A host of relics

Windsor Castle is visited daily by thousands of tourists. The number of visitors to St George’s Chapel has grown dramatically in the centuries since its foundation, but the practice of travelling to visit St George’s has been a tradition for hundreds of years. Long before commercial tourism came into being, people took time out of their lives, leaving their homes and their jobs, in order to travel to Windsor as pilgrims.

Unlike tourism, pilgrimage was not supposed to be an activity undertaken for pleasure but as a religious exercise. Great spiritual benefit was thought to be derived from visiting sites of significance or being in the presence of objects considered holy because of their close association with holy people. Such objects are known as relics, from the Latin reliquiae, meaning ‘remains’. Most commonly, relics in the Christian tradition have consisted of body parts of saints and sometimes pieces of their clothing or of other objects thought to have been owned or used by them in life. In England before the Reformation the veneration of relics was widely encouraged. Often they were placed in highly decorated caskets, known as reliquaries, both to protect them and to give an outward sign of their high status.

Early inventories of the College of St George show that in the Middle Ages the Chapel was home to a spectacular array of relics which drew pilgrims to Windsor. These included the burial places of two famously saintly men, King Henry VI and Master John Schorn, and a piece of the True Cross, encased in a gilded and jewelled reliquary, which had been gifted to the Dean and Canons by Edward III. In addition to these, the medieval inventories of St George’s Chapel (which date from 1384 and 1410) enumerate several weird and wonderful artefacts believed to be connected with Christian saints, such as a crystal vessel containing the milk of the Blessed Virgin Mary; two thorns from the crown worn by Christ at his crucifixion; one of the stones thrown at the martyrdom of St Stephen; and two fingers, part of the heart and part of the skull of St George.

When the Reformation came to England in the sixteenth century, religious practice at St George’s Chapel was less badly affected than in many high-profile churches in the land, but some changes did have to be made. The veneration of relics was recognised as one of the practices of Roman Catholic Christianity and so had to be stopped. In the following years, many of the treasures of the Chapel were sold off by the Dean and Canons for two purposes: first that they were no longer allowed to be in use in the Chapel, and second to raise revenue to meet some heavy charges imposed by the crown. In 1552 King Edward VI ordered a new inventory to be taken, which shows very few of the relics remaining. The Dean and Canons were ordered to surrender their remaining treasures, including reliquaries, and these were weighed and then melted down for coin in the Jewel House of the Tower of London in November 1552. The fate of the jewels and precious metals therefore is documented, but what became of the once revered fragments of bone, cloth and wood is unknown.

Kate McQuillian, Assistant Archivist

The King's Free Chapel. The Chapel of the Most Honourable and Noble Order of the Garter. The Chapel of the College of St George.