A New Years story – Christmas 2008
I’m pretty sure most ‘Year End Reviews’ are uninteresting rubbish, just convenient space-fillers for publications with minimal staffing between Christmas and the New Year. So I won’t do one.
I will instead introduce you to a mystery – The Mystery of the Missing Reliquary.
Once upon a time, some 1300 years ago, the Bishop of York was found to have miraculous powers of healing. He restored the hearing of a man who was deaf: he recovered the sight of a blind man and he brought back to life a servant who had been killed in a riding accident.
This holy man’s fame spread so much that, after he’d retired from public life to a monastery, distressed people travelled many miles for the chance of a miracle cure from him.
This went on even after the bishop died. People visited his tomb to pray and his fame grew over the years. Even the first Saxon king of all England, who lived down South, prayed to Bishop John.
Athelstan believed it was the protection of Bishop John that saved his kingdom and he rewarded the monks in Beverley who looked after his tomb by paying for a brand new Minster. He also freed all men of Beverley from the duty to pay taxes, and that’s not a fairy tale. It was true but, sadly, that law no longer applies.
So many miracles were attributed to Bishop John that he became patron saint of the deaf and dumb in 1037. The tomb of St John of Beverley then became the second most important memorial in the north of England, beaten only by St Cuthbert in Durham.
Now, one thousand years ago, when you had something as valuable as a major saint’s body in your church you didn’t hide it under a bushel or anything else – you advertised it. You glorified it, you presented it in the finest setting possible.
If this meant investing in an ever-more splendid building to house it, that’s what you did – which is why Beverley Minster is so huge and magnificent. If it meant building the most ornate structure to house his body (a reliquary) in marble, precious jewels and valuable gold plating then that’s what you did.
The pilgrims were visiting in the hope of the greatest religious show of their lives and you were there to give it to them.
And so Beverley Minster grew richer and more glorious, with the spin off that Beverley itself became richer even than York until, one day, a certain king of England, Henry VIIIth to be precise, decided the church didn’t need its riches as much as he did.
Henry also introduced a new type of religion that didn’t believe in holy, miraculous bones. Henceforth St John of Beverley’s body was just the same as that of everyone else and so it didn’t need a glorious tomb any more. Henry ordered that all the gold and precious stones in the reliquaries around England should be transferred to his own Treasury.
And so St John’s bones were put into a casket where they rest to this day while the glorious reliquary was dismantled, and its valuable materials carefully recorded, ready for shipment. And then it just vanished.
With all the wealth being confiscated by the king there was a huge bureaucracy to keep accurate track of it all but there is no record of Beverley Minster’s treasure arriving at the Tower of London. It just disappears into history.
Maybe it was grabbed by thieves, although there are no reports from the time of what would have been a nationally significant robbery. Maybe it was captured by furtive Catholics who wanted to preserve the old religion and, to this day, still pray at the tomb. Maybe it was acquired by a Yorkshire farmer who thought it would make a nice fireplace in the corner.
Perhaps it was taken by surviving Knights Templar who knew it contained ancient documents proving that Jesus’ mother and daughter-in-law came to live in Beverley – hence the venerable Beverley street name “Hengate” from the affectionate Yorkshire name for Mary, ‘Hen’; and ‘gate’ – a corruption of the word ‘great’ – which obviously refers to Jesus, or his sister or wife or something.
Oh, don’t scoff, there’s as much meat to this mystery as there is to the Da Vinci Code so just go with it, alright? It might be the basis for a blockbuster film one day and, frankly, that would provide a welcome boost to our visitor numbers.
Failing that, perhaps whoever’s got St John’s reliquary would like to give it back – we could use the money. There’s a nasty budget deficit looming next year and I want a pay rise.