As many who have visited St George’s Chapel will know, at the far end of the south quire aisle is a spy-hole that looks down from the ceiling into the Chapel. It is a sizeable hole, bored right through the stone, and coming out on the other side at floor level in the first-floor room of the Schorn Tower. From it, if you were to squat down and peer through, you would have a good view of the tourists making their way down the aisle and of the tomb of King Henry VI.
This has been assumed to be its purpose: Nikolaus Pevsner describes the feature in his architectural guide to Berkshire, saying of it, “This is presumably connected with the years of the cult of Henry VI and control over pilgrims.” Spy-holes in other churches and chapels have been used as security-measures and as Henry VI’s tomb was surrounded by his heraldic achievements and relics and a money box for the pilgrims’ donations, it seems probable that the Canons of Windsor would have wanted to keep a close eye on it.
Pevsner’s hypothesis, however, cannot quite be correct. Construction of the present Chapel, complete with spy-hole, began in 1475 under the instruction of Henry VI’s long-term enemy (and, by some, alleged murderer) Edward IV. During this time Henry VI remained buried a short distance away at Chertsey Abbey, where he had been quietly and unobtrusively interred following his death in 1471. In later years the cult of the “saintly king” grew and his body and relics were eventually moved to Windsor, where they were visited and venerated by many thousands of devoted pilgrims, but this was not until the reign of Richard III.
The relics of Henry VI, however, were not the first to bring pilgrims flocking to that corner of St George’s Chapel. This year marks the seven hundredth anniversary of the death of Master John Schorn, a vicar from the near-by parish of North Marston. Like Henry VI, he was never officially recognised as a saint by the church, but was venerated and treated like one by many people in England. During a drought Schorn had struck the ground with his staff, bringing forth a spring of water, which was later discovered to have healing properties. He was particularly famed for having trapped the devil inside a boot. The boot would be produced during sermons and he would allow glimpses of the devil to his parishioners, presumably to further encourage their good behaviour.
After Schorn’s death his shrine in the church at North Marston became a popular site for pilgrims who believed that visits to his shrine would grant them healing and answers to prayer. This, however, was not to be his final resting place as in 1478, as building work on the quire and quire aisles of St George’s Chapel was completed, Edward IV arranged for Schorn’s relics to be transferred to Windsor, to the site at the far east end of the south quire aisle that is now occupied by the Lincoln Chapel. Schorn’s presence gave his name to the tower that stands above this corner of the Chapel and at the base of which the spy-hole is found.
The transfer of relics was authorised by a papal bull of Pope Sixtus IV, and is believed to have been arranged to increase the revenue of the Chapel, which was necessary following the king’s great expenditure on building works. In support of this theory, the St George’s Chapel Archives holds a fifteenth century bill, “for makynge off iij. hoops for a [money] box for Maister John Shorn” and “iiij loks to the said box with the keys and with the hed of the box and the key hols keuered with iiij plates”, for which the Dean and Canons paid twenty three shillings [SCG XI.D.28]. The money box would have collected the donations of grateful pilgrims.
Offerings made by the many pilgrims who came to pray before these shrines would have amounted to a significant sum, not to mention that the relics themselves were priceless and the Dean and Canons would surely have wanted to protect them. The spy-hole would therefore have been an invaluable vantage point from which to monitor the pilgrims’ progress and behaviour.
Today, only Henry VI’s tomb remains of the early pilgrim sites in the south-east corner of St George’s Chapel. Another early relic once held at St George’s, the Cross Gneth, is represented only by a decorative roof boss and although John Schorn’s remains presumably still rest there, the space was reconstructed as the tomb of Edward Clinton, 1st Earl of Lincoln, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. The spy-hole itself, of course, is also still in place, looking down over Henry VI and providing a talking point for the tourists and stewards in the south quire aisle.
Kate McQuillian, Assistant Archivist