Tag Archives: relics

9 July: Thomas Becket and Hereford

640px-Hereford_Cathedral_Exterior_from_NW,_Herefordshire,_UK_-_Diliff.jpg (640×397)
Hereford Cathedral by Diliffe

Hereford is on the other side of England to Canterbury, near the Welsh border. The city has its own Saint Thomas, Bishop Thomas Cantilupe, who lived a century after Becket. Last year was the 700th anniversary of his canonisation, as well as the 850th anniversary of Becket’s murder, the 900th anniversary of his birth and 800th anniversary of his translation, as we saw on Wednesday.

This article from Canterbury Cathedral concerns an ancient reliquary of Saint Thomas Becket belonging to Hereford which was rescued by a Catholic family at the Reformation and eventually restored to its proper home in the Anglican Cathedral.

Herefordshire was the mission served for 50 years by the Catholic Reformation Martyr, John Kemble, who worked for many years unmolested, until he was wrongfully accused of involvement in a papist plot to kill King Charles II. He was hanged in 1679. Thank God that today we can celebrate together our saints and martyrs, whatever branch of Christianity they may have sprung from.

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Becket Exhibition in Canterbury

  • Saint Thomas Becket – World Celebrity Healer

Saint Thomas Becket – World Celebrity Healer

Thomas Becket was the focus of pilgrimage to Canterbury from his death in 1170 to the destruction of his shrine in 1538. This exhibition at the city’s Beaney Museum is only running to 4 July, so it might be as well to try and book now, though you can take a chance and turn up and hope for a slot.

Sat 29th May 2021 to Sun 4th July 2021

A major exhibition in the context of Becket’s story, Canterbury pilgrimage and health & wellbeing. 2020 marked the 900th anniversary of Thomas Becket’s birth, 850th of his death, and 800th of moving Becket’s relics to a new tomb and chapel in Canterbury Cathedral.

Miracles after Becket’s murder, recorded in stained glass, led to Europe-wide spread of relics and images, making Becket a world ‘celebrity’. As well as presenting this story, displays will explore Becket’s fame as a symbol of conflict between Church and state, conscience and duty.

Photographs, designs and cartoons will feature portrayals in theatre and film from Henry Irving to Richard Burton, and writers including Tennyson and Eliot creating Becket’s enduring legacy as a rebel.

The exhibition will be part of a programme of events developed by partners from across the UK and a platform to commemorate the remarkable life and death of Thomas Becket.

The exhibition showcases loans from The British Museum, The Arts Council Collection, University of Kent , Canterbury Cathedral and Canterbury Museums & Gallery.

(Closed Mondays).

Location: Special Exhibitions Gallery, The Beaney

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20 March: Saint Cuthbert (Relics XXX)





Today Hexham and Newcastle diocese in Northern England celebrate the feast of their patron, Saint Cuthbert, Bishop of Lindisfarne in Northumberland.

Here is a fascinating BBC In Our Time podcast in which three scholars discuss the saint’s life, work and influence with Melvin Bragg.

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10 December, Relics XXIX: Our Lady of Loreto

I wonder about this feast. This site is more than respectful of relics but angels carrying a house from Palestine to Italy? That does not move me to prayer.

Even, dare I say it, the chapel of the Portiuncula, where Saint Francis died, seemed lost in the basilica erected over and around it, and did not call me to my knees. Maybe I’d never make a Franciscan, and this site is more than respectful of Franciscans. And of Saint Francis.

It’s not just saints’ places that we value, and not just Christians that troop around palaces, or Gilbert White’s rectory, or the home of a teenaged Beatle to be, or even Dylan Thomas’s writing place overlooking the Estuary in Laugharne, as shown below. We may not touch the exhibits or sit on the chair but we breathe in the air, sort of.

I doubt the authenticity of the site at the top of this blog, the reputed house of the Visitation, where Elizabeth welcomed Mary, who had come to be a home-help for her pregnant cousin. But the shrine is a reminder that this story is about two flesh and blood women and their flesh and blood sons. The statues show them about to burst into song and dance, which they surely did: Luke 1: 39-56 is almost all poetry and song.

So today, let’s celebrate two real women who lived in real houses and raised real families. And may we heed Elizabeth’s son’s call to prepare the way for Mary’s son, however strange a Christmas we might be expecting.

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27 November. Review: The Book in the Cathedral

The Book in the Cathedral: Christopher De Hamel

Those who have read Christopher de Hamel’s Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts’ will attest that he is a delightful and informative guide to mediaeval thought and culture. This little book was produced for the postponed anniversary celebrations – Thomas was born in 1120, murdered in 1170, his remains translated into a new shrive in 1220. It is not a potboiler however, but a work of scholarly detection and a good read. It would be a perfect stocking-filler for anyone with more than a passing interest in Becket or Canterbury or mediæval art.

