Sunday, February 17, 2013

Today's research snippet. Empress Matilda and the Hand of St. James

The Empress Matilda and the Hand of St. James.
reliquary case for hand in the V&A

When the Empress Matilda's first husband, Emperor Henry V of Germany died, she returned home to England and Normandy, bringing with her various items that had come into her possessions during her marriage. One such item was a heavy golden crown that was later used at the coronation of Henry II. Another, item (and this was as much misappropriated as appropriated) was the Hand of Saint James. The rest of Saint James was buried at Compostela, a famous pilgrimage shrine then, as it is now.
The hand of St James was believed to belong to James the Apostle who was martyred by King Herod in AD44. The hand first turns up in AD640 and is reported as being stored by the Bishop of Torcello in Venice. In 1072 it became part of the regalia of the Imperial chapel and was then brought to England by the Empress.
Matilda's father Henry I was in the throes of building a magnificent abbey at Reading where he intended to be buried. Part of an abbey's prestige lay in its relics and the Hand of St. James was one that fitted the bill perfectly. It may well have been stored in a magnificent relic chest or a hand reliquary made especially for it; that we don't know, but hand and arm relic cases abound from that period and later.
Henry Bishop of Winchester removed it from the abbey to his own private collection in 1136, but returned it in 1155 (knowing what a collector Henry of Winchester was, I suspect it was reluctantly handed back!).
The Hand seems to have been a very coveted item. Emperor Frederick Barbarossa wrote asking for its return, but Matilda and Henry II turned him down (with effusive politeness) and sent him magnificent gifts along with the refusal, including a costly tent that was so big it had to be raised mechanically. Whether or not Frederick subscribed to the belief that exchange was no robbery, we don't know!
St. James' hand was believed to perform miracle cures and the Abbey sold 'Water of St. James' to pilgrims - presumably that in which the hand had been dunked.
In 1539 at the dissolution of the monasteries, the monks hid the 
hand in an iron chest in the abbey walls. It was dug up again in 1786 by workmen and given to Reading Museum. And then in 1840 was sold to J.Scott Murray, who put it in his private chapel at Danesfield House. On his death in 1882 he gave it to St. Peter's Church in Marlow, which is where it resides today.

The Hand of St James Today

1 comment:

Susan Abernethy said...

That is some story Elizabeth! I didn't know that it still existed. Great pictures!