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The Christmas relics that came to medieval England

If you wanted to see the manger where Jesus Christ was born, or the finger bones of Saint Nicholas (the original Santa Claus), you could have done so at an English abbey in the 15th century.

These and other relics associated with Christmas were listed in medieval manuscript that has been recently analyzed and transcribed. They were housed at Battle Abbey in southern England, the same monastery found by William the Conqueror to commemorate his victory at the Battle of Hastings.

The manuscript dates from the mid-15th century, and mentions 175 individual relics. The royal patronage that Battle Abbey had meant that its relic collection was even more significant than those given to Westminster Abbey.

Dr Michael Carter, a historian at English Heritage, researched the manuscript. He explains, “the collecting and cherishing of relics was an important aspect of medieval monasticism and I am thrilled to think that I could have been the first person in over 500 years to study the glorious list from Battle Abbey in detail.

“It’s fascinating how connections to our Christmas today, can be traced back almost a thousand years and despite Henry VIII’s violent suppression, these great monasteries are still giving up their secrets.

“There’s no greater endorsement than a King giving a gift of relics so this list reveals just how significant a place Battle Abbey was. William the Conqueror alone, gave far more to Battle Abbey than any other abbey in England, illustrating just how important the site of his victory at the Battle of Hastings remained.”

The 15th century manuscript from Battle Abbey – Photo ©The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens / English Heritage

The relics held at Battle Abbey that are connected to Christmas include:

  • Relics from the ground where Christ was born
  • Relics from the manger
  • Relics from the crib
  • Relics from the swaddling
  • Relics from the bed the Virgin was lying in when he was born
  • Hair shirt and finger bone of Saint Nicholas obtained possibly by the Battle monks themselves in 1089 when the Saint’s relics were moved to a shrine in Italy
  • Stones used to stone St Stephen (his feast day is 26 December, Boxing Day)
  • Relics of several of the Holy Innocents killed on the orders of King Herod (feast 28 December) thought to have been part of the William the Conqueror’s gift

Some of the relics were donated by King William I, while others were sent to it by King John when he visited the abbey in 1200 and presented the monks with items from the Holy Sepulchre and a piece of True Cross. These items had been obtained from the Near East by his brother Richard I while he participated in the Third Crusade.

Michael Carter’s article, “The Relics of Battle Abbey: A Fifteenth-Century Inventory at The Huntington Library, San Marino,” appears in the latest issue of The Journal of Medieval Monastic Studies. The manuscript is housed within The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens in California, USA.

Top Image: Battle Abbey – Photo by Rick Rowland / Flickr

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