Visibly Distressed* Reader,
There are a few select stories from history that I find absolutely tantalising. This is often due to how unlikely it has been for an incredible situation to unfold, other times because it’s a story I’m outraged is not famed in the very name of history, and occasionally because the tale involves treasure. The story that I’m about to tell – I’m glad to say – involves all three.
We’ve all heard the name Edward the Confessor, and I won’t bore you, dear reader, with the accomplishments of that well accounted king. He began the long tradition of monarchs being buried in Westminster Abbey, and it is his tomb that this piece of history really concerns.
King Edward’s original tomb, shown in the Bayeux Tapestry.
He didn’t long remain sealed in his coffin after his death in 1066, since by 1102 the tomb had already been opened and it was claimed his body had not begun to decompose – the start of the claims by the monks of Westminster that Edward was a saint, and a common origin of many of the sainthoods of early-medieval England. He still didn’t get much peace though, since in 1163 and again in 1269 his body was moved. The final 1269 translation of his body was after he had finally been recognised by the pope as a saint, so his tomb following that was a grand shrine. It was damaged slowly by centuries of pilgrims chipping of parts of it off for keep-sakes and good luck charms, then battered by the reformation, before the roundheads set upon it during the Civil War. Overall, it’s a miracle it’s survived at all, but this at least brings us to the point in time when there began the story of Edward the Confessor’s Crucifix.
The design of the medieval shrine is a tiered structure with the coffin sat on top, far out of the reach of any visitors. Following the Civil War, the sub-sequential interregnum, and finally the restoration, there hadn’t been much time to repair damages done by the roundheads to the ancient tombs of Westminster. Charles II, who was proclaimed king at the restoration, had little money to spare and therefore nothing much changed in that ancient abbey, and when his brother, James II, came to the throne in 1685 the old building was as battered as ever as it was dressed up for James’ coronation.
Now we come to a man called Henry Keepe, an entirely average Englishman of his day, he had a small interest in antiquity, the year was 1685, and was presently a chorister at Westminster Abbey. Henry had been taking a walk around the abbey not many days after James’ coronation and observed the workmen taking down the scaffolding, which had held up seating for the many regal guests at that event. One piece of scaffolding had been brought down accidentally on top of Edward the Confessor’s shrine, bashing into the coffin on the top tier, and Henry had heard that a hole had been made in the coffin just over where the Confessor’s upper chest should have been.
Intrigued, he brought over one of the ladders that the workmen had been using and propped it up against the shrine before ascending, where to his delight he found the hole, examined it, and finally decided it would be a good idea to reach in and see what he could find. Pushing aside a few scattered bones with his hand, he felt something metal under his fingers.
Removing his arm from the hole, he first brought into the light a solid gold chain, and finally on the end of this appeared a cross, again of gold, covered in enamel decoration and biblical designs. The inside of the cross was hollow, surely intended to hold a relic, and examining it further the level of workmanship, the artwork, as well as numerous greek letters, all startled the curious chorister. Had Henry really just strolled into Westminster Abbey and found a huge gold crucifix worn by Edward the Confessor that had been hidden for over 600 years?
Henry passed the crucifix back through the hole into the coffin, he didn’t tell anyone what he’d found, and instead went off to try and find the Bishop of Rochester, Dean of the abbey. Being unable to find him, he talked to a member of the clergy there, showed him the cross, and was told to take it to the dean at whichever residence he could find him.
After some weeks of being unable to seek a meeting with the dean, Henry decided instead to show it to the Archbishop of York, whom by some fortune he met and showed the cross. Word then spread, first to the antiquary circles of society, and at last to the Archbishop of Canterbury, who in turn passed the news to King James II. During this time Henry employed an important artist of the time to make a perfectly accurate sketch of the cross for him to keep as record of how it looked exactly as it was found. He was then suddenly invited to the palace by the Archbishop of Canterbury, entered the king’s private chambers, and there presented the cross to the king so that it could be kept securely forever in the royal collections.
