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THE HOLY HAND OF ST JAMES FROM READING ABBEY

A fascinating article  from the Royal Berkshire History site on the preserved hand of St James, which was discovered in 1796 walled up in the ruins of Reading Abbey and now resides in the Catholic Church in Marlow.  Recently,this medieval artefact has undergone scientific analysis with interesting results.

Reading Abbey was a highly important place in the Middle Ages. Not only  was it the burial place of a King  (Henry I–lost and still waiting to be found) and a child of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine (a boy who died of a seizure and was buried at his great grandfather’s feet)  but it contained a great many relics, including bits of the True Cross, Christ’s sandal, Christ’s foreskin (apparently 17 of these existed, ahem), crusts  from the ‘Feeding of the Five Thousand’, head hair from the Virgin Mary, pieces of Mary’s tomb and so on. These appeared to have been shipped in from Constantinople. The abbey became a great draw for pilgrims and it was here Edward IV first publicly presented Elizabeth Woodville as his “wife” and guided her to a chair of estate as Queen of England.

One of the most famous  relics at Reading was the arm of St James, which was probably donated by the Empress Matilda. Having survived both the Reformation and Cromwell, the mummified hand has recently given up some of its secrets…including the fact it cannot have belonged to St James, as the date is wrong. (So here we have a case of bones long thought of as belonging to a certain individual being found by science to be someone else’s, despite centuries of deeply-held belief. Hopefully science will continue to verify such relics where possible. *Cough “Princes in the Tower” Cough.*)

Interestingly,  a preserved hand  was found in the city of Salisbury many years back, within a  medieval house  known as The Haunch of Venison, now currently a pub/restaurant (and supposedly very haunted!). The smoke-dried hand grew many legends, including that the hand was cut from a cheating whist-player in the 1700’s  (there were some old playing cards placed by it at some time) or that it was a ‘Hand of Glory’, a magical talisman used by thieves to put an inn’s tenants to sleep while the thieves robbed them. However, a local  historian surmised it might have in fact been a religious relic hidden during the  reformation; the Haunch had belonged  to the nearby  church of Thomas a Becket, and was used to lodge craftsmen who were building the spire of Salisbury Cathedral. Unfortunately, the hand had a habit of being stolen from the pub, and the last time it was snatched in 2010, it was never returned. A replica lies in its place but any chance of dating and learning more of its past it is now lost…unless it mysteriously returns again!

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preserved hand from Salisbury

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mummified hand of St James

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NEW EXCAVATIONS AT CLARENDON PALACE

Clarendon Palace is a little known historical site. Most  people in Salisbury know it’s there; less can tell you how to reach it. There is no car park; you won’t find tourist coaches. Pull in on the narrow leafy green lane then you must walk, like a Hobbit leaving the Shire, past farms and across a green landscape, eventually ascending a rise where you join a wooded track following the line of an old Roman road. Salisbury Cathedral spire is behind you, a needle in the haze; before you lie the woods, hiding all for a brief time. Then you see the trees part near a thatched cottage– a gaunt grey ruin appears before you in a field that is sometimes home to a pack of friendly llamas.

It is badly ruined; only one substantial wall remains, a stone platform with shallow steps and outlines of chambers in the ground. The steps to the one-time treasury lead into a slumping earthen pit. Bits of the red roof tiles lie scattered over  the site; sometimes you can find one in good condition with the hole for a large medieval nail still intact.

These are the remains of a grand Plantagenet Palace. Henry II  founded it and it was there his struggles with Thomas Becket began,  but it was in the time of his grandson, Henry III, that it began to truly flourish. Henry enlarged and beautified it for his Queen, Eleanor of Provence, adding in a fireplace carved with figures representing the 12 months of the year, gardens, stained glass and a chapel painted with scenes from the life of St Katherine. The pink, golden and grey  tiled floors were a wonder ; some were found in post-war excavations, and are now in the British Museum.

It was at Clarendon Palace in the summer of 1453, that Henry VI first exhibited  his first signs of madness–he became catatonic, slumped down insensible. Chroniclers stated he ‘suddenly was taken and smitten with a frenzy and his wit and reason withdrawn’.

After that, the Palace was seldom in use (although, interestingly, another possible mistress of Edward IV was called ‘Catherine of Claringdon’, which is probably Clarendon), falling into total disrepair after 1485.  Elizabeth I stopped there once  but the chambers were so ruinous by that time she had to find alternative accommodation in a ‘banqueting hall.’

Recently it has been announced that new excavations will be taking place at the Palace, the first in over 30 years, and there are plans to hold a medieval fair in 2020 (it will be interesting to see how they work that one with the parking!) Perhaps there are still treasures to be found and maybe  the Palace will become better known, but I hope in a way it never becomes too popular, for as it stands, in ruined isolation, you can imagine the presence of shades of kings, with the only sounds in the world being the wind in the trees and the birdsong…

 

CLARENDON PALACE NEW EXCAVATIONS

 

Reconstruction of the Palace, and tiles from the chapel.

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