Relics,Witches & Ships in Bottles

What happened to objects when Henry VIII closed the monasteries? This is an area of history that is often ignored or the subject of guesswork, especially in England where there was so much destruction of religious artefacts at the long drawn-out Reformation. But here’s some thoughts.

Every church that conducted masses had to have a relic to provide a sense of wonder at the performance. They were usually or always linked to the patron or namesake of the church, which in many cases was the big man himself hence the large number of pieces allegedly of the True Cross that were claimed to exist. When Henry VII’s commissioners went investigating such allegedly idolatrous and superstitious practices, they were amused and intrigued by the number of so-called relics that were just old shoes, combs, etc, so furthering their claims that the items were fraudulent.

Until recently the only containers I knew of for relics were ornate expensive reliquaries such as this one in London’s V&A museum:


But such items were only in large religious institutions: the abbeys and cathedrals which attracted wealthy patrons so also had a lot of relics to attract pilgrims as extra sources of revenue. But most churches in England were small affairs, with poorly educated, even illiterate clerics serving humble people working the land, so their relics must have been dedicated to lesser known, probably local saints, and stored likewise in simple receptacles like these, a glass and a book. These were portable, so may have been owned by illegal priests, but I think this gives an idea of how relics in poor parishes could have been stored and displayed.

And here’s where it gets interesting. What happened to these small items which were alleged to hold God’s power? I have no idea, but maybe some were kept, maybe they were still used to provide comfort and maybe even heal people.

Priests were given pensions by the state, but nuns were just thrown out. How did the former nuns and sisters survive? Perhaps they used their healing skills, helped by prayers, many of which invoked the holy trinity, i.e. father son and holy ghost. Many witches’ spells seem to involve similar triples.

But the pre-reformation practices were outlawed, so whoever owned these items, or who perhaps made similar items, adapted their own rituals. Prayers became incantations, relics became good luck charms, or included into various rites.

Here’s a witches’ bottle from Cambridge folk museum. Maybe a descendant of reliquaries, especially as it comes from the Puritan heartland, so hard to maintain old rituals.


But then the story gets strange, as there were bottles with handiwork in them, often scenes of the passion, with the cross, ladder, spear etc. They were assembled inside a bottle – any sort – and filled with water to expand them and hold the items in place. They were made and used by Napoleonic prisoners of war who mostly came from Catholic countries, and were called ‘God in a bottle’ though probably they had their own name for them.


The final stage is this ship in a bottle, my version using an old intravenous drip bottle, suggesting this was made by someone in hospital as part of their occupational therapy, but versions can be found in lots of curiosity shops.


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