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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