Possessed the holy cross
Rode with it into battle
And never suffered loss
A relic of the true cross
Its holy power employed
Until one day without it
His army were destroyed
(The Holy Rood of Bromholm — Stone Angel)
By what circuitous routes I came to learn of the British folk/rock group Stone Angel I shall not bore the reader. The Holy Rood of Bromholm is a free download on the band’s webpage. I’ll pause here to give everyone a chance to go listen to it.
The Holy Rood of Bromholm was recorded live at All Saints Church, Filby, Norfolk, in 1976. For all the traditional sound of the song, and the primarily traditional repertoire of the group, The Holy Rood of Bromholm is a modern composition by band member Ken Saul.
But first, a Digression.
As all know, the True Cross was found by Saint Helena when she visited the Holy Land in the first decades of the fourth century. St. Helena promptly divided the True Cross into nine parts (for the nine orders of angels), and, of the wood most besprinkled with the blood of Christ, she fashioned a cross which she put into a chest of gold encrusted with precious stones, and sent to her son, Emperor Constantine.1 It eventually fetched up in Constantinople.
1. Paraphrased from Ancient Funeral Monuments of Great-Britain, Ireland, and the Islands adjacent, by John Weever, published by W. Tooke, London, 1767. p. 571.
Fast forward nine hundred years.
The Holy Land was controlled by the Muslims. The First, Second, and Third Crusades had had variable success in getting control of the Holy Sepulcher, but at the end of the Third Crusade (Richard the Lionhearted, Robin Hood, all those fellows) Jerusalem was still in the hands of Saladin. In 1198 Pope Innocent III preached a new crusade to free the Holy Land from the unbelievers.
Vast oversimplification alert!
The Fourth Crusade got rolling in 1199. The Crusaders hired Venice to build ships to take them to Egypt. Alas! when it came time to sail in 1201, the Crusaders didn’t have the money to pay the Venetians.
Enter Alexios Angelos, who (by the rules of western feudal succession2) was the true emperor of Byzantium. Alexios offered to pay off the entire Venetian debt, plus an additional 200,000 marks of silver, plus supply 10,000 professional soldiers to fight beside the Crusaders, plus the use of the Byzantine navy to transport the Crusaders to the Holy Land, plus put the Eastern Orthodox Church under the authority of the Pope, plus a few other inducements, if the Crusaders would only put him on the throne that was rightfully his. Long story short: The Crusaders took him up on his offer and arrived at Constantinople in the summer of 1203 convinced that the people, seeing their rightful emperor, would rise up and overthrow the usurper. The people of Byzantium would greet the Crusaders as liberators, the Crusaders would get tons of cash then head to Jerusalem to kick some Saracen tail, and everything would be swell.
2. Which the Byzantines did not acknowledge.
The Latin knights had apparently never heard the saying about things that seem too good to be true.
So the Crusaders rowed up the Bosphorus with Alexios Angelos. The people on the city walls, far from rising in his support, made rude remarks. The Crusaders went to Plan B: By force of arms they put their Alexios Angelos on the imperial throne as Alexios IV Angelos. Then it turned out that he didn’t actually have the money he’d promised. This worked out poorly for him.
By spring of 1204, Alexios III Angelos, his brother Isaac II Angelos, Isaac’s son Alexios IV Angelos, and some guy named Eyebrows (Alexios “Mourtzouphlos” Doukas) had all been Emperors of Byzantium at one time or another during the preceding twelve months and were all either dead, in exile, or both. The Crusaders murdered, pillaged, plundered, raped, sacked, and burned Constantinople in what ranks right up there on the list of Greatest Crimes Against Humanity in History. When the smoke cleared, the dust settled, and blood stopped running in the streets, Count Baldwin of Flanders was left standing as Emperor Baldwin I, ruling the Latin Empire of Constantinople.
Eleven months later, in spring of 1205, Baldwin I was at Adrianople (site of one of the original Emperor Constantine’s famous victories), and came off second-best in a fight against Tsar Kaloyan of Bulgaria. The scene was so chaotic, and the Latin defeat so through, that for a year after the battle no one in Constantinople knew for sure whether Baldwin were living or dead.3
3. As it turned out Baldwin actually had been captured but later died in captivity. Tsar Kaloyan had Baldwin’s skull made into a drinking cup.
The digression has now concluded.
