For more than 100 years, historians have wondered, What happened to King Henry VI’s missing arm? (And what might wine have to do with it?)
A favorite subject of William Shakespeare’s, the infant Henry VI succeeded his father Henry V as King of England in 1422, inheriting as well the Hundred Years’ War. He would grow up to become a major player in the Wars of the Roses, and also to experience not infrequent bouts of madness. In 1460 he was defeated and imprisoned by his cousins the Yorks. Over the next decade or so he would be rescued, restored to power, defeated again, imprisoned in the Tower of London, all at least twice each, until he ultimately met his demise in 1471, probably murdered, but who can say? And it’s then that things really get interesting …
Henry was buried at Chertsey Abbey, and soon thereafter, the late king began to be credited with miracles and healing powers, perhaps most famously that putting on his hat could cure headaches. His tomb became popular among pilgrims seeking the blessings of “Saint Henry,” a windfall for the monks of Chertsey—and making Henry VI’s remains an object of desire among more influential houses of worship.
Perhaps not surprisingly, King Richard III ordered Henry VI’s remains (and the substantial income they brought with them) moved to the then-new St. George’s Chapel at Windsor in 1484 (no doubt at the behest of Windsor), where they, ahem, remained until an exhumation in 1910 under the direction of King George V. Rather than solving the mystery of Henry VI’s death, the exhumation introduced a new mystery: Where’d his arm go, and who put that pig bone in its place?
Enter Dr. Euan Roger, a British historian at the U.K.'s National Archives, who recently put two and two together while perusing King Henry VIII’s 1535 Compendium Compertorum, a document auditing the clerical abuses and possessions, including relics, of the many monasteries he dissolved while seizing their lands.
The Chertsey monks were recorded as possessing two holy relics, one of which was the arm bone of St. Blaise of Sebaste (aka St. Blasius), an Armenian bishop and physician venerated as the patron saint of wool combers and throat ailments. The monks were known to offer a sip of wine poured through the arm bone of St. Blaise to pilgrims suffering from throat pain. "We have Henry's body being relocated to Windsor, but intriguingly not all of his body made the trip," Roger told Wine Spectator. “Then a few decades later, [the Chertsey Abbey] suspiciously has this relic, which is an arm bone.”
Roger theorizes that the monks of Chertsey were loath to separate entirely from their golden goose, particularly because he’s found no documentation of the abbey acquiring the relic. "If [Chertsey’s relic of St. Blaise] is, in fact, Henry’s arm, then it had been concealed at the point of relocation,” he said. “Openly stating that this was Henry’s relic would have laid this concealment wide open and may have had repercussions from Windsor or from Henry VIII—Henry VI having been his ancestor."
"Religious houses like Chertsey Abbey and Windsor did have substantial lands and grants to support them, so they were not entirely dependent on pilgrimage, but given the number of religious houses in the pre-Reformation period, pilgrimage and patronage could be hugely important," said Roger.
"Often when we find details or surviving examples of arm relics they resemble actual arms, with elaborate decoration, and might be used to touch those visiting shrines in a symbolic fashion. I haven’t looked at the practice of drinking wine from relics more broadly, so there may be other examples, but I’m not sure it was a particularly common practice," said Roger. "Contact relics—materials including water and oil which had been in physical contact [with a saint]—were common, however, where the presence of the liquid with a relic acquired a spiritual benefit of its own, so pouring wine through a groove in a bone for consumption makes sense in this way."
The actual bone from the Chertsey Abbey has been lost to time, but the next time you see "bone luge" on the menu at a trendy hipster wine bar, tip your hat to Henry VI—he might even cure your headache the next morning.
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