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Montacute's Legend of the Holy Cross

[Image shows a page from one of the surviving copies of the original manuscript. The text starts "Ista que secuntur uidelicet de Regibus knouto. Haedeknouto et harolo deficiunt in libro de Inuentione Crucis nostre de Waltham. ...."]

The Story of the Holy Cross

In the time of King Canute (King Cnut), about 1015-35 AD, a life-size stone crucifix, the Holy Cross, was dug up on Montacute Hill (St Michael's Hill) along with a smaller crucifix, a bell, and a black book ('Liber Niger'). Or so the story goes. The legend of this miraculous discovery was recorded in 1177 by one of the canons of a newly-founded Augustinian Priory, 150 miles away at Waltham in Essex, north of London. The story tells how a pious, God-fearing smith in the village of Montacute was visited one night by a divine figure, who told him that when he woke in the morning he should gather all the villagers together and tell them to fast, pray and confess their sins. Once purified they should all go to the top of the hill where they were to dig up a treasure that had been hidden for generations. When the smith woke he thought he must have imagined everything so he simply ignored the instructions.

Some time later, in a second visitation, he was told he would be punished if he didn't go to the priest and do as he had been commanded. The blacksmith, clearly a sensible man, asked his wife what she thought he should do. However, we are told the wife was 'a foolish woman, quick to give thoughtless advice', and so again the smith did nothing. A while later he received a third visit and this time he was thoroughly rebuked; the divine figure gripped his arm so tightly he left finger-nail marks to prove the smith wasn't imagining things. When he awoke he fled to the priest and together they prepared for the task.

On the day when they were ready to carry out their instructions a huge crowd joined the villagers, and they all climbed the hill. At the top they dug down '40 cubits' (about 60 feet or 18 metres) until they found a massive stone, in the middle of which a gaping fissure appeared. They removed the debris and suddenly there appeared  a carving of the crucified Saviour, carved from 'black' stone (Tournai marble? polished blue lias? ref Watkiss & Chibnall 1994). There was also a smaller crucifix, a bell, and the 'Liber Niger’ (Black Book, a book of the Gospels). As these relics were too sacred for the villagers to touch they surrounded them with tents and sent for their Lord, Tovi (aka Tofig) the Proud, (King Cnut’s standard-bearer and right-hand man). 

When Tovi arrived they took the relics to 'the churchyard on the floor of the valley' so the oxen could be yoked to transport the relics. He sent the smaller crucifix to the local church (probably the Priory church at this time?) while he organised a cart with 12 red oxen and 12 white cows to carry the larger cross and other relics to one of the big churches. The animals refused to move until they heard Tovi say the word 'Waltham'. So Tovi took the Holy Cross all the way to his estate north of London. Immediately the locals there started finding themselves miraculously healed! Tovi had a church built there with foundation for two priests, and the first inhabitants of Waltham were sixty-six persons who were cured by the relic, and who devoted themselves to its honour. He had the figure on the cross embellished with gold and precious stones, but when they started to put in the first stud the stone began to bleed. Tovi hung his own sword around the figure, while his wife bought a gold crown and girdle for it, and had her gold jewellery melted down to make a foot-support for the Saviour. She even had a stone set into the foot-support which glowed in the dark – Henry of Blois, Bishop of Winchester wanted to buy the stone for 100 Marks but was refused. 

After Tovi’s death the Waltham estate passed to King Edward the Confessor and then, on his death in 1066, to King Harold Godwinson. As a child Harold had been miraculously cured of paralysis by the Holy Cross. On his way south from the Battle of Stamford Bridge to fight William of Normandy, Harold and his men stopped to pray at Waltham, and the battle-cry of the English troops at Hastings was "Holy Cross". The cross may have disappeared from Waltham around the time of the Reformation, however the only other contemporary references I can find relating to the cross are in connection with King Harold, I haven't found any later sources.

An interesting aside; Cnut, King of England 1016-1035, was succeeded by his son Harold Harefoot, son of his first wife Aelfgifu. Harold Harefoot died in 1040 and was succeeded by his half-brother Harthacnut, Cnut's son with Emma of Normandy. According the the manuscript, King Harthacnut unexpectedly dropped dead at Tovi's wedding feast in 1042. Confusingly, the same document says his wife in the time of Cnut (ie prior to Harthacnut's reign) contributed her gold to the installation of the Holy Cross. Was this a second wife? Or did the installation of the Holy Cross occur many years after its initial discovery? Harthacnut was succeeded by his half brother Edward (the Confessor), the son of Emma of Normandy from her previous marriage to Aethelred the Unready (King of England  978-1013 and 1014-1016.) Edward ruled England from 1016 until 1066. 

