14 February 2011

The Rood of Grace

From a discussion of the Reformation in England, and the debunking of idol-worship in the church:

In February 1538, a representation of the Crucifixion of Christ - the famous 'Rood of Grace' - at the Cistercian abbey of Boxley, near Maidstone in Kent, was jubilantly exposed as a fraud.  It had long been the object of virtuous pilgrimage, as the figure's eyes rolled, the lips moved and it could nod and shake its head, hands and feet.  This regular performance, undertaken strangely only when money was donated to the abbey, was believed by the faithful to be a recurrent and wondrous miracle.  In reality, that miracle was more one of medieval engineering: the monks caused the movements of Christ's effigy simply by secretly tugging on a system of wires, levers and pulleys.  [Henry VIII's minister Thomas] Cromwell's longtime friend Geoffrey Chambers jubilantly reported to the Lord Privy Seal that on plucking down the image he had found 'certain engines and old wire [and] rotten sticks, in the back of the same that did cause the eyes ... to move and stare in the head, like ... a lively thing and also the nether lip likewise to move as though it should speak'.  The abbot 'with other [of] the old monks' naturally denied any knowledge of the automaton, but were sent to London to be questioned by Cromwell, even though the abbot pleaded piteously that he was 'sore sick'.  

Chambers took the contraption to Maidstone market and demonstrated its workings 'to all the people there present, to see the false, crafty and subtle handling thereof, to the dishonour of God and illusion of the people'.  It was then taken to Westminster and shown triumphantly to Henry, who plainly could not decide whether to celebrate the fraud's exposure or lament at the deception inflicted upon his faithful subjects.  

On 12 February, the Rood made positively its last performance at Paul's Cross, outside the great London cathedral, when John Hilsey, Bishop of Rochester, happily smashed it into a hundred pieces.  The destruction revealed the figure to be made of 'paper and clouts [patches of cloth] from the legs upward; each leg and arm were of timber and so the people had been deluded and caused to do great idolatry by the said image of long continuance to the derogation of God's honour and great blasphemy of the name of God'.  The huge crowd of people that witnessed the Rood's destruction now laughed at 'that which they adored but an hour before'.  The 'rude people and boys' then joyfully hurled the remains of the automaton onto a bonfire.

- Robert Hutchinson, Thomas Cromwell, London, 2007, p.162-3.
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