Piety, Politics and Relics in the Later Middle Ages: A Note from MS 78

‘A note about a portion of the Seamless Robe’ (LPL MS78 f.256 r.)

Throughout the Middle Ages, the veneration of saints was an essential part of life in the Christian world. Saints were not only regarded as pious exemplars to be emulated by the Christian faithful, but also as mediators between people on earth and God. Through their intercession it was possible to gain God’s favour. Christians seeking proximity to a particular saint visited their resting place, and/or relics associated with that saint. Early Christians considered it unthinkable to disturb the body of a saint; hence, the whole body was transferred from the grave to the newly built church during the latter’s consecration. The first relics to appear were objects connected to saints, such as their clothing or other things they used. The practice of removing and venerating small parts of saints’ bodies only seems to have become acceptable in the tenth century, and by the High Middle Ages, relics had become an inseparable part of Christian life. Reliquaries, which preserved saintly relics, were made in different shapes and sizes – from little pedants to large chests. They were often made from precious materials and beautifully decorated, but the most valuable part was the relic placed inside. Medieval Christians undertook pilgrimages to visit churches and cathedrals with important relics. Those who could afford it sought to acquire relics for themselves, as in the case of the French king, Louis IX, who had a remarkable collection of relics, including the Crown of Thorns. The most precious relics were those connected to Jesus Christ.

MS 78 from the holdings of Lambeth Palace Library was written in the first half of the fifteenth century and mainly consists of collected exempla, yet it also contains several original chapters relating to Canterbury, three of which are about relics. The chapter chosen for closer examination in this blog is entitled ‘A note about a portion of the Seamless Robe’ and starts with the arrival of the emperor of Constantinople, Manuel II Palaiologos, in England. Manuel was Byzantine emperor from 1391 to 1425, during which he faced significant challenges. In 1394, the Ottoman Sultan Bayezid I besieged Constantinople; the crusade of Nicopolis failed to raise the siege; and, finally, at the end of 1399, Manuel set out to personally visit several western rulers, in a bid to gain the aid.[1]

The author of the chapter in MS 78 describes how Manuel, ‘ruined and weakened, arranged to visit Henry IV, whom he knew was dreaded by princes and clearly thoroughly educated in arms’. The emperor arrived in England at ‘around the feast of St Lucy the virgin’ and ‘was received with appropriate respect by both Thomas Chillenden, then prior of Christ Church, Canterbury, and the convent of that place’, before meeting King Henry.[2] The author did not concern himself with detailing the negotiations that took place between the two rulers, but his testimony certainly indicates the importance of the outcome of those negotiations for the Byzantine emperor. In order to persuade Henry to help in the defence of the Byzantine empire, Manuel brought him a gift – not just something precious, but something of extraordinary value. The emperor gave Henry a portion of the Seamless Robe, ‘which is believed to have been woven by the blessed Virgin Mary with her own hands for her son Jesus Christ’. According to one legend, Helena, mother of Constantine the Great, found the Seamless Robe, together with several other relics, in the Holy Land. Although a twelfth-century legend places the Seamless Robe in Trier cathedral, where Helena supposedly sent it, the Byzantine emperor may well have been in possession of part of the robe. The fact that both sides believed that it was the relic connected to Christ is in fact more important than its actual authenticity. Manuel was prepared to give this highly-prized relic to Henry in order to secure his military support. And it probably had the desired effect, as other evidence suggests that Manuel was rather pleased with the outcome of the negotiations.[3]

Henry accepted the gift and subsequently decided to divide the relic of the Seamless Robe further, part of which he ‘presented to the church of Westminster Abbey’, while another part was ‘brought to the reverend in Christ father lord Thomas Arundel’ as a marker of their friendship. We are then told that Thomas Arundel, archbishop of Canterbury, later ‘presented [this portion of the Robe] to the highest altar of his aforementioned church [Christ Church, Canterbury] and put it respectfully into the reliquary of that church’. The text’s author also provides a short description of this impressive reliquary held at that point in Canterbury Cathedral: ‘a jewel constructed from silver and from gold, which has three compartments with long sapphires’. The Seamless Robe was not the only important relic held in that reliquary, since each compartment contained a different relic: ‘The part of abovementioned tunic [i.e., the Seamless Robe] was placed in the middle, so it could be admired at will. In the second compartment was held a thorn from the crown that Christ wore in his time of suffering. In the third one there was blood which the most celebrated living victor, St Thomas of Canterbury, shed under the sword for the justice and liberty of the holy church.’

We should not approach this short text as a mere description of the relics held in Canterbury Cathedral in the early fifteenth century, when the text was written; rather, it should be treated as an interesting witness to how the holy relics were perceived and indeed used. For medieval Christians, the relics connected to Christ had incalculable value and were regarded as objects for great veneration. Nevertheless, as the chapter from MS 78 attests, even the most sacred relics could be used to achieve worldly objectives; indeed, owing to their significance and value, relics like the Seamless Robe represented ideal gifts with which to procure support and forge alliances.

As to where and when this short text was composed, MS 78 includes an inscription attributing the manuscript to Christ Church, Canterbury, and states that the book was collated by William Chartham, monk of that church, in 1448. William entered the monastery in 1403 and died in 1448; as such, we can assume that he was the actual author of the text.[4] We cannot ascertain precisely when he wrote this short chapter, but it would appear that it was after 1411, for the author  noted that the emperor was received by ‘Thomas Chillenden, then [tunc] prior of Christ Church, Canterbury’. This implies that, at the time of writing, Thomas Chillenden was no longer prior of Christ Church; and since the author did not use similar language to describe Thomas Arundel, it is likely that the latter was still archbishop of Canterbury. This, in turn, would narrow the timeframe to the period 1411-1414. Unfortunately, the omission of ‘tunc’ in connection to Archbishop Arundel is far from definitive evidence and the most we can say is that the text was probably composed by William Chartham between 1411 and 1448.


[1] For details about the siege and Manuel’s journey to the West, see John Barker, Manuel II Paleologus (1391–1425): A Study in Late Byzantine Statesmanship, Rutgers University Press, 1969.

[2] The Feast of Lucy of Syracuse is on 13 December and the year of Manuel’s arrival was 1400, even though the author of this text marks it as 1401. It was probably because Manuel stayed in England during the first months of 1401. The second dating he gave is ‘the second year of the rule of Henry IV’, which started in September 1400.

[3] Barker, pp. 178-180.