Baldwin had a chaplain named Hugh, an English priest who had taken the place of Baldwin’s original chaplain when the latter had died on crusade. Baldwin had looted a bunch of relics during the Sack of Constantinople, including the True Cross that St. Helena had sent to her son. Hugh’s job was to take care of Baldwin’s looted relics. As long as Baldwin rode with the True Cross he couldn’t lose in battle, but that ill-fated April day he’d left home without it. When Baldwin turned up missing after Adrianople, Hugh skonkered off with the loot and headed back to England, selling the relics along the way to fund his travels. 4
4. We only have Hugh’s word that anything in this paragraph (including but not limited to “Baldwin had a chaplain named Hugh”) is true.
In discussing this in correspondence with the Lovely and Talented Miss Teresa, she commented:
I’m inclined to doubt the story. If he’d had time to grab the relics, he’d also have had time to grab some of the smaller reliquaries, and use those to pay his way. But if you don’t think too hard about that, it’s exactly the kind of imagination-inspiring but slightly louche story that makes a good con. Baldwin could have swiped any major relic you can imagine from Constantinople, and doubtless did. It’s entirely imaginable that his chaplain would flee after the battle, and not surprising — creditable, even — that he’d take the relics with him. But supporting himself on his travels through Europe by selling them off piecemeal? That presents a rather different image.
Still, it’s a one-time offer, never to be repeated. You have to act now — he’s travelling on, and if you don’t buy it, some other town further along will. And having the seller’s motives be a little questionable makes it easier to pay him a bargain price for a major relic. A particularly elegant bit of social engineering is that the story explains multiple relic sales, so if someone turns up who was around when he made one of his earlier sales, he’s covered.
On his arrival in England in 12235, Hugh sold the next-to-last of his wares to the monks of St. Albans: Dubious relics of that most dubious of saints, Margaret of Antioch. All that remained to him were the pieces of the True Cross that he had been unable to convince anyone to take during his travels across Europe.
5. Two years later, in 1225, a fellow claiming to be Baldwin himself showed up in Flanders. It didn’t end well.
Try as he would, Hugh was unable to sell the True Cross. This might be because by then Europe was awash in pieces of the True Cross. Ingenious theories were suggested for why pieces of the True Cross were variously pine, balsam, cedar, olive, or other woods. Pious priests and nuns made jokes about how many ships it would take to carry all the fragments if they were gathered at one place. No one was interested in buying a couple of pieces of wood that might have been pried out of a stable one town up the road.
So Hugh wandered the lanes of England until he fetched up at Bromholm (or Bromeholme, or Bromeholm, or Bromholme, or Bromcholme or Bacton) Priory in Norfolk, an impoverished house reduced to just eight black friars dedicated to St. Sepulcher, and traded the cross for being allowed to stay.
Quoting Matthew Paris:
“There he sent for the Prior and some of his brethren, and showed them the above-mentioned Cross, which was constructed of two pieces of wood, placed one across the other, and almost as wide as the hand of a man; he then humbly implored them to receive him into their order with the cross and other relics which he had with him, as well as his two children.”
(Quoted in Pilgrim life in the middle ages by Sidney Heath, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston & New York, 1912)
In 1224 the Chronicle of London recorded :
“…the emperour Baldewyn, which whanne he wente to bataile to fyghte with Godes enemyes, he hadde a croos boren before hym, whiche crosse seynt Eleyne made of the crosse that Cryst dyde upon; and there was an Englyssh prest that tyme with hym that was called Sir Hughe, and he was borne in Norfolke, and which prest broughte the same crosse to Bromholm in Norfolke.”
(Quoted by W. W. Skeat in the notes to his edition of Piers Plowman, EETS, 1885)
There the story would have ended, except for one thing: This True Cross was truly the True Cross. It performed miracles.
Miss Teresa comments:
If I were a town father of Bromholm, and there was a potential market fair to be had, I’d be encouraging about miracles.
Word began to spread that the miraculous relic at Bromholm was turning water to wine, making the blind see, the deaf hear, and raising the dead to life.
Soon enough pilgrims were coming from all over. The priory had to lay on an additional six priests just to hear the pilgrims’ confessions. Bromholm Priory was about thirty miles by road from the popular pilgrimage destination of Our Lady of Walsingham. Folks who were making one pilgrimage could add a day or two to their trip and visit both.
Twenty years after the cross arrived at Bromholm, King Henry III sent a silver model of a ship and granted Bacton a three-day market fair each year at the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross6. The town prospered.
6. September 14, the anniversary of the dedication of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, on the site where St. Helena found the Sepulcher (buried under a temple to Venus) and the True Cross.
“Help! hooly croys of Bromeholm,” she seyde,|
“In manus tuas! Lord, to thee I calle!
Awak, Symond! The feend is on me falle.”