The king, a catholic, treasured the ancient relic, and often wore it at important occasions – it is recorded by several notable diarists of the time as being one of the king’s favourite possessions. That great treasure would still be one of the most remarkable pieces of ancient artwork to survive in England to this day if it was not for the events of December 1688.
James II’s regime collapsed under the travesty of justice that was the Glorious Revolution, and that good king was forced to flee London, dropping the Great Seal in the Thames and escaping on a small boat taking the Confessor’s gold cross with him. Instead of sailing to France, where the rest of his family had gone into refuge, he landed in Kent, probably hoping to summon up an army to retake his kingdom, but the Catholic monarch was disliked by his fervently Protestant subjects, and was captured by a group of fishermen in Favesham.
By the time James had been given over to the authorities the cross was gone.
Sadly, the cross has not been seen since. Henry Keepe’s drawing of the cross, likewise, has long been lost into the shadows of history, and the only thing that remains is this story. Still – one of my favourite stories from history.
I am fortune enough to own a first edition of A True and Perfect Narrative of the Strange and Unexpected Finding of the Crucifix & Gold-Chain of That Pious Prince, St. Edward The King and Confessor. From which I’ll do my best to transcribe a description of the cross for anyone truly curious of this amazing item. (It seems, most probably, that it was made in the Byzantine Empire and was a gift to Edward some time during his reign by one of the emperors or emissaries of that great place.
From the hand of Henry Keepe himself:
For the Chain, it was four and twenty Inches long, compleat, all of pure Gold, the Links oblong, and Curiously Wrought: The upper part whereof (to lye in the Nape of the Neck) was joyned together by a Locket, Composed of a large round Nobb of Gold, Massy, and in Circumference as big as a Mild-shilling, and half an Inch thick: Round this went a Wyer, and on the Wyer about half a dozen little Beads, hanging loose, and running too and again, on the same, all of pure Gold, and finely wrought. On each side of the Lockett were set two large square red Stones (supposed to be Rubies.) From each side of this Lockett, fixed in two Rings of Gold, the Chain descends, and meeting below, passes thro’ a square piece of Gold of a convenient bigness, made hollow for the same purpose; This Gold wrought into several Angles was painted with divers Colours, resembling so many Gemms or precious Stones, and to which the Crucifix was joyned, yet to be taken off (by the help of a Screw) at pleasure. For the Form of the Croß, it comes nighest to that of an Humettee flory among the Heraulds, or rathtr the Botony, yet the pieces here are not of equal length, the direct or perpendicular beam being nigh one fourth part longer then the traverse, as being four Inches to the extremities, whilst the other scarce exceeds Three: yet all of them nearly turn’d at the ends, and the Botons Enamelled with Figures thereon. The Cross it self is of the same Gold with the Chain, but then it exceeds it by its rich Enamell, having on one side the Picture of our Saviour Jesus Christ in his Passion wrought thereon, and an eye from above casting a kind of beams upon him: whilest on the reverse of the same Croß is pictured a Benedictine Monk in his habit, and on each side of him these Capital Roman Letters: on the right limb thus,
Z A X
And on the left thus,
This Cross is hollow, and to be opened by two little Screws towards the top, wherein it is presumed some Relique might have been conserved. The whole being a piece not only of great Antiquity, but of admirable Curiosity. And I look upon this Accident as a great part of my good Fortune, to be made a mean Instrument of their discovery and preservation.
Henry Keepe had the story of his discovery printed in 1688 to end the many misconceptions and legends that even by then had surrounded the discovery. He died before James II lost the cross, and it perhaps better that he didn’t know that fate had led it to be lost only three years after its discovery – since Henry treasured the cross and its history greatly. Henry’s story was published under a pseudonym – Charles Taylour – just in case there were those who took offence to him for poking around in the coffin of a saint. He does however, name himself in the pamphlet as a ‘very worthy Friend’ of the author.
I pray someone at least might enjoy this story, which I think is so excellent.
*If this is not accurate then you haven’t read enough of this blog.