Thursday, January 28, 2010

Rood of Grace: The Mechanical Crucifix Hoax of the 16th Century

Below is an account about the Rood of Grace, which was housed in the Cistercian Abbey of Boxley in England. It was a place which supposedly contained a crucifix with an image of Jesus that moved its eyes, its lips, its body, and caused great wonder among the pious. Eventually certain Reformers exposed the hoax when they discovered it was operated by the monks through a mechanism it was connected with. I post this to show one example of the depravity of some in the Catholic Church at this time and why so many turned from the Papacy and its superstitions and lies, feeling justified to become Protestants. 

Boxley is best known through its celebrated Rood of Grace, a cross with an image supposed to be miraculously gifted with movement and speech.

More than a century before the dissolution, the abbey is spoken of as "called the abbey of the Holy Cross of Grace." Archbishop Warham, writing to Wolsey in connexion with claims against the abbey, says that it was much sought after by visitors to the Rood from all parts of the realm, and so he would be sorry to put it under an interdict. He calls it "so holy a place where so many miracles be showed." But the image proved to be a gross imposture.

Geoffrey Chamber, employed in defacing the monastery and plucking it down, wrote to Cromwell on 7 February, 1538, that he found in it certain engines and old wire, with old rotten sticks in the back, which caused the eyes to move and stir in the head thereof, "like unto a lively thing," and also, "the nether lip likewise to move as though it should speak, which was not a little strange to him and others present." He examined the abbot and old monks, who declared themselves ignorant of it; and considering that the people of Kent had in time past a great devotion to the image and used continual pilgrimages there, he conveyed it to Maidstone that day, a market day, and showed it to the people, "who had the matter in wondrous detestation and hatred so that if the monastery had to be defaced again they would pluck it down or burn it."

The image was afterwards taken to London and exhibited during a sermon by the bishop of Rochester at St. Paul's Cross, arid then cut to pieces and burnt. The news of the exposure appears to have been widely spread, and probably nothing was more damaging to the case for the monasteries.


Many churches in Britain were dedicated to the Holy Rood or Cross. One at Edinburgh became the nucleus of the palace of the Scottish kings. Holyrood Day was one of much sacred observance all through the middle ages. The same feeling led to a custom of framing, between the nave and choir of churches, what was called a rood-screen or rood-loft, presenting centrally a large crucifix, with images of the Holy Virgin and St. John on each side. A winding stair led up to it, and the epistle and gospel were often read from it. Some of these screens still remain, models of architectural beauty; but numbers were destroyed with reckless fanaticism at the Reformation, the people not distinguishing between the objects which had caused what they deemed idolatry and the beautifully carved work which was free from such a charge.

One of the most famous of these roods or crucifixes was that at the abbey of Boxley, in Kent, which was entitled the Rood of Grace. The legend is, that an English carpenter, having been taken prisoner in the French wars, and wishing to employ his leisure as well as obtain his ransom, made a very skilful piece of workmanship of wood, wire, paste, and paper, in the form of a cross of exquisite proportion, on which hung the figure of our Saviour, which, by means of springs, could bow down, lift itself up, shake its hands and feet, nod the head, roll its eyes, and smile or frown. The carpenter, getting permission to return and sell his work, put it on a horse, and drove it before him; but stopping near Rochester at an alehouse for refreshment, the animal passed on, and missing the straight road, galloped south to Boxley, and being driven by some 'divine furie', never stopped until it reached the church-door, when it kicked so loudly with its heels, that the monks ran out to see the wonder. No sooner was the door opened, than the horse rushed in, and stood still by a pillar. The monks were proceeding to unload, when the owner appeared, and claimed his property; but in vain did he try to lead the horse from the sanctuary; it seemed nailed to the spot. He next attempted to remove the rood, but was equally unsuccessful; so that in the end, through sheer weariness and the entreaties of the monks to have the image left with them, he consented to sell it to them for a piece of money.

The accounts transmitted to us by the Reformers — although to be taken as one-sided — leave us little room to doubt that, in the corrupt age preceding the great change in the sixteenth century, many deceptive practices had come to be connected with the images on the rood-galleries.

"If you were to benefit by the Rood of Grace, the first visit to be paid was to one of the priests, who would hear your confession and give you shrift, in return for a piece of money. You must next do honour to another image of St. Rumwald or Grunnbald, a little picture of a boy-saint, which, by means of a pin of wood put through a pillar behind, made certain contortions, by which the monks could tell whether all sins had been atoned for in the previous confession. Those who stretched their purse-strings, and made liberal offerings, gained St. Rumwald to their side, and were pronounced to he living a pure life. If the poor pilgrim had done all this with sufficient honour to himself and the saints, he was prepared to go to the holy rood and gain plenary absolution."

At the dissolution of the abbeys, Cromwell and his associates laid their ruthless hands on Boxley; and Nicholas Partridge, suspecting some cheat in the Rood of Grace, made an examination, and soon discovered the spring which turned the mechanism. It was taken to Maidstone, and there exposed to the people; from thence to London, where the king and his court laughed at the object they had once deemed holy; and, finally, it was brought before an immense multitude at St. Paul's Cross, by Hilsey, bishop of Rochester, on Sunday, the 24th of February 1538, when it was broken to pieces and buried, the bishop preaching a sermon on the subject.


Read the letter of Geoffrey Chamber which exposes the hoax, here.

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