died 28 November 1683 at Affane.
He married first Ruth (daughter of Sir William Godolphin), who in 1668/9 inherited part of the estate of her brother Sir William Godolphin. They had two sons, William and Edmund, and one daughter, Mary. He married secondly Alice (née Tilson, and widow of Rotherham, esq.); neither marriage can be dated. His portrait, which shows him healing a boy, was engraved and is reproduced in his autobiography. Matthew Snelling painted a portrait miniature of him c.1665 (reproduced in Caffrey).