September 14 – Henry VIII destroys a centuries-old shrine
Posted By Claire on September 14, 2022
On this day in Tudor history, 14th September 1538, the Shrine of Our Lady of Caversham, a religious shrine which had stood since the early 12th century, was destroyed on the orders of King Henry VIII.
The shrine was destroyed as part of the king’s dissolution of the monasteries.
Let me share some contemporary accounts of the shrine’s destruction, which include details of what was seized and sent to London…
On this day in Tudor history, 14th September 1538, in the reign of King Henry VIII, Dr John London destroyed the Shrine of Our Lady of Caversham, near Reading, on the king’s orders. It was a shrine that had stood since 1106.
If you don’t know, these shrines were holy places housing relics of a saint, or icons or statues to a saint, such as the Virgin Mary, which people could visit on pilgrimage to worship, venerate, give thanks or pray for saintly intercession and miracles. Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII’s first wife, was said to have been a regular pilgrim to the Shrine of Our Lady of Caversham, and on 17th July 1532 she had travelled there to pray for the Virgin Mary’s help in her situation, with her husband, the king, wanting an annulment of their marriage.
But fast-forward six years and Henry VIII was destroying it.
London reported to Thomas Cromwell on 17th September:
“Has pulled down the image of Our Lady at Caversham, whereunto was great pilgrimage. It is plated over with silver. Has put it in a chest fast locked and nailed up, and will send it by next barge to London. Has pulled down the place she stood in with the lights, shrouds, crutches, images of wax etc. about the chapel, and defaced the same thoroughly.
This chapel belonged to Notley Abbey and there was always a canon of that monastery warden of Caversham, who sang in chapel and had the offerings. He was accustomed to show many pretty relics, among others the holy dagger that killed King Henry, and the holy knife that killed St. Edward. All these with the coats of this image, her cap and hair, my servant will bring your Lordship next week. Has sent the canon home to Notley and made fast the doors of the chapel, the lead of which, if desired, he will make sure for the King: otherwise it will be stolen by night,—as happened at the Friars, where they took the clappers of the bells, and but for the aid of Mr. Fachell and the mayor they would have made no little spoil.”
He wrote another report to Thomas Wriothesley mentioning a “great relic”, which was “an angel with one wing that brought to Caversham the spear’s head that pierced our Saviour’s side upon the Cross”.
The Shrine of Our Lady of Caversham wasn’t the only shrine destroyed in Henry VIII’s reign as part of the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham was destroyed that same year and that was a shrine that the young Henry VIII had walked to barefoot for a mile, to give thanks for the birth of his son, Henry, Duke of Cornwall in 1511. The shrine of St Thomas Becket at Canterbury was also destroyed in 1538 and when Pope Paul III announced Henry VIII’s excommunication in December 1538, he stated that one of the reasons for the excommunication was “still further excesses, having dug up and burned the bones of St, Thomas of Canterbury and scattered the ashes to the winds, (after calling the saint to judgment, condemning him as contumacious, and proclaiming him a traitor), and spoiled his shrine.”
It seems so sad that shrines that had stood for centuries, places that were of real spiritual significance and help for the common people, were destroyed under the guise of ridding England of superstition, but really for adding wealth to the royal coffers.