What was the supreme moment in the life of King Henry III, whose reign from the age of nine in 1216 to his death in 1272 dominated 13th century England?
Professor David Carpenter, in his impressive and greatly readable Henry III, says it was undoubtedly the consecration of the rebuilt Westminster Abbey and the translation of the holy body of St Edward the Confessor to the new shrine there. This was on October 13 1269.
There had been an amazing scene 22 years earlier, in 1247, also on the feast day of King Edward. Dressed as a pauper, Henry carried a rock crystal phial holding blood reputedly caught from the body of Christ on the cross. Under a canopy (to honour the relic, I think, rather than the king, as at his coronation), Henry walked the two miles downhill from St Paul’s and over the Fleet river to Westminster. There he put in a place of honour this gift to God, the Abbey and his patron St Edward. Matthew Paris, the learned monk of St Alban’s, recorded it all.
Henry was sent the relic by the Patriarch of Jerusalem, who mentioned in his letter the terrible situation in the Holy Land. Louis IX, King of France, at this time taking the cross as a crusader, had his own relic. He installed the crown of thorns in the Sainte-Chapelle. But Christ’s own blood trumped it, as the Abbey trumped the chapel.
Louis was made a saint. Henry III never was. Yet piety was his leading trait, which he hoped would win over his people. It did, though they did not remain blind to his shortcomings.
If Westminster Abbey was a lasting monument of Henry’s faith, Edward the Confessor was his guiding patron. He even named his son and heir Edward, an unprecedented invocation of an Anglo-Saxon king.
Carpenter is good on what Henry did in his life of piety. He heard Mass daily, on special occasions twice. We are given quotations from the Sarum missal that show the centrality of Christ’s death on the cross in the prayers of the Mass and of the bread and wine’s transubstantiation into his body and blood. Henry, remarking in his humorous way on his limited appetite for hearing sermons, said he preferred to see his God, meaning the sacramental forms held aloft by the priest following the central rite of the Consecration.
The author even gives the words of the Lord’s Prayer, in medieval Latin and more recent English. Henry knew them well, but they are unfamiliar to many educated people today. Even less familiar is the enthusiasm for relics that Henry cultivated. He sent a belt that had reputedly been the Virgin Mary’s to help his beloved queen Eleanor in a difficult confinement.
In good deeds, Henry behaved on a kingly scale. He would spend £1,000 a year feeding paupers at a penny-farthing each a day. Sometimes, even in London, when he was looking for 10,000 to feed at once, he ran out of paupers. This, I think, was no exercise in social relief. Just as he dressed emblematically as a poor man beside a relic of God-made-man, so he sought the poor to give alms, as a sort of correlative to giving thanks for food at the feasts he much enjoyed.
Henry did not want to be his father, King John. Carpenter explodes a myth that John never went to Communion, but, in 1066 terms, John was a Bad Man and a Bad King.
Henry saw himself against eternity. In his new Abbey, the pavement of precious stone gave in a riddle the age the Earth would be when it ended. The answer was 19,683. It wouldn’t be in Henry’s day, then, but he knew his own time would come.