The Relic of St Etheldreda

Nothing like a bit of withered hand on a Thursday afternoon.  I appreciate a statement of this nature obviously requires some explanation.  I will start at the beginning...

St Etheldreda's is a beautiful old church, built in the Middle Ages (1250-1290), tucked away up a gated side street, just off crazy busy Holborn Circus and close to Hatton Garden, where gold, silver and diamonds are traded and millions of pounds change hands daily.  When you enter Ely Place, the calm of this old London street instantly hits and soothes you, but the church, sandwiched between two buildings at the far end, cannot be seen until you are upon it.  How secret is that, Secret London Lunch Break enthusiasts?  Pretty secret, I'm sure you will agree.

St Etheldreda's Church was the town chapel of the Bishops of Ely from about 1250 to 1570. It is the oldest Catholic church in England and one of only two remaining buildings in London from the reign of Edward I. It was once one of the most influential places in London with a palace of vast grounds. It was like an independent state, and its chapel took its name from one of England's most popular saints of the day, Etheldreda, an Anglo-Saxon saint who founded the monastery at Ely in 673.

In 1925, the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments recommended St Etheldreda's especially worthy of preservation and it was scheduled as an ancient monument. Even at that time, Ely Place was still like an independent state, under the jurisdiction of Ely, Cambridge, and not part of London.

Beadles guarded the entrance and closed the gates to all strangers. Even the police had to ask permission to enter. And Beadles' voices could be heard throughout the hours of darkness, calling out:  "Eleven o'clock and all's well...Twelve o'clock and all's well."

Front and back views of the church, with lovely arched stained glass windows at either end. 
You can just make out the impressive church organ either side of the back window in the second photo
(below is a close-up).

In May 1941, during the Blitz, the building was hit by a bomb which tore a hole in the roof and destroyed the Victorian stained glass windows. It took seven years to repair the structural damage.  In 1952, new stained glass was installed in the East window (the blue windows, below, at the front of the church). It features the Trinity, the evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, as well as the Virgin Mary, St Joseph, St Bridget of Kildare and Saint Etheldrada.

Princess Etheldreda, daughter of King Anna, a prominent member of the ruling family of the Kingdom of East Anglia, was born in 630. She wanted to be a nun but agreed to a political marriage with a neighbouring King, Egfrith, on condition that she could remain a virgin. When the King tried to break the agreement, she fled back to Ely, where, as well as founding a religious community, she also built a magnificent church on the ruins of one founded by the efforts of St Augustine himself but laid waste by war.

Etheldreda was quite a revolutionary. She set free all the bondsmen on her lands and for seven years led a life of exemplary austerity. After her death in 679, devotion to her spread rapidly, as people received help and favours through what they were convinced was her powerful intercession in Heaven. And when, through popular demand, it was decided to remove her to a more fitting tomb, it was found that even after 15 years in wet earth her body was still in a perfect state of preservation. When the Normans began building the present Cathedral at Ely and moved her body in 1106, it was again reported to be still incorrupt. That was nearly 450 years after her death.

A special relic was given to the Church - a piece of the uncorrupted hand of St Etheldreda. The hand, removed in Norman times, had been kept during the Persecution in a secret hiding place on the Duke of Norfolk's estate. The relic now lies in the jewel cask to the right of the high altar.

Incidentally, because St Etheldreda was often invoked for help with infections of the throat, the Blessing of the Throats is held annually at the chapel.

Oh, we also came across this chap:

Antonio Rosmini-Serbat
Priest, philosopher, founder of the Institute of Charity
In 1828 Antonio Rosmini-Serbat founded a new religious community, the Institute of Charity, known generally since as the Rosminians.  The members might be priests or laymen, who devoted themselves to preaching, the education of youth, and works of universal charity - material, spiritual and intellectual. They work in Italy, England, Ireland, France, Wales, New Zealand, Kenya, Tanzania, India, Venezuela and America. In London they are attached to the historical Church of St Etheldreda. In 1962, Rosmini College School for Boys was founded in Auckland, New Zealand by Father Catcheside.


On entering the knave, via a series of stone passageways, steps and gothic arches, keen-eyed Jess immediately spotted the bejeweled casket, which houses the the relic (or bit of withered saintly hand).  We couldn't get close enough for a proper peek, so spent about 10 minutes or so battling with flash and focussing issues in the low light of the church, trying to get a decent shot.  It may be worth mentioning at this point that although the hand was indeed once kept in said bejeweled box, it wasn't currently, which we discovered after ringing the vicar's bell to request a viewing.  We'd come all this way afterall (well, two stops on the Metropolitan line) and we were going to make every effort possible to witness the saintly relic we'd come to see.

You can just make out the shadowy casket in the centre of the first picture, above, to the right of the East window, behind the altar.  Below is a clearer picture, taken from the church's website:

Much to our delight, the vicar directed us back into the knave, trotted off back to his office to get the hand (out of his drawer?...where was he keeping it?) and then, as if by magic, appeared from another door to the right of the casket, in front of where we were standing, eagerly expectant, behind the barrier that prevented us from getting close to Ethel.  It was all very official.

Anyway, so we were kindly and dutifully obliged but that's where our bottle ran out, and out of respect and the opposite to a usual total lack of shame, we didn't ask if we could photograph the hand.  So I will attempt a description...

It was actually rather beautiful.  The vicar (he may not actually have been a vicar - rather, we suspect, just someone sitting in a church office, with a hand in a drawer, who'd helpfully answered our hopeful call)...The vicar (as I was saying) held out a life-sized, three-dimensional silver hand for us to admire.  In the palm was a little glass window.  Behind this, it was pretty hard to make out, but it looked like a red heart of some description, with fragments of bone (finger bones?) trailed around it.  And very little, if any, withering.

We expressed our appreciation and said our thank you's, complimented the vicar on his lovely church, and realised we had enough time to stroll back to the office, which we did via the grate on Charterhouse Street...under which the underground Fleet River, that Jess expertly reported on a few trips back, flows...or didn't when we last checked.  Still just cigarette butts and sweet wrappers.  No flowing.  That's ok.  The Coach and Horses is still obviously where it's at for those wanting to grab a piece of Fleet River action (check out our recording on the Fleet blog for audible proof of flowing waters). 

And it was mission accomplished on another fascinating trip, delving into and uncovering the mysteries of historic secret London.

Thanks Ethel.  We liked your hand very much.


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