Sunday, 11 August 2013

The Rood of Boxley

Boxley Abbey, which once stood in Boxley in Kent, once hosted a religious icon called the Rood of Grace (“Rood” being an old word for crucifix) which was a wooden sculpture of Jesus on the cross, which could move. This became a popular icon for pilgrimages and brought in some money for the Abbey. When this first appeared is not know, but by 1412, the Abbey was referred to as “the Abbey of the Rood of Grace”.

In 1538, as part of a country-wide act to take possession of Catholic buildings, the Abbey was taken by the government and the secret of the Rood was uncovered. Geoffrey Chamber wrote to the Lord Privy Seal about the episode (I’ve modernised the English)...

“I found in the Image of the Rood, called the Rood of Grace, [...] certain engines and old wires, with old rotten sticks in the back of the same, that did cause the eyes of the same to move and stare in the head thereof, like unto a living thing.”

This discovery was used as anti-Papist propaganda, and was decried in public speaking as an example of how Romanist churches were lying to their congregations. John Cromer wrote to Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex on the 7 February 1538, saying...

“Considering that the people of Kent had in time past a great devotion to the image and used continued pilgrimages there, I conveyed it to Maidstone this present Thursday being market day and shewed it to the people; who had the matter in wondrous detestation and hatred”

However, recently historians have been questioning the idea that the Rood was an act of deception. Rather, the congregation were fully aware of the mechanical nature of the icon, treating it as one more attraction to the already opulent surroundings of a Catholic abbey. Since many people were illiterate in those days, churches relied on visual means (stained glass, statues) to help communicate the word of God.

Whether the protestant reformers knew this, or chose to ignore it, is not clear. Chamber wrote that the monks at the Abbey pleaded ignorance when asked about the mechanisms which only adds to the air of deception, but I’m inclined to believe that most of the visiting pilgrims (who’d only arrive because they were on their way to Canterbury) were not so gullible and knew of, or were quickly aware of, it’s less than miraculous powers.

Cave-Brown, J. (1892) “The History of Boxley Parish”
Ellis, H. (1846) “Original Letters, Illustrative of English History”
The History of the County of Kent, vol 2, p74
Groeneveld, L. (2007) “A Theatrical Miracle: The Boxley Rood of Grace as Puppet”

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