Published: 06:00, 10 November 2020
| Updated: 10:55, 10 November 2020
It can be easy to look back to medieval times and laugh at the fascination - and extensive trade - of religious relics.
After all, the appeal of the bones, hair, teeth, clothes and even brains of saints and religious icons held a hugely desirable lure for those of faith who wanted to feel, and indeed own, a personal effect of those touched by God.
And, for the places of worship which showcased them, they were a useful tool to pull in the crowds.
The fact almost all were fakes was overlooked in the clamour to own one.
Wags would suggest the numbers of 'splinters from the cross' doing the rounds could fill a forest and the ‘nails used during the crucifixion’ sufficient to build a substantial house (as so superbly parodied in the often under-rated first series of comedy classic Blackadder - see clip below (watch out for the bad language near the end)).
The Reformation - Henry VIII's desire to strip the Catholic Church of power and prestige - put paid to the vast majority.
Today, there is a church in Pittsburgh, in the US, which claims to house some 5,000 relics including 22 splinters of the 'true cross', a splinter from the table at the Last Supper, pieces of bone of all the Apostles and a thorn from the Crown of Thorns. It claims to have the largest collection outside of the Vatican. Only in America, you might think.
Meanwhile, a number of churches in Europe boasted they had, and I quote, the Holy Foreskin - yes, you heard right - cut from the baby Jesus in the Jewish tradition and capable of performing miracles. There was also the church which claimed to have the brain of St Peter on display…until it was accidentally moved and revealed to be simply a piece of pumice stone.
Little wonder, then, that the fascination with such relics continues to this day. After all, the Turin Shroud captured the imagination of the world before carbon testing the material proved that rather than a shroud bearing the imprint of Jesus himself following his crucifixion, it was, in fact, dated back to the Middle Ages. Not that it has stopped many proclaiming its authenticity. So many, after all, want to believe.
Yet, just 11 years ago, 25,000 people flocked to Aylesford Priory, near Maidstone, just to lay their hands on the casket of a modern day saint.
Crowds made a pilgrimage across a weekend to witness the holy remains of St Therese of Lisieux - a Carmelite nun who had died, at the age of 24, in 1897. Her devotion to God - and her apparent role in a string of miracles after her death (a number of people had claimed to have been cured of their ailments after praying to her) - had seen her beatified by the Pope in the 1920s.
So thousands visited to touch the casket which contained her remains in the hope of a little divine intervention into their lives.
Granted, these were the genuine item - and that, in a world once awash with forgeries, was something of a rarity.
And it's fair to say Kent has probably seen more than their fair share of them over the centuries. Perhaps more remarkably, many exist to this day. As to their veracity, well, as George Michael so eloquently put it - you've got to have faith.
It will come as little surprise to learn that Canterbury's very own Thomas Becket has inspired his own 'range' of relics.
From bones to clothes, the slain Archbishop has fascinated the world since 1170 when he met a sticky end at the end of swords wielded by knights sent on the orders of Henry II - or at least his desire to be "rid of this turbulent priest".
The debate over whether his exclamation was a direct order or merely a case of loudly expressing his displeasure has entertained historians almost as much as to whether Becket's bones were burned or buried.
Regardless, it hasn't stopped his 'remains' being traded in subsequent years - many of which can still pull in a crowd, regardless of if they're anything to actually do with him.
Certainly, immediately after Becket's death, the monks he once worked among made a fair few quid as pilgrims flocked to the site of his slaying.
Vials of his blood and fragments of his bloodied clothes were not only popular sellers but also said to have cured the illnesses of those who came into contact with them.
While it is widely thought the Reformation saw Becket's bones - interred within the Crypt of Canterbury Cathedral - dug up and burned, there are still plenty who claim many were saved by the monks and either buried elsewhere in the cathedral (an excavation in 1888 stumbled over a coffin which created something of a stir as to whether the bones were Becket's - but after examination in the 1940s it was declared they were not) or distributed to other churches for their safe keeping.
Either way, the ‘bones’ of the saint have been paraded in the intervening years.
In 1920, there are reports of his "bones and vestments" being paraded through Canterbury followed by hundreds of pilgrims, while just four years ago, a bone (from his arm, since you ask) made a pilgrimage from a church in Hungary calling in at both Rochester and Canterbury cathedrals.
And even earlier this year, the city was due to host a visit by a blood-soaked tunic, worn by the dying Becket, kept at the Vatican for the last 500 years, as part of the Becket 2020 series of events marking the 850th anniversary of his death. Unfortunately, the health crisis put everything on hold.
Even a casket once said to have contained a fragment of his bone pulled in the crowds in 2003 when it paid a visit to the cathedral. The empty 12th century casket was lent by the Victoria & Albert Museum in London which had spent £4.2million buying the ornate item.
Take a short stroll towards St Thomas' Church in the city and, behind wrought iron gates, you will be able to see a small display chest which claims to be a finger of poor old Becket. It was presented to the Catholic church in 1953 by one of his descendants. Alongside it sits a piece of his vestment - given to the church in the 19th century.
Like in centuries gone by, it pulls in those making a pilgrimage to the city. Becket remains box office.
Of slightly more convincing veracity are the bones of Saint Eanswythe.
Unearthed during work on the Church of St Mary & St Eanswythe in Folkestone, in 1885, it was only this year the remains were confirmed to be hers (or as much as they can be), via the wonders of modern science - one of the very first English saints.
If you've never heard of her, she was the grand-daughter of Ethelbert - the first English king to convert to Christianity.
Eanswythe is today the patron saint of Folkestone and thought to have founded one of the first monastic communities in England, thought to be around AD660. She died in either her late teens or early 20s. See, you learn something new every day.
Worth noting is that her remains were also thought to have been hidden in the church wall to avoid falling victim to the Reformation.
And finally, not quite a relic, as such, but an oddity worth of mention.
The oddly named Rood of Grace, legend has it, arrived at Boxley Abbey, near Maidstone, on the back of a stray horse. The monks who discovered it, took the contraption of Jesus on the cross as a miracle and showcased the crucifix.
It proved a popular pilgrimage attraction as it appeared to have a life of its own - with, again, according to legend - the ability to shed tears, have facial expressions and nod its head.
Suitably bewitched by such endeavours, crowds, convinced of divine influence, flocked to see it - including a young Henry VIII it is claimed - and the monks made hay.
But a little like that episode of Only Fools and Horses when Del Boy reaps the financial rewards of a weeping Mary (which miraculously appears as and when it rains and water drips through the church's leaky roof), the reality was rather different.
During the Reformation, and after Henry VIII had rather changed his view on such attractions, the Rood was discovered to be an elaborate creation of wires and rods which could be controlled to move like a living thing.
It was held up as an example of the deception of the Catholic Church - although there remains some debate as to whether the monks actually claimed it to be real or, indeed, owned up to their puppetry skills for those paying for the privilege of seeing it in action. But history, as is always the case, is written by the winners, so we are unlikely to ever know for sure.
Yet, with all relics, it seems a real leap of faith was required to believe quite what you were seeing.