Medieval Relic List Includes Santa’s Bone and Christ’s Crib
A medieval document has revealed connections between how we celebrate Christmas today and an English monastery. The document is a list of relics given to Battle Abbey, which was bestowed on by two English monarchs, among others. Perhaps the most intriguing item in the inventory was St Nicholas’ aka Santa’s bone.
The find was announced by English Heritage, which manages hundreds of historic sites all over England, including Battle Abbey in Sussex. This was once a thriving monastery in the Middle Ages before it was closed by Henry VIII during the Reformation. Today it is a very impressive ruin, some 500 years after it was closed.
Photo of the inside of Battle Abbey in Battle, Sussex, UK, where the ancient relic list that included Santa’s bone was found. Source: HildaWeges / Adobe Stock
The Medieval Holy Relic List
Dr Michael Carter, a historian who works for English Heritage, was translating a 14 th century document from the monastery that details holy relics which were donated to the abbey. It is the only one of 32 similar inventories that have survived and it is written in Latin and belongs to a collection of the Huntington Library in California. The holy relics were believed to have special powers by Christians because they were associated with saints or Christ. Carter is quoted by the BBC as saying that “the collecting and cherishing of relics was an important aspect of medieval monasticism.”
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The medieval manuscript analyzed by English Heritage’s Michael Carter, which lists the relics, including Santa’s bone, in Battle Abbey. ( Huntington Library )
Santa’s Finger Bone Reveals Christmas Connections
The inventory lists 175 items that were bestowed on Battle Abbey over a hundred-year period. William the Conqueror gave the monastery many items, some of which have close connections with Christmas. One of the most significant relics listed was one of the fingerbones of St Nicholas. He was a saint from modern-day Turkey, who is widely regarded as “the original Santa Claus,” according to The Guardian . This saint was the protector of children and was said to have given them gifts, which gave rise to the modern story of Santa Claus .
Among the other gifts given by William to the abbey were fragments of the Bethlehem manger that Christ was supposedly born in. There were also “bones of several of the Holy Innocents killed on the orders of King Herod, a massacre commemorated in the west on 28 December,” reports The Guardian . Also donated is the alleged rock used to stone the Christian martyr St Stephen, whose celebration day is on the 26 th of December. According to KSL.com, Carter stated that “it's fascinating how connections to our Christmas today, can be traced back almost a thousand years.”
Photo of Battle Abbey ruins complex in Battle, Sussex, UK, where the ancient relic list that included Santa’s bone was found. ( araraadt / Adobe Stock)
Salvation of Sins
William the Conqueror was a notoriously mean man, and he gave very little to other monasteries. The Battle of Hastings (1066) allowed William to seize the throne of England, but not without shedding a great deal of blood. According to CNN, the Norman monarch “is believed to have built Battle Abbey on the site of his victory over Harold II, the Anglo-Saxon king.”
Although he is remembered for being nasty, he still bestowed a great many gifts on this abbey. The reason for this was that the Norman wanted to atone for his sins. By donating the relics, he hoped to secure forgiveness for his sins and achieve salvation.
Depiction of William the Conqueror. ( Public domain )
King John, who is best remembered for his many defeats in battle and his signing of the Magna Carta , also gave several relics to the abbey. “In 1200 he gave a relic of the Holy Sepulchre (Christ’s tomb) and a portion of the True Cross,” according to The Guardian . They were obtained by his brother, the famous Richard the Lionheart , when he was on a crusade to retake Jerusalem from the Muslims.
All the relics were probably destroyed or lost during Henry VIIIs suppression of the monastery. Today, very few people believe in the power of sacred relics, but in the Middle Ages, they were central to the spiritual life of many Christians. They were very much in demand and this led to a massive industry in the forging of such objects. Carter told The Guardian that “to the medieval mind, a lot of these relics would have been completely convincing.” The results of Carter’s study are published in The Journal of Medieval Monastic Studies .
Top image: St Nicholas’ finger bone is included on a medieval relics list from Battle Abbey. Source: Public Domain
By Ed Whelan