Chris Upton looks at cases of medieval miracles in Warwickshire.
And specially from every shire’s end
Of Engeland to Canterbury they wend,
The holy blissful martyr for to seek,
That them hath helpen when that they were sick.
With these words the poet Geoffrey Chaucer explains why his motley crew of 30 pilgrims were on their way to Canterbury (via Southwark), passing the time on their journey by telling tales.
From the very moment that Thomas a Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, was murdered in his cathedral in December 1170, his place of burial became a place of pilgrimage. The shrine that held Becket’s remains became the holiest place in England, and Thomas the country’s best-known and best-loved saint. His canonisation followed hot-foot on his assassination.
To the medieval pilgrim who journeyed to his shrine St Thomas offered solace and redemption. Like any saint he could intercede on the pilgrim’s behalf and (with the proper prayers) provide a fast-track through Purgatory. But the saint could offer more than salvation in the next life; he could cure the sick and heal the lame in this life too. Indeed, the application to canonize Thomas depended upon the reporting and authentication of miracles.
Miraculous cures were duly reported to those who visited the shrine, all of which served to increase the foot-fall and spread Becket’s fame ever further, even as far as Warwickshire.
Two Canterbury monks – Brother William and Prior Benedict – were deputed to keep a catalogue of the miracles and it took them just three years from the time of Becket’s murder to assemble sufficient evidence. Half a century later those stories provided the subject matter for the early 13th-century windows in the Trinity Chapel, surrounding the shrine.
Two of those great windows tell the story of Warwickshire people, saved by the saint from disease and death, and though the evidence is far away in Kent it seems like a good time to bring the tales back home, exactly eight centuries after the windows were first made.
The first tale is that of a nun from Polesworth Abbey called Petronella. She suffered from epilepsy, but had no faith in “hirelings and those who are not true physicians”. Evidently the health service in north Warwickshire was not up to much. She travelled, therefore, from the infirmary at Polesworth down to Canterbury to seek a cure there. Petronella is depicted in the glass seated at the tomb of St Thomas, having her feet bathed in holy water, while a group of doctors stand nearby examining urine.
This holy water appeared to do the trick. Although Petronella left Canterbury not knowing whether she had been cured, the compilers of the miracles state that she never had another fit. St Thomas, is the implication, was the true physician.
The second tale is even more miraculous. It concerns Philip, the eight-year-old son of Robert Scot of Warwickshire. Philip and his companions are shown in an ironstone quarry, amusing themselves – “as boys will”, says the source – by throwing stones at frogs. (The presence of ironstone suggests we are in the far east of the county, where ancient ironstone churches still testify to the early use of the material for building.)
The inevitable happens, of course, when boys play around in quarries. Philip falls in and is drowned, and the glass shows Philip’s distraught parents being told of the accident.
At this point the glass is missing and we have to use the chroniclers to complete the story. Philip was dragged from the water and hung upside-down to let the water drain out of his lungs. Then the boy was rolled in a barrel to make him vomit up the remaining water.
Finally – and this is the crucial part of the miracle – Philip’s mother measured her son’s body with a length of thread and promised St Thomas, if he will save the boy, that she would present at his shrine the same length of thread in silver. At this point Philip sprung back to life and his grateful mother fulfils her vow. Little wonder that Canterbury became one of the richest shrines in England.
So William and Benedict had two more cases to add to their body of evidence, and the cathedral at Canterbury two more great windows to extol the merits of their saint.
The miraculous stories from Warwickshire were not unique, of course, There were tales from much further afield, of Mad Matilda from Cologne and Richard of Sunieve. But the two cases from the Midlands give us a little insight into how the legend of Thomas a Becket spread across England in those medieval days.