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Resting-places of English saints

15 February 2012

A valuable resource for church historians and archaeologists, says Nicholas Orme

Shrine beautified: the feretory on the tomb of St Edward the Confessor in Westminster Abbey, given by Queen Mary I in 1557 to replace the one that was destroyed at the Reformation, was restored in the 1950s by Stephen Dykes Bower, an architect who rejected modern­ism, and continued traditions from the late-Victorian period. The picture is from a study of his work published by RIBA Publishing in its Twent­i­eth Century Architects series, Stephen Dykes Bower, by Anthony Symondson (£20 (£18); 978-1

Shrine beautified: the feretory on the tomb of St Edward the Confessor in Westminster Abbey, given by Queen Mary I in 1557 to replace the one that was...

English Medieval Shrines
John Crook
The Boydell Press £39.95
Church Times Bookshop £35.95

SHRINES have recently reappeared in some cathedrals and large churches: Dorchester-on-Thames, Hereford, Oxford, and Salisbury. Largely new, yet carefully using old fragments, they rear themselves in stone and impress the visitor. But they are empty. In 1538, Henry VIII and Cromwell organised the re­moval of shrines and their con­tents with almost complete success.

The veneration of saints devel­oped in the Mediterranean world, especially after the Roman Empire became Christian. Its features were largely in place by the fifth century: the provision of shrines, the coming of pilgrims, translations of bodies to ever more opulent housings, and the dispersal of bones to other churches.

So things remained, and the saints competed for devotion even against the high altar and the wors­hip of Christ, until (in Eng­land’s case) they disappeared at the Reformation.

Dr Crook’s book is a history of such cults: not a traditional kind of social history, but an archaeological study of the saints’ shrines in their physical manifestations. Some saints lay in graves below the ground. Others were raised in feretories or chests on lofty platforms. Yet others occupied an intermediate place in tombs built on the floor with holes through which a pilgrim could touch the saint’s coffin: foramina shrines, as they are known. All kinds of shrines were hon­oured with lights, and festooned with crutches, fetters, and images of body parts in­dicating the aid that pilgrims sought, or thought that they had received.

The author starts by sketching the Mediterranean origins of shrines and tracing their history through Merovingian and Caroling­ian France. After this, he turns to England, and follows the subject chronologically in a series of chap­ters up to the Reformation.

The book is well researched and well presented, but its task is not an easy one. Because the veneration of saints took most of its historic forms very early, it is hard to make a story out of the subject between its beginning and end.

The text, therefore, falls into a series of short studies of particular shrines, and episodes in their his­tory. Saints turn up again and again, as they were rehoused in the course of the Middle Ages. We all know the story of Swithun’s translation from the forecourt of Winchester into the cathedral in 971, with the unhis­torical rainstorms that come from a much later source. But he was moved again in 1093, given a new tomb in the 13th century, and shifted from behind the high altar to the retrochoir in 1476.

The nature of the evidence means that the focus is on cathedrals or great monasteries and their saints: Alban, Edmund, Edward the Con­fessor, Thomas of Canterbury, Thomas Cantilupe. However, a few parish churches gain mention. Pen­nant Melangell in Wales has a re­built shrine, Whitchurch Canonic­orum (Dorset) the remains of another, while Stanton Harcourt (Oxfordshire) has acquired that of a saint of Bicester. One could add others. Urith’s shrine is still at Chit­tle­hampton (Devon), and parts of Merryn’s and Mertherian’s are at St Merryn and Minster (Cornwall).

This is a valuable resource for church historians and archaeolo­gists, with its 53 black-and-white photos of excellent quality, mostly the work of the author. He takes a properly critical view of his subject. Anyone who assumes that we know about the saints through their legends should read the account of Alban, of whom it is not certain when he lived, or where and how he died. It may not even have been in Britain.

Professor Nicholas Orme, a Lay Canon of Truro, has written widely on aspects of English history.

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