De Hamel loves manuscripts and tracking and tracing those who produced and owned them, with all their personal foibles, not to mention the scholars who study and care for them today. He brings a story teller’s art to an historical detective mystery, which includes two sainted martyrs and other archbishops of Canterbury, artists and scholars in Anglo-Saxon England and mediæval France – the Æ symbol is one of the clues – but I’ll spare the spoilers, except to pose the question, why is Thomas shown so often with book in hand, when he was not a writer like Dunstan or Anselm?

Not all will be revealed; Becket remains an enigma, was he a holy man, was he a scholar? Much of what remains of his library is in Cambridge, including manuscripts that de Hamel cared for. Of one he says, ‘I suspect that I handled it more often than Becket did. I used to show it to classes of students sometimes, and remarkably often one would furtively reach out a finger to touch the edge of a page, evidence that a sense of momentary encounter with Thomas Becket still carries a secret thrill.’ (p17) Yet for the mediæval monks, books were books, whosoever had owned them; they were not so personal as a lock of hair of a scrap of clothing. (My ‘reach out a finger’ moment came on a Cathedral Open Evening. Two ladies had a dish filled with sweepings of iron from the floor of a Saxon smithy in the precincts. From the time of Saint Dunstan, metal worker and one of the greatest of our Archbishops. Could it be metal he had worked? But that’s another tale.)

This little book should be bought in a touchable form, not an e-book. It is well presented, cloth-bound in martyr’s red, witness to the fascination of history. And it is eminently readable. You must know someone who would enjoy it!

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15 November, Relics XXIV: The Nightingale of Ceiriog.

Saint Silin’s church

in October 1854 George Borrow is walking through Wales, and has reached the village of Llansilin, where the bard Eos Ceiriog, the Nightingale of Ceiriog (Huw Morris) lived and is buried.

Having discussed my ale, I asked the landlord if he would show me the grave of Huw Morris.  “With pleasure, sir,” said he; “pray follow me.”  He led me to the churchyard, in which several enormous yew trees were standing, probably of an antiquity which reached as far back as the days of Henry the Eighth, when the yew bow was still the favourite weapon of the men of Britain. 

The innkeeper led me directly up to the southern wall, then pointing to a broad discoloured slab, which lay on the ground just outside the wall, he said: “Underneath this stone lies Huw Morris, sir.” 

Forthwith taking off my hat, I went down on my knees and kissed the cold slab covering the cold remains of the mighty Huw, and then, still on my knees, proceeded to examine it attentively.  It is covered over with letters three parts defaced.  All I could make out of the inscription was the date of the poet’s death, 1709.  “A great genius, a very great genius, sir,” said the innkeeper, after I had got on my feet and put on my hat. “He was indeed,” said I; “are you acquainted with his poetry?” “O yes,” said the innkeeper,” from Wild Wales by George Borrow.

If anyone had dared suggest to George Borrow that this respect for a poet’s grave was on a par with Papist superstition, Borrow would have been mighty vexed. He held that Catholics put ‘their hope of salvation on outward forms and superstitious observances’*, and no doubt would have included venerating saints’ relics as one of those observances. He himself went out of his way to visit Llansilin, for the sake of a poet.

*The Bible in Spain.

Photograph by Plucas58 via Wikipedia. Free to use.

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9 November, Relics XXV: Borrow’s blind spot

Strata Florida as seen a few years before Borrow’s visit.

George Borrow on his mid-19th Century tour of Wales has reached Strata Florida Abbey, where the grave of the mediaeval bard Daffyd Ap Gwilym, is thought to lie.

Who knows, said I, but this is the tree that was planted over Ab Gwilym’s grave, and to which Gruffyd Gryg wrote an ode?  I looked at it attentively, and … relying on the possibility of its being the sacred tree, I behaved just as I should have done had I been quite certain of the fact: Taking off my hat I knelt down and kissed its root, repeating lines from Gruffydd Gryg, with which I blended some of my own in order to accommodate what I said to circumstances:

“O tree of yew, which here I spy,
By Ystrad Flur’s blest monast’ry,
Beneath thee lies, by cold Death bound,
The tongue for sweetness once renown’d.
Better for thee thy boughs to wave,
Though scath’d, above Ab Gwilym’s grave,
Than stand in pristine glory drest
Where some ignobler bard doth rest.”

