For those of you who have visited Westminster Abbey’s gallery displaying various treasures of our ancient abbey, you may have well have failed to notice an illuminated manuscript known as The Cramp Ring manuscript. In 2006 when I was researching my Master’s dissertation I was allowed to photograph the whole manuscript and the images of the manuscript in this article are those taken on that day. I apologise for the wonkiness, but I did not have a camera stand.
Back in 2006 the manuscript was kept in the Muniment Room, which is accessed by an ancient nondescript wooden door situated in the cloister. This very anonymous door leads to the abbey’s chained library and then you ascend into the lofty rooms above the public space of the abbey by way of an equally ancient staircase. It was a very hot day and even the office high situated above the nave was a wonderfully cool place to be. The experience was heightened by the voices of the choir rehearsing in the abbey below. The internal windows of the office opened immediately above the choirstalls allowing us the uninterrupted experience of listening to the exquisite blending of the voices of the choir. That afternoon will remain one of the highlights of my post graduate research.
The manuscript contains four full page illuminations and each page has illuminated margins that are decorated with Renaissance motifs. The four pages are of the combined coats of arms of Mary I and her husband Philip II of Spain; the laying on of hands to cure the King’s Evil; the night vigil before the ceremony of the blessing of the cramp rings and last, but definitely no means least, the crucifixion of Christ.
The manuscript was rebound in the 19th century in blue leather with Mary’s initial M combined with R for Regina, the Tudor rose and the fleur de lys of France in gold leaf. Mary did not sign herself Mary Regina, so this is a 19th century idea.
A little bit of the history of cramp rings generally, and how this ceremony came about
Some years after his Break with the Church of Rome Henry VIII issued a proclamation on 26th February, 1539 that certain elements of various Catholic practices were to be ‘used without superstition’ and were ‘signs and tokens, not the workers nor the works, of our salvation’. The Ten Articles of 1536 had contained these directions, but clearly by 1539 the king felt clarification was required. In addition to the bread and wine of Communion being symbolic of the blood and body of Christ and did not undergo transubstantiation, these signs and tokens included creeping to the Cross on Good Friday. While these were clearly symbols of the salvation of mankind, Henry did not cease the other ceremony that had been a tradition of the monarchy since the reign of Edward the Confessor (1003 – 1066). Far from being a symbol or token, the Good Friday blessing of cramp rings and the laying on of hands on selected victims of the King’s Evil could only be performed by the monarchs of England and France and at that time was a recognised ceremony of healing.
Rings have had a place in legends and traditions from antiquity to the present day. When it comes to the cramp rings given out in the English Good Friday ceremony the ceremony had its roots from the end of the 12th century, but the idea and belief in their efficacy for curing ills, such as epilepsy, was not confined to England. The imperial ambassador wrote to Emperor Charles V in June 1518 as follows: ‘If your Grace remember me with some crampe-ryngs, ye shall doe a thing muche looked for and I trust to bestowe theym well, with Goddes grace, who evermore preserve and increase your most reverent estate.’ Clearly the ambassador was intending to give cramp rings as tokens of imperial favour, but to whom we are not told.
In another instance, the giving of a cramp ring was one of the pieces of evidence that led to the execution of the fifth wife of Henry VIII. Thomas Culpeper said that Katharine Howard took a silver cramp ring from the finger of Lady Rochford and gave it to him. Katherine’s version is that Lady Rochford gave the ring to Culpeper of her own accord. Either way, a gift of a cramp ring was given to Thomas Culpeper by one of the women and was why, together with other evidence, all three lost their heads. What we do not know is why Lady Rochford was wearing a cramp ring. Did she suffer from epilepsy or other similar condition? That will forever remain a mystery.
When it comes to this manuscript, the origins of this particular ceremony of blessing and giving of cramp rings is more focused. In this extract from William Jones’s 1877 book, Finger-Ring Lore; Historical, Legendary and Anecdotal we have the legend of King Edward’s Ring, from which the ceremony derives both its tradition and meaning.
“King Edward [the Confessor] was on his way to Westminster when he was met by a beggar, who implored him in the name of St John – the apostle peculiarly venerated by the monarch – to grant him assistance. The charitable King had exhausted his read-money in alms-giving, but drew from his finger a ring, ‘large, beautiful and royal,’ which he gave to the beggar, who thereupon immediately disappeared. Shortly afterwards, two English pilgrims in the Holy Land found themselves benighted, and in great distress, when suddenly the path before them was lighted up, and an old man, white and hoary, preceded by two tapers, accosted them. Upon telling him to what country they belonged, the old man, ‘joyously like to a clerk’, guided them to a hostelry and announced that he was John the Evangelist, the special patron of King Edward, and gave them a ring to carry back to the monarch, with the warning that in six months’ time the King would be with him in Paradise. The pilgrims returned and found the King at his palace, called from this incident ‘Havery atte Bower.’ He recognised the ring and prepared for his end accordingly. On the death of the Confessor, according to custom, he was attired in his royal robes, the crown on his head, a crucifix and gold chain round his neck and the ‘Pilgrim’s Ring’ on his finger. The body was laid to rest before the high altar at Westminster Abbey (1066AD).”
