Bring me the leg of St John of Beverley
Neil Pickford investigates foreigners
If I was going abroad for a holiday this year (which I’m not) then I’d be very tempted by the attractions of Brittany, our neighbour south of the English Channel. “It’s got beaches, coastal walks, rocky shoreline and small fishing harbours; but beyond this the region has an impressive collection of sites that are worth a visit, for their historic or cultural value, or just because they are really worth seeing” (according to the tourist guides) – and it’s also got a bit of our beloved St John of Beverley.
That’s right; this would not be a simple holiday. No, it would be more of a quest, No, even more than that; it might be essential research to aid my job as a virger at Beverley Minster. Well, I’ll try and present it like that, anyway and perhaps someone will sponsor me because why else would I want to follow the trail of some bones from St John of Beverley, which were removed from the rest of him more than one thousand years ago?
Well, the reason is that I finally did some research the other day about a story that’s been teasing my interest for a while – and now I’m in a position to share my knowledge. I realise it may not be the most gripping subject in the world for some of you but please stick with me – you may find yourself unexpectedly entertained. And if not, well, what else were you planning to do over the next few minutes anyway?
Anyway, during my world-famous roof tours I have occasionally recounted the tale (passed on to me by a fellow scholar) that some of the remains of St John were no longer housed in a Saxon vault within the Minster but had been transported across the English Channel by devout French pilgrims.
“You what?” people would exclaim in disbelief and I could then explain in a lofty and learned way that the transfer of relics was big business in the good old days and that, St John of Beverley being the Premiership-level saint that he was, it wasn’t surprising that after 1066 our new Norman conquerors would send some bits of him back to the folks at home, to show how well they were doing in suppressing their new kingdom. “Hey, look mum, we’ve got the remains of a real Grade A saint – more than we know what to do with – so here’s a bit for you. Have good miracles with it, won’t you.”
But then I thought I’d better double-check to see if my glib chat was accurate and, I’m afraid, I may have been out by a hundred years or more – and have understated the importance of St John at the same time.
I owe my new understanding to a book published in 2006 by Susan E. Wilson entitled: “The Life and After-Life of St John of Beverley.” This introduced me to the fact that there is a commune in France (roughly equivalent to a British Parish) named ‘Saint-Jean-Brevelay” and it is here where they apparently have a few bits from the skeleton of the founder of our town.
No one is quite sure when the commune adopted its present name, or when the bits of bone arrived, but one plausible theory is that they were sent across by King Athelstan around 930AD, which would show how important St John of Beverley already was long before the Normans invaded us. Apparently, some of the bones can still be seen behind a glass panel in the chest cavity of a wooden statue of a bishop within the Catholic church there. Wow!
Strangely enough, I’ve not found these attractions listed in any tourist guides that I’ve read so far. Odd that.