Reprinted from Newsletter 128, dated 2009 April

Two unknown Glastonbury relics

Adrian Pearse

A talk by Tim Hopkinson-Ball

Tim Hopkinson-Ball recently investigated the location of relics claimed to have been taken from Glastonbury Abbey and their survival through centuries of vicissitudes to within four decades of the present time, when they vanished without trace. He told the Antiquarian Society on October 3 of his researches.

First, a disappearance: After the Abbey’s dissolution, the relics were located in the side chapel of the Roman Catholic church of St Cecilia and St Anselm at Lincoln’s Inn Fields in London. A Franciscan chapel was established here in 1687, but sacked and burnt the following year. In the early 18th century it became the chapel attached to the Sardinian Embassy, and was again ransacked and burnt in the Gordon Riots. It was sold in 1798 to the Roman Catholic Bishop Douglas and restored.

The supposed Glastonbury relics were within the high altar. When it was opened in 1902 they were found to consist of a small (either portable or a fragment) altar stone and 14 relics of saints with a 17th-century vellum document giving details of their origin and reproducing the IESVS MARIA carved inscription on the Lady Chapel at Glastonbury. In 1908 the relics were moved to the altar in the side chapel and survived the bombing of the church in 1940. They were last recorded there in 1967, but have since vanished.

The document was published in 1917 and appears genuine; a photograph of the relics appeared in a contemporary parish magazine, but no copy can now be found. This intriguing tale shows that sacred objects could have survived the Dissolution.

And then an appearance: Having a spare moment in the British Library, Dr Hopkinson-Ball ordered an old guidebook to the Roman Catholic church at Ely Place, also in London. It dates to the 13th century, when it was a chapel to the bishops of Ely.

In 1874 St Ethelreda’s chapel was reconsecrated, and in 1876 the Dominicans of Stone, Staffordshire, donated part of their relic known as the “Hand of Ethelberta” — a genuine female left hand then perfectly preserved, which they had acquired from the daughter of a land agent of the Duke of Norfolk, to whom it had originally been given. This fragment had been sealed in a small heart-shaped receptacle, which was inserted in a corresponding aperture cut through the palm of a rather crudely cast mediaeval bronze or latten hand, of actual size, and plated with silver at this period.

The guidebook stated that the cast hand had been dug up “near Glastonbury”. It is now housed in a wooden reliquary in the church. On inspection it is indeed from the 14th or 15th century. The wrist forms a socket, retaining a rivet, so was originally attached to a larger figure or pole. But as there is no parallel for this object, and its history is lost, the original purpose must remain speculative. Furthermore, no record of its discovery survives at Glastonbury.

Tim Hopkinson-Ball clearly has a talent for discovering the most obscure of Glastonbury curiosities. Perhaps he may even track down the long-lost Arthurian lead cross and the brass tablet from the monks’ cemetery!