— The Reeve’s Tale (Geoffrey Chaucer)
But wenten to Walsingham, and my wife Alis |
and byd the Roode of Bromholme bring me out of dette….
— The Vision of Piers Ploughman (William Langland)
The True Cross (fashioned in the form of a patriarchal cross) was set into a larger wooden cross, which was silver-gilt and adorned with a portrait of Our Savior, and kept in a magnificent reliquary. Bromholm started to pick up more relics.
THOMAS RUDHORNE, bishop of St. Davids, who flourished in the reign of Henry IV, hath, in his history, these words to the same effect:
Capulanus quidam porauit quandam crucem ligneam in Angliam, quam affirmauit esse de ligno in quo perpendit CHRISTUS et monachis de Bromholme obtulit et postea locus coruscabat miraculis.
A certain priest brought over with him, saith he, a wooden cross into England, which he affirmed to be the cross whereupon our Savior CHRIST was crucified; which he delivered to the monks of Bromholme, after which the place did shine gloriously with miracles.
But the story of this holy cross is more fully delivered by CAPGRAVE, … By the virtue of this holy cross, cooperante Domingo, GOD assisting, thirty and nine persons, were raised from death to life; and nineteen which were blind, received their sight, besides many other miracles wrought, if you will believe my author.
Hic apparuit multa superstitio circa crucem quae vocatur, the holy cross of Bromholme, et dieunt illie se habere zonam beate MARIE et lac eiusdem, et fragmenta crucis sancti PETRI et sancte ANDREE, saith a book in the treasury of the exchequer of the visitation of abbeys7.
Here appeareth great superstition about a cross, which is called the holy cross of Bromholme; and here they say they have the girdle and milk of the blessed virgin, and a fragment of the cross of St. Peter and of St. Andrew.
(See Note 1. Weever, p. 572)
Royal visitors to Bromholm allegedly included both Edward II and Richard II.
But all was not well at Bromholm, regardless of their relic. The Priory’s rents were diminished when changes in the coastline washed a great deal of their land out to sea in 1385. (Personally, I suspect a mermaid was involved. The Merry Maids do that kind of thing.) A fire and a pestilence added to their woes. The priory needed a patron.
In 1401, to relive their distress, Pope Boniface IX granted to the Priory at Bromholm an indulgence equal to that of St. Mark’s in Venice.
Paston Hall, home of the letter-writing Paston family, was located just two miles from Bromholm Priory, and the Pastons became the Priory’s patrons.
In 1419, the Prior was a witness to Clement Paston’s will. Thereafter the Pastons took a special interest in Bromholm.
Fox gives a curious account of the alleged burning of this cross at the beginning of the fifteenth century. He states that one Sir Hugh Pie, chaplain of Ludney, was accused before the bishop of Norwich on 5 July, 1424, for holding that people ought not to go on pilgrimage or to give alms save to beggars at their doors, and that the image of the cross and other images ought not to be worshipped. He was also accused of having ’ cast the cross of Bromholm into the fire to be burned, which he took from one John Welgate of Ludney.’ However Sir Hugh utterly denied these articles, and purged himself by the witness of three laymen and three priests. At any rate the cross was not burnt, for it is in evidence more than a century later.
What this tells me is that the Holy Rood was not openly displayed at this time nor was its exact location common knowledge, for, if it were, Sir Hugh Pie would not have needed to conjure, but rather point to the altar and say, “I am not guilty, for there it stands.”
As the century progressed: At John Paston’s funeral in 1466, held at the Priory, a special barber was employed for five days to freshen up the monks and brethren. One man was employed for three days in flaying beasts, which included forty-one pigs, forty-nine calves, and ten head of cattle. They also ran through 1,300 eggs, twenty gallons of milk, eight gallons of cream, thirteen barrels of beer, twenty-seven barrels of ale, a barrel of beer of the great assize, and a runlet of wine of fifteen gallons. Twenty pounds of gold was struck into coins to give to the poor.
Seventy years later the end came for Bromholm Priory and its Holy Rood. In 1535, in the midst of Henry VIII’s break with Rome, the king appointed Thomas Cromwell royal vice-regent and nationalized the monasteries. All monasteries with an annual income of under two hundred pounds were declared property of the king, followed, a couple of years later, by all the rest of the monasteries. (The story at the time was that, once the king had the rents that belonged to the monks, there’d never again be a need for taxation on anyone. We’ve seen how well that worked out.) Cromwell send around visitors to determine the values of the religious properties and enquire into the virtue of the clergy. Bromholm only had four monks (all accused of incontinence) and an income of just over £100 per annum.
