King Henry III was very mysterious. An order he sent out instructed his nobles to assemble at Westminster Abbey on this day October 13, 1247. All the king would say was that he had "most agreeable news of a holy benefit recently conferred upon the English."
The whole nation knew that Henry was strongly attached to the memory of Edward the Confessor. He had rebuilt Westminster abbey in his honor and asked the pope to include Edward in the calendar of saints. He had even named his own first son after Edward. Going beyond that, he issued instructions for his own body to be buried at the abbey.
Curiosity drew many to the abbey (including the historian Matthew Paris). What was this holy benefit going to be? Religious hopes drew others. Henry had permission from the pope for the monks of Westminster to give the pope's own blessings during certain prayers.
The big day came. Henry announced to the cheering crowd that he had a most precious relic. Its arrival in England had been kept top secret. It was a vial of precious drops of Christ's blood. Bishops in the Holy Land affirmed its authenticity, and there were seals of the Knights Templars, the Knights Hospitallers and the Patriarch of Jerusalem to back it up.
Christians believe that it is by the precious blood of Christ we are ransomed from sin and cleansed from evil. To the Medieval imagination, a vial of Christ's blood was a remarkable relic, holding immense power. In some places such vials became the focus of pilgrimages.
Under a canopy supported on spears and supported by two attendants (to be sure he did not drop the precious crystal vase), Henry himself carried the relic the two miles to the abbey. Once he arrived there, he carried the blood in procession around the abbey and the neighboring royal buildings before consigning it to the care of the monks.
Preaching a sermon afterward, the Bishop of Norwich praised the relic and said that indulgences of six years and one hundred and sixteen days would be granted to anyone who venerated the relic.
The vial of Christ's alleged blood at Westminster never became a popular pilgrim attraction. Did people doubt its authenticity in spite of the king's assurances? In Hailes, an abbey founded about the same time, a similar flask of blood drew large crowds of pilgrims. The Christian mystic Margery Kempe visited the place and the poet Chaucer mentioned it in his "Pardoner's Tale."
Today few believe that either vial really contained Christ's blood. King Henry VIII had the vial at Hailes examined in the sixteenth century; his agents reported that it consisted of clear honey mixed with saffron coloring (another account says it was goose blood, replaced fresh each week). Since the Hailes vial was even better authenticated than the Westminster vial, the worth of Henry's treasure can be guessed.
The king ordered Matthew Paris to write a full account of the events of this day and it is to his chronicle that historians owe the detailed account that has been preserved.
- Vincent, Nicholas. The Holy Blood; King Henry III and the Westminster Blood. Cambridge University Press, 2001.
- Miscellaneous encyclopedia and web articles.
Last updated June, 2007