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Relics & Pilgrimage
Big Business in Medieval Berkshire

Worshipping St. James' Hand at Reading Abbey -  Nash Ford Publishing
  • When holy men or women died, people thought that touching their grave, their dead body or their possessions would cure them of all sorts of diseases and afflictions. Some Christians still believe this.
  • The church where they were buried could apply to the Pope to have them made into a saint.
  • A saints' bones and belongings they once owned were called 'relics'. They were usually each kept in a beautiful casket of gold or silver called a 'reliquary'. This might be shaped like the relevant part of the body: a foot, an arm or a head!
  • Most of the abbeys in Berkshire had big relic collections. Parish churches might also have a single small relic: like at Sonning or Stanford-in-the-Vale. Bridge Chapels usually had relics too: like at Caversham or Maidenhead.
  • Reliquaries containing major relics or whole bodies were placed on an elaborate & brightly painted stone monument called a 'shrine'.
  • This had holes or niches into which people could climb to get as near as possible to the saint's body.
  • There were several important shrines in Berkshire: St. Vincent at Abingdon Abbey, St. James' Hand at Reading Abbey and King Henry VI & John Schorne at St. George's Chapel in Windsor Castle. Though the last two were not officially saints.
  • Individual bones were often swapped with other churches. There was a great trade in buying and selling relics. Many of them were probably fakes.
  • Churches with relics or shrines were visited by lots of people hoping for cures. They are called 'pilgrims'.
  • The visit is called a 'pilgrimage'. Pilgrims often travelled hundreds of miles on foot to visit shrines. They would stay at the abbey's hospitium when they arrived.
  • In return, Pilgrims gave money to the monks or bishop who looked after shrines. They became very rich.
  • The Pilgrims took away 'pilgrim's badges' made of pewter as souvenirs.
  • Pilgrims visited other places associated with saints too: like the chapel in Abingdon built on the site of St. Edmund's birthplace or 'Churn Knob' where St. Birinus preached.
  • Holy wells were also popular: like at Caversham, Finchampstead, Frilsham, Speen & Sunningwell.


    Nash Ford Publishing 2004. All Rights Reserved.