When the Confessor’s grave in Westminster Abbey was opened up in 1163 AD his body was (allegedly) found to be as fresh as the day it had been interred. This was a miracle as the body had been in the ground for ninety seven years and should have been a skeleton. The ring returned to him by St John via the two pilgrims was still on his finger and at this time was taken by the abbot who gave the ring into the safe keeping of the abbey where it was used as a healing charm. So began the myth that successors of King Edward had inherited the power to heal by blessing cramp rings and giving them to the afflicted to work cures of certain ills. It was also believed that the hands of the monarch could cure the King’s Evil if the royal hands were laid on the afflicted and this manuscript has the two ceremonies being rolled into the one held on Good Friday.
The Good Friday ceremony was abolished in 1549 during the reign of Edwar VI, but reinstated when Mary I succeeded to the throne in 1553. This manuscript was thought to have been commissioned by the first English queen regnant and has somehow managed to survive ravages of the English Civil War of the 17th century when the Puritans were in power and much later the two world wars of the 20th century.
The first fully illuminated page shows the combined coats of arms of Philip II and Mary contained within the Order of the Garter with Order’s motto of Hony Soyt qui mal y pense in gold. Immediately below in the bottom margin is what appears to be a grey shield with a red cross. Originally this would have glittered silver as the grey is oxidised silver leaf and has the cross of St George laid over it, all within a painted laurel wreath. The marginal decoration thoughout the book is very Italian in style. The inner rectangle has the pomegranate of Spain, the emblem of both Mary’s mother, Katharine of Aragon and Mary’s new husband, Philip II of Spain. The red rose of England is now quite pink suggesting this pigment is different and less stable that the more vivid reds we see on this oage. These vivid reds are very probably vermilion which is less fugitive than the organic reds and is what is used in the imperial crown, on the coats of arms of the king and queen, and of St George at the bottom, as all have retained their vividness. The split in the pomegranates are also still very vivid, and you would expect the more expensive pigment to be used in a royal emblem, but clearly the rose was not thought as important as the pomegranate. This idea does not explain the use of vermillion in certain elements of the stylised foliation, so perhaps the use of a more pinky red was deliberate. The green has a predominantly blue green hue throughout.
If the authorities would permit this document to undergo non-invasive scientific analysis of the pigments it might be possible to identify a possible artist. Dr Strong has described the way the illuminations are painted is weak, but I feel they are better described as rushed. Elements of the perspective in the two full page illuminations showing Mary is odd and the darkened windows of the night scene of Mary’s vigil have been painted as if the painter were in a hurry.
The ceremony was conducted in Latin, but the instructions (in red) are written in English. The first page tells us this is “The Ceremony for the healing of them that be diseased with the king’s Evil”. But what is the King’s Evil? It was thought to be scrofula.
What is Scrofula I hear you ask. It is more correctly known as tuberculosis lymphadenitis, and it affects the lymph nodes. In this image the queen touches the neck of the afflicted person while a priest kneels behind them. The perspective is a bit odd and her hands seem over large, but perhaps this was deliberate in order to emphasise the importance of the royal touch. In both images of Mary she is shown wearing her distinctive head-dress. However, where she is laying her hands on the neck of the afflicted person, it isn’t clear whether she is kneeling on a blue and gold cushion, or if that is her kirtle.
Her celebrant priest kneels behind her and watches in order he says the right thing at the right time as laid out in the manuscript. The tonsured priest has rolled down the neckline of the woman’s dress so the queen can touch the neck of the poor girl. Considering the awfulness of the disease, the queen must have had a strong stomach. This is an example of what would have confronted Mary and in a world where medical science was more superstition than science, it is enough to make even the hardest heart to soften in sympathy for those seeking a cure at the hands of the queen.
In the top margin of the illumination we see that a timer containing the sands of time lying on its side within a ring. The top part of a skull is in the corresponding place in the bottom margin as a reminder of our mortality. The pillar in the main scene would normally be there to separate the ordinary kneeling mortal from the divinely appointed queen, except we can see how Mary, God’s anointed queen, has reached across to lay her hands on the sick person. This bridging of a separating emblem of the common person from the royal shows ho through her touch the cure will be administered by the divine.