The Old Chapel on Ham Hill

In A History of the County of Somerset: Volume 3 it says that in 1535 there was a chapel on Ham Hill dedicated to the Holy Cross; oblations offered there belonged to Montacute priory as owner of Montacute rectory. It probably stood near the Prince of Wales inn, where a piece of land was called Hanging Chapple in 1666, and Ham Chapel in 1840. Its connection with Montacute may suggest an association with the fair on Ham Hill given by the count of Mortain to Montacute priory c. 1102.

Below: The Battle of Stamford Bridge, illustration from a 13th century copy of Matthew Paris's 'Life of King Edward the Confessor'.

The Origins of the Legend

The legend of the Holy Cross is recorded in the Waltham Chronicle, which survives in two early copies of the original manuscript.  These are the 13th Century Cotton manuscript, Cotton Julius D. VI fos 73-121 to be precise, and the 14th Century Harley manuscript, Harley 3776 fos. 25-62 ( Leslie Watkiss and Marjorie Chibnall, authors of a 1994 translation (published by Oxford Medieval Texts) reckon the Cotton manuscript was transcribed around 1210-1230, and the British Library date the transcription of Harley 3776 between 1345 and 1360s. The manuscript Harley 3776 was originally bound with Harley 3766 and appears to include pages from the ‘Liber Niger’ that was discovered with the Holy Cross in Montacute; the manuscripts were originally owned by the Augustinian Abbey at Waltham. The Cotton collection was accumulated between approx. 1590 and 1700 by the politician Sir Robert Bruce Cotton and his descendants, while the Harley manuscripts were collected between approx. 1680 and 1740 by the 1st and 2nd Earls of Oxford. The quirky numbering system for the Cotton collection relates to the location of the manuscripts in Sir Cotton’s original library; each of the 14 presses containing the manuscripts had the bust of a classical figure on top, so the reference Cotton Julius D.VI fos 73-121 tells us these pages were originally kept on shelf D, 6th manuscript from the left, in the press beneath a bust of Julius Caesar; the Lindisfarne Gospels were Nero D.IV!

The Cotton and Harley collections of manuscripts, along with the Sloane collection, were the founding collections of the British Library in 1753, and digitised copies of the Harley version of the Waltham Chronicle along with translations and provenance of the manuscripts can be viewed online in the Archives and Manuscripts section. The most recent and authoritative interpretation of these manuscripts seems to be The Waltham Chronicle (ed. Watkiss L and Chibnall M 1994) which includes the Latin text and the English translation as well as many notes, but prior publications include The Foundation of Waltham Abbey: The Tract 'De Inventione Sanctae Crucis nostrae', pp. xxxi-xxxii, 1-44 (William Stubbs, 1861, Latin, collation of the text of Harley MS 3776  ff. 43r-62v), and William Winters, 'Historical Notes on Some of the Ancient Manuscripts Formerly Belonging to the Monastic Library of Waltham Holy Cross', Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 6 (1877), 203-66 (pp. 228-30); ( See also The History of the Ancient Parish of Waltham Abbey, or Holy Cross by W. Winters, Williams, 1888.

J.P. Carley in ‘Glastonbury Abbey and the Arthurian tradition, ch. XVII,’ notes that the story of the Holy Cross and the kudos gained by the church at Waltham may have prompted the search for King Arthur’s grave at Glastonbury. The links between Glastonbury and Montacute continue with the story that Joseph of Arimathea, whom legend says built the original church on Glastonbury Hill, brought a Nail from the True Cross from the holy land and was buried with it on St Michael's Hill in Montacute, the nail being subsequently found and sold (as described in ‘The Particular Description of the County of Somerset, drawn up by Thomas Gerard of Trent, 1633', ed by Revd E H Bates. 1900). 

Supporting evidence

There is a surprising lack of evidence for the existence of a Holy Cross at Waltham! Waltham Abbey's town history website tells us Waltham church at was consecrated in 1060 and given to Durham See after the conquest (Durham's secular canons were replaced by Benedictines in 1083; does this give us the link to Montacute's Benedictine priory?). The town history website tells us Waltham church profited from pilgrims visiting the Holy Cross, and was expanded in the early 1100’s. The secular canons continued until 1177, when (as part of his penance for the murder of Thomas a’ Becket) Henry II founded an Augustinian priory, and the church was granted the status of Abbey shortly afterwards. This was when the manuscript describing the history of the Holy Cross was written. However I can find no other records that even describe a Holy Cross at Waltham, and certainly there is no record of it after the destruction of the priory during the reformation. I would love to hear about early references to the Holy Cross!

What about the site where the Holy Cross was found?

A small trench opened on St. Michael’s Hill in 1989 showed the presence of masonry walls but these probably belonged to the subsequent medieval chapel (Somerset EUS; an archaeological assessment of Montacute; Richardson 2003.)

Next you might like to read my notes on The Siege of Montacute Castle or the legend of Joseph of Arimathea in Montacute, or check out Montacute snippets for my notes on a different topic