The Catholic Historical Review 88.4 (2002) 767-768
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The Holy Blood: King Henry III and the Westminster Blood Relic. By Nicholas Vincent. (New York: Cambridge University Press. 2001. Pp. xiii, 254. $50.00.)
Relics purported to be from the veritable body of Jesus Christ proliferated in Europe in the later Middle Ages. The response to these relics ranged from religious devotion to hysteria, from skepticism to wholesale condemnation. In 1247 King Henry III processed through the streets of London to present a relic of the Holy Blood, a gift from the Patriarch of Jerusalem, to Westminster Abbey. The main source for this event is an account written at the request of the king by the historian Matthew Paris, a monk at St. Alban's. Nicholas Vincent has discovered an important letter in the archives of Westminster Abbey that suggests that the Patriarch of Jerusalem offered the relic to Henry III in an attempt to gain the king's financial support and participation in crusading activities in the Holy Land, a bid that was not successful. Leading from the discovery of this letter, Vincent launched his own investigation of the events of 1247, and set out to answer one question above all others: why was it so difficult for the Westminster relic to find acceptance as a genuine relic of Christ's blood? In his quest Vincent goes well beyond the events of 1247 to provide a history of blood relics prior to 1247 and to recount the arguments of theologians from the twelfth to the fifteenth century who debated whether or not relics from Christ's body could or could not exist.
Vincent examines the great popularity of blood relics given to Hailes Abbey and Ashridge by Henry III's nephew, Edmund of Cornwall, this in contrast to the unsuccessful attempts to encourage veneration of the relic of the Holy Blood at Westminster. Henry III's investment in the abbey church was large. While desiring a religious space in service to and in celebration of the monarchy, Henry actively sought public participation in his vision. Huge sums spent on a new golden shrine to house the relics of St. Edward the Confessor suggest an attempt to establish the cult of a royal saint to rival the Church's own blood martyr, Thomas Becket, at Canterbury, but St. Edward never attracted the numbers of pilgrims that visited St. Thomas. And, as Vincent shows, the addition of a single relic from the body of Christ in 1247, despite the king's elaborate public ceremony, and tempting indulgences offered to pilgrims, did not fire the popular imagination as did the cartload of Passion relics purchased by the charismatic and saintly King Louis IX a few years before. Westminster Abbey remained the domain of kings, and continues today a magnificent setting for the rituals and display of the English monarchy. [End Page 767]
In his epilogue Vincent analyzes the conclusions that can be drawn from his very extensive and thorough research, and acknowledges that he has not found definitive answers to his original question. All the same, his study is well worth the effort. He has taken a "newsworthy" event of 1247 and through careful, scholarly research, set it in a world of information and thoughtful insights.