Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Hand of St. James

The history of a famous relic.
The relic came to there from the Empress Matilda, daughter of the founder of the abbey, King Henry I. She had been married to the Holy Roman Emperor Henry V and following his death in 1125 Matilda returned to England bringing with her the relic of the hand, which hitherto had been part of the Imperial treasure.

The King had founded the abbey of the Virgin and St John in 1121 with Cluniac monks, and endowed it with a formidable collection of relics. The Empress presented the apostle's hand to Reading where it became the principal one, being that of an apostle, the brother of St John the co-patron and a link with the Cluniac inspired pilgrimage to Santiago. From the relic came the use of the shell as an heraldic symbol by the abbey and town of Reading.

The story of the relic and the unsuccessful attempts of the Emperor Frederick I to regain it from King Henry II are retold by the late Prof. Karl Leyser in a splendid essay reprinted in his Medieval Germany and her neighbours. For an excellent biography of the Empress I would recommend Marjorie Chibnell's 1991 Empress Matilda: Queen Consort, Queen Mother and Lady of the English.

The relic remained at Reading until the destruction of the abbey in 1539. There is more about the abbey on the website of the Friends of Reading Abbey. In 1786 workmen found what appears to be the holy hand in the ruins of the abbey - there is more about that here. The relic is now held at St Peter's Catholic church in Marlow. (Read entire article.)

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