Faithful host: Reliquary statue for the umbilical cord of Christ (Trustees of the British Museum)
In 1539 the future Protestant martyr, Hugh Latimer, arrived at Hailes Abbey in Gloucestershire with instructions from Thomas Cromwell. He was to investigate the alleged vial of Christ's blood that attracted pilgrims in their thousands. Latimer duly cracked open the rock crystal container and poked at its contents. "It has a certain unctuous moistness," he reported to his master, but when exposed to air "it turns yellow and cleaves like glue." Protestant propaganda had already claimed that the vial was regularly topped up with blood from a duck. Latimer's investigation put paid to this particular theory, but the relic was nonetheless denounced as a fraud. The abbot voluntarily withdrew the Holy Blood from sight. Not that this saved his abbey, which was dissolved with all of England's other monasteries shortly thereafter.
The Holy Blood is long gone from Hailes but today a sample is still attracting pilgrims to the Heilig-Bloedbasiliek in Bruges. The burghers of the city parade the relic through the streets every Ascension Day to celebrate their deliverance from French occupation in 1302. There are plenty of other blood relics, although not all examples have enjoyed equal reverence. Henry III obtained some precious drops from Jerusalem and presented them to Westminster Abbey in 1347. But despite its royal patronage, this relic's cult never caught on and when it disappeared during the Reformation, few cared.
The Protestant iconoclasm during the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI and Elizabeth I destroyed a substantial proportion of England's medieval inheritance. So the objects on display at the British Museum's summer show Treasures of Heaven appear alien to English sensibilities. Nonetheless, we should not forget that this was once our culture too.
Henry VIII began his reign as a devotee of traditional Catholic piety, even visiting the shrine of the Virgin at Walsingham Abbey in Norfolk. Although he never embraced Protestantism, Henry would later support the suppression of the relic cults and the monasteries that housed many of them. In 1541, the king ordered that all saints' shrines should be destroyed. Their bodies were no longer to be venerated and instead buried in common graves. Soon afterwards, the remains of St Cuthbert at Durham Cathedral were extracted from their beautiful shrine.
Finding the body incorrupt 900 years after the saint had died, the king's agents hesitated. They dumped the corpse in the cloister and sent to London for instructions. Word came back that the shrine should be levelled and the saint reburied under the floor of the cathedral in the same spot. By this time, the saint had been exposed to the elements for a few weeks and was incorrupt no longer. The bones were buried as instructed and St Cuthbert remains in his new grave to this day.
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