Something must necessarily be said of the actual process which was followed by the Crown agents in dissolving these lesser monasteries. It was much the same in every case, and it was a somewhat long process, since the work was not all done in a day. The rolls of account, sent into the Augmentation Office by the commissioners, show that it was frequently a matter of six to seven weeks before any house was finally dismantled and its inmates had all been turned out of doors. The chief commissioners paid two official visits to the scene of operations during the progress of the work. On the first day they assembled the superior and his subjects in the Chapter House, announced to the community and its dependents their impending doom; called for and defaced the convent seal, the symbol of corporate existence, without which no business could be transacted; desecrated the church; took possession of the best plate and vestments “unto the King’s use”; measured the lead upon the roof and calculated its value when melted; counted the bells; and appraised the goods and chattels of the community. Then they passed on to the scene of their next operations, leaving behind them certain subordinate officers and workmen to carry out the designed destruction by stripping the roofs and pulling down the gutters and rain pipes; melting the lead into pigs and fodders, throwing down the bells, breaking them with sledge-hammers and packing the metal into barrels ready for the visit of the speculator and his bid for the spoils. This was followed by the work of collecting the furniture and selling it, together with the window frames, shutters, and doors by public auction or private tender. When all this had been done, the commissioners returned to audit the accounts and to satisfy themselves generally that the work of devastation had been accomplished to the king’s contentment — that the nest had been destroyed and the birds scattered — that what had been a monument of architectural beauty in the past was now a “bare roofless choir, where late the sweet birds sang.”
(Catholic Encyclopedia, “Suppression of English Monasteries under Henry VIII”, 1917)
Bromholm Priory was dissolved in 1536. Its houses and lands were sold to Sir Thomas Wodehouse. Everything of value was stripped. The relics were sent to Thomas Cromwell in London, and Cromwell did not treat relics with respect.
On 2 February, 1537, Richard Southwell wrote to Cromwell that he had in his charge the cross of Bromholm, which he would bring up after the suppression was finished, or sooner if Cromwell wished it. On 26 February he wrote again to Cromwell, saying that he had delivered the cross of Bromholm to the late prior of Pentney, the bearer of both letter and relic.
This was the last documented sighting of the Holy Rood of Bromholm.
In later years the buildings were quarried for local stone.
The end came suddenly for Thomas Cromwell some three years later. He was arrested on the 10th of June, 1540. From the History of England From The Fall of Wolsey to The Death of Elizabeth. by James Anthony Froude, M.A. Late fellow of Exeter College, Oxford , Volume III, John W. Parker & Son, 1858, p.302:
‘The Lord Cromwell,’ says Hall, ‘being in the council chamber, was suddenly apprehended and committed to the Tower of London; the which many lamented, but more rejoiced, and specially such as either had been religious men or favored religious persons; for they banqueted and triumphed together that night, many wishing that that day had been seven years before, and some, fearing lest he should escape, although he were imprisoned, could not be merry; others, who knew nothing but truth by him, both lamented him and heartily prayed for him. But this is true, that, of certain of the clergy, he was detestably hated; and specially of such as had borne swing, and by this means were put from it; for indeed he was a man that, in all his doings, seemed not to favour any kind of Popery, or could not abide the snuffing pride of some prelates.’
Froude footnoted the quote to Hall’s Chronicle p.838
Thomas Cromwell was executed without trial on 28 July, 1540, following a bill of attainder. There ended the man who would have known for certain what had become of the Holy Rood of Bromholm. It was widely supposed to have been destroyed by him. Except for this one odd little coda:
… Although it [the Holy Cross of Bromholm] is supposed to have been burned at the Reformation there are strong reasons for thinking it is still in existence. Mr. Dutt quotes, in the book8 already referred to, a note that appeared in “Eastern Counties Collectanea” (1872-3) as follows:“A convent of nuns in Yorkshire, who have a large piece of the Cross of our Lord, set in silver in the shape of a Jerusalem cross, desire to trace its history. A member of the family of Paston was at one time Superioress of this convent. Now the Pastons were intimately connected with the Priory of Bromholm, and lived in the next parish, and it does not seem improbable that at the Dissolution the celebrated relic of the true Cross, for which Bromholm was famous, may have come into the possession of the Paston family.”
It would be interesting to learn which of the convents of Yorkshire desired this information, and if the relic is still in their possession.
(Pilgrim Life in the Middle Ages, Sidney Heath, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston & New York, 1912 (p.250-251))
—Philip, Earl of Arundel, Lament for Walsingham