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Holy icon... or con?

In medieval Europe, relics of dead martyrs were the ultimate must-have, venerated by princes and paupers alike. But where did they come from? Emma J Wells delves into the black market for holy heirlooms...

FATHER, SON, AND HOLY GOAT?

THE DARK SIDE OF MEDIEVAL RELICS

This is the Crown of Thorns allegedly worn by Christ during the Passion. It was one of the prized possessions in Notre-Dame Cathedral until April 2019 – when it was rescued from the inferno that gutted the building
GETTY IMAGES

In AD 869, the Great Heathen Army – the horde of Viking warriors that wreaked havoc across the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England – returned to East Anglia once more. Edmund, King of the East Angles, rode to meet them. They clashed at Thetford, where Edmund was captured and, legend has it, given the chance to continue ruling as a Viking underking. Edmund refused, and so was tied to a tree, beaten and then murdered with a volley of arrows. His head was subsequently hacked off and tossed into a bramble brush.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Edmund is considered one of the patron saints of torture victims
AKG IMAGES X1, GETTY IMAGES X2

Edmund was soon venerated as a saint, and his remains relocated to the nearby town of Beodricesworth (Bury St Edmunds). Such was his following that he was quickly recognised as the patron saint of England, a position held until he was replaced by St George on Edward III’s orders in the 14th century But despite his veneration, his body was not to stay undisturbed.

Edmund’s shrine in the abbey of Bury St Edmunds was destroyed in 1539, during the English Reformation, and his remains were presumed lost. Another legend, however, claims that the saint’s body was actually looted and taken to France in 1217, during the First Barons’ War. In either case, his remains next crop up in Toulouse, where a cult to Edmund arose after his apparent intercessions saved the town from a plague in the 17th century Again, he was to be disturbed: in 1901, the Archbishop of Westminster asked that Edmund’s remains be returned, so that they might grace the high altar of the still-under-construction Westminster Cathedral.

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About BBC History Revealed Magazine

The 12th century can be seen as a pivotal moment in Japanese history, an era which saw beginning of the ascendancy of one of history’s most iconic warrior classes: the samurai. This month we explore the dramatic civil war that heralded their rise to power – and the formation of the first shōgunate. Plus: The black market for medieval relics, why the Wall St Crash of 1929 shook the world, how British humanitarian Nicholas Winton saved almost 700 children from the Nazis, the English pirate who inspired Captain Jack Sparrow, and more