Sunday, 2 March 2014

The Musical Death of Chad of Mercia

St Chad (Brasenose chapel, Oxford)

This is Bede's account of the death of St Chad of Mercia, abbot and bishop, on 2 March 672 (translation taken from here):

He had his episcopal see in the place called Lichfield, in which he also died, and was buried, and where the see of the succeeding bishops of that province still continues. He had built himself a habitation not far from the church, wherein he was wont to pray and read with seven or eight of the brethren, as often as he had any spare time from the labour and ministry of the word.

When he had most gloriously governed the church in that province two years and a half, the Divine Providence so ordaining, there came round a season like that of which Ecclesiastes says, "That there is a time to cast stones, and a time to gather them;" for there happened a mortality [i.e. a plague] sent from heaven, which, by means of the death of the flesh, translated the stones of the church from their earthly places to the heavenly building. And when, after many of the church of that most reverend prelate had been taken out of the flesh, his hour also drew near wherein he was to pass out of this world to our Lord, it happened one day that he was in the aforesaid dwelling, with only one brother, called Owine...

The bishop was alone reading or praying in the oratory of that place, when on a sudden, as [Owine] afterwards said, he heard the voice of persons singing most sweetly and rejoicing, and appearing to descend from heaven. Which voice he said he first heard coming from the south­east, and that afterwards it drew near him, till it came to the roof of the oratory where the bishop was, and entering therein, filled the same and all about it. He listened attentively to what he heard, and after about half an hour, perceived the same song of joy to ascend from the roof of the said oratory, and to return to heaven the same way it came, with inexpressible sweetness.

Worcester Cathedral

When he had stood some time astonished, and seriously revolving in his mind what it might be, the bishop opened the window of the oratory, and making a noise with his hand, as he was often wont to do, ordered him to come in to him. He accordingly went hastily in, and the bishop said to him, "Make haste to the church, and cause the seven brothers to come hither, and do you come with them." When they were come, he first admonished them to preserve the virtue of peace among themselves, and towards all others; and indefatigably to practise the rules of regular discipline, which they had either been taught by him, or seen him observe or had noticed in the words or actions of the former fathers. Then he added, that the day of his death was at hand; for, said he, "that amiable guest, who was wont to visit our brethren, has vouchsafed also to come to me this day, and to call me out of this world. Return, therefore, to the church, and speak to the brethren, that they in their prayers recommend my passage to our Lord, and that they be careful to provide for their own, the hour whereof is uncertain, by watching, prayer, and good works."

When he had spoken thus much and more, and they, having received his blessing, had gone away in sorrow, he who had heard the heavenly song returned alone, and prostrating himself on the ground, said, "I beseech you, father, may I be permitted to ask a question?" "Ask what you will," answered the bishop. Then he added, "I entreat you to tell me what song of joy was that which I heard coming upon this oratory, and after some time returning to heaven?" The bishop answered, "If you heard the singing, and know of the coming of the heavenly company, I command you, in the name of our Lord, that you do not tell the same to any before my death. They were angelic spirits, who came to call me to my heavenly reward, which I have always longed after, and they promised they would return seven days hence, and take me away with them." Which was accordingly fulfilled, as had been said to him; for being presently seized with a languishing distemper, and the same daily increasing, on the seventh day, as had been promised to him, when he had prepared for death by receiving the body and blood of our Lord, his soul being delivered from the prison of the body, the angels, as may justly be believed, attending him, he departed to the joys of heaven.


The wikipedia article about Chad is enlightening on his role in seventh-century politics, and also points out the interesting fact that St Chad's Cathedral in Birmingham is in possession of some probably authentic relics of the saint; this makes Chad one of the few Anglo-Saxon saints whose relics have survived the double trial of the Norman Conquest and the Reformation. From the Cathedral's website:

In 1538 the Shrine was dismantled under the orders of King Henry VIII and the bones of St Chad either destroyed or buried in an unknown location.

One of the priests at the Cathedral, Prebendary Arthur Dudley, rescued a box containing some of St Chad’s bones which was kept in St Chad’s Head Chapel. He asked two female relatives, probably his nieces who lived at Russells Hall, Dudley, to look after them. They in turn passed them on to two brothers, Henry and William Hodgetts, who lived at Woodsetton Farm at Sedgley near Wolverhampton. They divided the bones between them. William died in 1649 and his widow gave his share of the bones to Henry who reputedly kept them hidden on the top of his four-poster bed.

When Henry was dying in 1651 he received the Last Rites from a Jesuit priest, Fr Anthony Turner. During the Litany of the Saints Henry began adding ‘St Chad, pray for me’. Fr Turner enquired why he was so devoted to St Chad and he explained that he had some of St Chad’s bones in his possession. He handed them over to Fr Turner who wrote down all that Henry had told him about the relics and how they had come to him through the Dudley family. Fr Turner had his statement witnessed by two other Jesuits and they had a new casket made, covered in red velvet and with silver hinges and locks, made for the relics.

The Jesuits eventually handed the bones over to Basil Fitzherbert of Swynnerton Hall, near Stoke-on-Trent, for safe-keeping. Basil died in 1797 and his widow and eight-year-old son moved to a smaller house at Aston by Stone. Here a chapel was built and served as Mass centre for the surrounding district. The family eventually moved back to Swynnerton, and Aston Hall and its chapel was closed up.

In 1839 the chapel was reopened by Fr Benjamin Hulme and he discovered a chest underneath the altar in which was a velvet-covered box containing a collection of relics, including six bones wrapped in silk with Fr Turner’s document. The bones were taken to Oscott and examined by Bishop Thomas Walsh, the Vicar Apostolic of the Midland District, and his coadjutor, Bishop Nicholas Wiseman. After careful perusal of all the evidence a report was sent to Rome and Pope Gregory XVI confirmed that these were the bones of St Chad and instructed that they be enshrined in the new cathedral in Birmingham which was in the process of construction. They were placed in a shrine designed by Pugin above the High Altar on the day of its consecration on 21 June 1841. The shrine, which Pugin based on the Venerable Bede’s description of the original at Lichfield, was further embellished by Hardmans in 1931.

In 1995 Archbishop Maurice Couve de Murville arranged for a fresh examination of the bones by the University of Oxford Archaeology Unit. The report concluded that one of the bones is eighth century (and therefore cannot have belonged to St Chad) but the other five are all of the mid-seventh century. Two of the bones are left femurs and so are of different individuals. It is therefore reasonably certain that at least one and possibly three of the bones are those of St Chad. The evidence from the scientific examination was published in a Decree issued in 1997 by Archbishop Couve de Murville which required that the bones are kept together and venerated collectively.

Bakewell, Derbyshire

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