What is odd, and today you would not even comment on it, but this is the only case I know of seeing a carpet on the floor of a 16thcentury image. Carpets were expensive items and more usually seen laid on tables. The tiles of the floor are cracked and the floor appears uneven, so perhaps it was placed there for the queen’s comfort.
The blessing of the cramp rings
The other full page illumination shows Mary alone in a chapel.
It is night and we know this because the windows are dark, but we do not learn from the manuscript if she performed an all night vigil. She is before the altar, but whether she is standing or kneeling is not clear. On either side of her are two shallow dishes holding the cramp rings. We can just make out the altar where sits a painted panel of the crucified Christ and someone with a red robe. The candle is not lit; that will not be rekindled until Easter day when the Resurrection is celebrated. There is a subtle reminder of Christ’s journey from birth to death by the inclusion of the Virgin and Child statue on the wall between the two arched windows. As in the other image a carpet is on the floor suggesting the chill from the floor was penetrating.
In the middle of the bottom margin is a laurel wreath showing England’s patron saint, St George in the act of killing the dragon, while at the top an eliptical ring contains a naked child resting his head on a skull.
If you are wondering who the naked female shown in the green wreath in the margin to the left, it took me a bit of time to work out that this has to be Salome who is holding a severed head in one hand and a sword in the other. She demanded the head of John the Baptist as a reward from her stepfather, Herod Antipas, for her dance of the seven veils, one of which is draped across her arms almost making her decent. This is a subtle reminder of the unfair and brutal end of the saint who baptised Christ. None of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark or Luke who tell this tale give us a date, but it is thought that St John died around 27-28 AD.
I have wondered whether the vigil scene was based on an actual private chapel possibly in Whitehall or elsewhere, but we will probably never know.
The page of prayers opposite have the instruction for which prayers Mary is to say during the consecration of the rings written in red ink in English. The prayers start with an illuminated letter and are all in latin.
The queen would rub the rings through her hands, all the while saying a prayer.
During the coronation ceremony, the queen had been anointed with holy oil (as well as salt and holy water) and it was by virtue of this anointing that the power to heal would be passed into the metal of the rings. The rings would then be placed back into the dishes and covered with holy water while more prayers and benedictions were said over the dishes.
The third full page illumination is of the crucifixion where we see the distressed Virgin Mary and St John standing at the foot of the cross.
The background shows a walled city and on the zig zag path a figure carrying a long spear can be seen walking towards the city gate – the soldier who had pierced the side of Christ perhaps? The scene is timeless unlike that (below).
This page may be the same scene portrayed as the altarpiece in the vigil illumination because we can just make out a similar figure in red to the right hand side of the curtain masking the altarpiece from our view. The margin to the right has a wreath where the instruments used during Christ’s incarceration are shown, otherwise the rest of the margin is devoid of any symbolic elements.
In this scene of the crucifixion from the da Costa Hours, Ms 399, in the Morgan Library & Collection, New York, by Simon Bening (c1483/85 – 1561), there is more engagement with the texts of the Gospels. As in our scene, there is a zig zag path and instead of a lone soldier, there are several people walking away from Golgotha. We can tell from the pointed spires seen just above the Virgin’s head, and the clothes of the two onlookers that Bening has chosen to paint this as an early 16th century occurence in a similar way to many of the Flemish masters.
Despite the absence of Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea who stand on the right hand side of the cross, our scene captures the personal grief of the Virgin and St John.
Both scenes show skulls except the Bening image is more lurid in that the lower jaw has become detached and there is a random bone to the right. The sky in both images tells us this is 3 p.m. in the afternoon and that Christ has died.
If you are wondering who the artist of the Cramp ring manuscript was, I have been researching various illuminated manuscripts for the past sixteen years and there is sufficient visual evidence to confirm this manuscript was created by Levina Teerlinc. Whether you think these various pages are ‘weak’ is a matter of personal opinion. They are not of the same calibre as those of her father, the great Simon Bening, but in my opinion she is still a great artist. But then again I admit, perhaps I am biased.
After Mary’s death in November 1558, Elizabeth I had this ceremony dropped but the Anglican church retained the tradition of giving Maundy money and washing the feet of the same number of poor people as the number of years of the reign on the Thursday immediately before Good Friday.
Tomorrow I am planning a post that shows all the events of Good Friday as seen through the eyes of the 15th and 16th century Flemish masters.
Stay safe and keep well.
Jones, FSA; William; Finger-Ring Lore; Historical, Legendary And Anecdotal; 1877. (Google Books)
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3381788/ for a more detailed scientific account of Scrofula.
Josephine Wilkinson; Katharine Howard: The Tragic Story of Henry VIII’s Fifth Wife; John Murray, 2016.
The Da Costa Hours. Ms M399. Morgan Library & Museum, New York. (Created 1515 by Simon Bening)