Thursday, August 26, 2010

Roods, Blood and Bodies

As I briefly alluded to in my last post, during the dissolution of the monasteries, the agents of King Henry VIII destroyed pretty much everything in sight. But occasionally the reputation of some of the holiest relics gave them pause, albeit not for long.

At Durham Cathedral, probably in 1541, they pulled Saint Cuthbert out of his fine marble shrine with instructions to destroy the tomb and rebury the saint in a simple grave. But to the surprise of the reformers, the body turned out to be incorrupt. Instead of bones, plenty of skin and sinew still remained. This unnerved the vandals sufficiently that they dumped the body and sent to London for instructions as to what to do. One imagines that in the several weeks that Cuthbert’s body was left lying around, it quickly corrupted. Problem solved. In any case, word came to bury it as planned and this is what was done. Or was it?

In the eighteenth century, a legend grew up among English Catholics that during the interim, the newly unemployed monks of Durham switched the sainted body and buried the original in another spot. The secret location of Cuthbert’s body is known today to only three Catholic priests who continue to perform the old observances before it. About the only thing I can think of in favour of this legend is the huge amount of effort that Protestants have gone to in order to debunk it.

Down in Kent, at Boxley Abbey, the reformers took a more direct approach. The abbey contained a famous carved crucifix known as the Rood of Grace (rood being old English for wood) which had long attracted pilgrims. The figure of Jesus attached to the rood allegedly spoke to particular pilgrims and these miracles kept the crowds coming. In 1538, Thomas Cromwell sent Geoffrey Chamber to close down the abbey for him and investigate the rood. Chambers reported back that inside the carving he had found, “certain engines and old wire, with old rotten sticks in the back of the same that did cause the eyes to move and stare; and also the nether lip to move as though to speak.”

The monks and abbot denied all knowledge of these contrivances and judging by the description, they had not been used for many years in any case. Chambers took the rood to Maidstone where he exposed the fraud to the people and it was eventually burnt in London. But again, Catholic legend reports that the real rood was hidden away before Chambers arrived, to be replaced by the fake fraud to put the Protestants off the scent.

Another famous relic was the Blood of Hayles. This specimen of the Holy Blood of Jesus was kept sealed in a glass reliquary. Thomas Cromwell sent no lesser person than Hugh Latimer, Bishop of Worcester and later victim of Bloody Mary, to investigate. He reported that the blood “has a certain unctuous moistness and though it seems like blood in the glass, when any parcel is taken out, it turns yellow and cleaves like glue.” Its final fate is unrecorded.

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9 comments:

Tim O'Neill said...

The abbey contained a famous carved crucifix known as the Rood of Grace (rood being old English for wood)

Being slightly pedantic here, but "rood" is not so much Old/Middle English for "wood" but more like a word for "a length of timber or lumber". It survives in modern English in the word "rod".

Eckadimmock said...

I'm reminded of the Scottish Stone of Scone, upon which Kings of Scots were crowned. It was supposedly brought to England by Edward I in 1296 and not returned to Scotland in 1996. Rumors persist that it is a fake, and the real one is still hidden in Scotland. http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/scotland/article4144587.ece

Anonymous said...

Being even more pedantic here, but "rood" [ro:d] was also used in Old English to mean cross. See dictionary definitions below. Interestingly (?) enough, the meaning "pole" would probably also make it an acceptable translation of the Greek "stauros" for Jehova's witnesses.

ród [] f (-e/-a) 1. a rod, pole; 2. rood (land measure); plot of land of a square rod; 3. a cross, rood (as in Holy-rood), gallows; (1) a cross on which a person is executed; (1a) the cross on which Christ suffered; (2) the cross as a form of punishment, death on a cross; (3) the cross as a Christian symbol; (3a) the cross as representing the ecclesiastical office; 4. crucifix; (1) in a church; (2) out-of-doors; (3) one that could be worn; 5. of cleared land;

ródbígenga [] m (-n/-n) worshipper of the cross, one who worships a cross

ródbora [] m (-n/-n) cross-bearer


ródehengen [] f (-ne/-na) hanging, crucifixion; a cross, crucifixion


ródetácen [] n (-tácnes/-) sign of the cross; crucifix

ródewyrðe [] adj deserving hanging

ródstybb [] m (-es/-as) a stump left in the clearing

ródweorðiend [] m (-es/-) cross-worshipper

Michael Fugate said...

I am not sure how much of Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall is fiction, but one relic discussed there was a vial of Mary's breast milk at Canterbury. At least I think it was Canterbury.

I wonder how many churches claimed to have pieces of the cross?

Protestant Refromer said...

Read Calvin's Treatise on Relics (1543),available on line. All the more amazing that the Catholic church fully re- affirmed all aspects of the cults in the sixteenth century.

Ignorance said...

I think most people here are already aware that John Calvin was not fond of relics.

You might want to read up on ecumenism, by the way, it seems you missed that bus.

Protestant Reformer. said...

Still, the Treatise on Relics is a marvellous read if anyone here has NOT read it.
Ecumenism is essentially a twentieth/twentieth first century movement: the subject of this post is the sixteenth century.

Ignorance said...

I'll keep your recommendation in mind.

The reason I brought ecumenism up is that I thought your comment bordered on being obnoxious for some Catholics, even though I'm not one myself.

Roger Pearse said...

As a protestant, what strikes me more forcibly is how close to atheism Cromwell and his men were. Just imagine the psychology of someone who can go around wrecking all this stuff. Is it all that possible to argue that all this was done for honest motives, rather than greed, hate (for men hate whom they have injured) and spite?

Possibly it is; I don't know enough about the reformers of the period. But ... you can't help wondering about the state of mind of those involved. They more or less have to be rogues.

I'm reminded of the story in Aubrey's "Brief lives" of the Earl of Pembroke, who bought Wilton Abbey. When Bloody Mary came in, the nuns returned, and the earl went on his knees to the abbess crying, "peccavi". When she died and Elizabeth became queen he rode up to the abbey shouting "get out you whores, go spin, go spin" or something like that.