Reprinted from Newsletter 124, dated 2007 November

The relics of Abbot Whiting

Adrian Pearse

Richard Whiting, as Abbot of Glastonbury 1525–1539, was one of the great magnates of the land, with a seat in the House of Lords, palatial residences, and a retinue of at least 100 when travelling. With his execution on 15 November 1539 came the dispersal not only of his remains but also of his numerous personal possessions.

Dr Tim Hopkinson-Ball explained to the Antiquarian Society and visitors on October 5 the background to the Roman Catholic cult of relics. They are classified into three groups. Primary relics are the physical remains of a saint; secondary relics are clothing and personal possessions; and tertiary relics are items that were in contact with the saint. Relics are normally sealed in a tamper-proof reliquary, ideally with documentary authentication, though many depend on tradition alone.

In black and white, a pocketwatch and a ring sit on a table. The pocketwatch is open, and has a strectched-octagonal profile. The ring has a large stone of some kind, which looks to have a slot in it.

The watch and ring, now lost, said to have been Richard Whiting’s. The watch was made a century too late.

Various secondary relics associated with Richard Whiting have existed, though in most cases there is no real connection.The well known chair in the Bishop’s Palace at Wells could have come from Glastonbury, but the pall in St John’s Church has nothing to do with him. Another chair at Kings Weston has the initials “RW” incorporated in the panelling, probably merely a coincidence. There is no way to confirm that a spoon at Stonyhurst belonged to Whiting, similarly a pewter plate. A pottery dish formerly at Taunton is now lost, as is the watch attributed to him, which was in fact made in the 1630s.

Genuine relics include a small repayment slip for £10 in the Somerset Record Office, and part of Whiting’s bed from the Abbot’s Lodgings, which during the 19th century was at Chilton Priory as part of the Stradling collection, and subsequently at Aston Hall Museum at Birmingham; it cannot now be traced.

Primary relics of Whiting soon became significant, as by the 1580s he was venerated in Rome, and interest grew in the 19th century; he was beatified in 1895. Although the elderly Abbot’s body had been dismembered on execution — his head was placed over the Abbey gate and quarters displayed at Wells, Bath, Ilchester and Bridgwater — bones from a grave discovered in the retroquire of the Abbey ruins during the excavations begun in 1908 by the architect Frederick Bligh Bond were “revealed” by “automatic writing” to be those of the martyred Abbot, collected and deposited there by the faithful.

A clean-shaven man wearing a light-coloured robe and skull cap looks at the camera. Some dark hair is visible under the cap. He wears a necklace with a large cross hanging from it.

Abbot Aelred Carlyle of Prinknash in the 1920 received bones said to be Whiting’s.

Bond did not mention the find in his official excavation report, though a contemporary plan shows the location of the discovery. He sought the opinion of a surgeon, who considered that the degree of damage to the bones was consistent with the process of quartering. He presented most of the bones with an affidavit concerning their discovery in 1910 to Dom Aelred Carlyle, the Anglican Abbot of Caldey; in 1928 they were moved to Prinknash Abbey, where in the 1990s they were stored in a chocolate box (bizarrely, the brand was Black Magic).

Unfortunately the context of the original discovery has been destroyed, and the remains of the “coffin” containing them lost, and detailed forensic examination has not been permitted. It is almost certain that the bones are not genuine, Dr Hopkinson-Ball said.