A man came up attended by a large dog.  “Good evening,” said I to him in Welsh. “Good evening, gentleman,” said he in the same language. “Are you the farmer?” “Yes!  I farm the greater part of the Strath.” “I suppose the land is very good here?” “Why do you suppose so?” “Because the monks built their house here in the old time, and the monks never built their houses except on good land.” “Well, I must say the land is good; indeed I do not think there is any so good in Shire Aberteifi.” “Do many people come to see the monastery?” Farmer.—Yes! many gentlefolk come to see it in the summer time. Myself.—It is a poor place now. Farmer.—Very poor, I wonder any gentlefolks come to look at it. Myself.—It was a wonderful place once; you merely see the ruins of it now.  It was pulled down at the Reformation. Farmer.—Why was it pulled down then? Myself.—Because it was a house of idolatry to which people used to resort by hundreds to worship images, down on their knees before stocks and stones, worshipping them, kissing them and repeating pennillion to them. Farmer.—What fools!  How thankful I am that I live in wiser days.  If such things were going on in the old Monachlog it was high time to pull it down. Myself.—What kind of a rent do you pay for your land? Farmer.—O, rather a stiffish one. Myself.—Two pound an acre? Farmer.—Two pound an acre!  I wish I paid no more. Myself.—Well!  I think that would be quite enough.  In the time of the old monastery you might have had the land at two shillings an acre. Farmer.—Might I?  Then those couldn’t have been such bad times, after all. Myself.—I beg your pardon!  They were horrible times—times in which there were monks and friars and graven images, which people kissed and worshipped and sang pennillion to.  Better pay three pounds an acre and live on crusts and water in the present enlightened days than pay two shillings an acre and sit down to beef and ale three times a day in the old superstitious times. Farmer.—Well, I scarcely know what to say to that.”

From Wild Wales

Image in public domain via Wkipedia.

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7 October, Little Flowers LXXIX: Dens in the Woods 3.

Devils in Canterbury Cathedral! Merely migrating to the mountain did not cut the brothers off from all cares and temptations. Francis here meets Brother Leo’s need for a physical token of God’s grace and Francis’s esteem and love for him. No telling him not to be silly or superstitious! Who does not have one or two personal relics like this? Grandfather’s spade, grandmother’s bedside table; a cup, a picture …

Brother Leo being assailed by the devil with a grievous temptation, not of the flesh but of the spirit, there came to him a great desire to have some devout sentence written by the hand of Saint Francis, for he thought that if he had it, that temptation would leave him, or wholly, or in part. Having this desire, yet for shame and reverence sake he dared not tell it to Saint Francis: but what Brother Leo told him not, that did the Holy Spirit reveal. Wherefore Saint Francis called him unto him, and made him bring ink-pot and pen and paper; and with his own hand wrote the praises of Christ, even as the brother had desired; and at the end he made the sign Tau, and gave it to him, saying, “Take this paper, dear brother, and keep it diligently until thy death. May God bless thee and guard thee against all temptation. Be not downcast, because thou hast temptations ; for at such time I deem thee a friend and a better servant of God, and the more thou art assailed by temptations, the more do I love thee, Verily I say unto thee that no man should deem himself a true friend of God, save in so far as he hath passed through many temptations and tribulations.”

When Brother Leo took this writing with great devotion and faith, straightway all his temptation left him and returning to his own place, he told his companions, with great joy, what grace God had shown unto him when he took the writing from Saint Francis; and putting it aside and taking diligent care thereof, the brothers afterwards worked many miracles by its means. And from that hour forth, the said Brother Leo with great purity and with good intention began to keep watch upon and to observe the life of Saint Francis : and for his purity’s sake, he merited to see Saint Francis full many and many a time rapt in God and uplifted from the earth.

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28 September, Relics XXVIII: Treasures of Saint David’s.

One part of St David’s Cathedral did not feature in our armchair pilgrimage – the Treasury. Strange, that, since we do like things that help tell the Story of Creation and Salvation, but thanks to Crispin Paine who visited for Religion & Collections, we can put that right now.

Dr Paine pays this compliment: the Treasury is a selection of things chosen to tell the story. Click here to read his post.

What story do your treasures tell? This cushion is not in the Treasury, but like so many of St David’s treasures is just doing its job in the Cathedral. But it invites us to sit and be comfortable in God’s presence and reminds us of the heavenly Jerusalem to which we are bound, a country as lovely as Wales but with better weather for camping! Can someone identify the tune, perhaps?

A note about the Charter mentioned by Dr Paine: ‘the City status of St Davids, while having ecclesiastical roots going back for centuries, was granted to all of St Davids by HM the Queen by Royal Charter on 1st June 1995’, according to the City Council. This charter put things to rights after it was discovered that there was no record of a city charter ever being granted. Rochester in Kent, however, lost its city status in 1998, when the city council was merged with Gillingham, and does not look like getting it back any time soon. Yet Rochester was the second English city, founded by St Justus in 604.

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27 September: Relics or souvenirs?

I shared these Welsh biscuits (Aberffraw biscuits) with my workmate after returning from Wales. They were traditionally baked in the shape of scallop shells as fare for pilgrims who would take ship at Aberffraw in Anglesey. A local bakery has revived the ancient recipe, adding lemon in this variety. (I did some research and found that St David could have tasted lemons as they had reached Rome in his time!)

There are many resonances to sharing a pilgrim’s biscuit. Both participate in a shared meal, a sort of bread broken between us. There is the journey and the return: like the twelve sent out by Jesus, I came home rejoicing, despite not having leant on him as they did (see Sister Johanna’s post on this topic in Luke’s gospel).

However, my family needed no second invitation when in Wales to obey one command of the Lord, and neither did my workmate in Canterbury:

And into what city soever you enter, and they receive you, eat such things as are set before you. Luke 10:8.

Including pilgrim’s biscuits, which did not last long enough to become relics!

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