It is not every day that a lost treasure of the great Abbey of Bury St Edmunds comes to light, but this month’s edition of The Burlington Magazine features an article by Marian Campbell and Michaela Zöschg about a recently discovered fourteenth-century reliquary that can be plausibly attributed to St Edmunds Abbey owing to the unusual choice of saints and the decorative scheme adopted. The figure of the crucified Christ is represented against fields of blue and red covered with gold crowns, which recalls the arms of St Edmunds Abbey and the See of Ely. The presence of a relic of ‘St Robert, martyr’ among the relics that line the edge of the reliquary strongly suggests a Bury provenance, since the antisemitic pseudo-saint Robert of Bury St Edmunds (supposedly killed by the town’s Jews in 1181) was venerated exclusively in Bury and had his own chapel in the Abbey’s crypt.
The reliquary was discovered by Abbot Geoffrey Scott in the collections of Douai Abbey, the symbolic successor monastery of Bury St Edmunds founded in Paris in 1615 and now located at Woolhampton, Berkshire. All that is known of the reliquary is that it passed to Douai Abbey in 1927 from the Benedictine parish at Chipping Sodbury, Gloucestershire. Abbot Scott believes the reliquary could have been given to Chipping Sodbury by the East Anglian Paston family, who moved from Barningham in Norfolk to Horton Court, Gloucestershire in around 1700. Abbot Geoffrey made me aware of the reliquary in August 2020 in the hope that I might be able to help trace its provenance. I noted then that Sir William Paston (1378-1444), Justice of the Common Pleas, was admitted to the confraternity at Bury as a lay member of the chapter in 1429. This raises the possibility that the reliquary could have been a gift from the then abbot, William Curteys, to Sir William Paston. Sir William Paston was the great-grandfather of Sir Edward Paston, who acquired Horton Court in 1550. It seems possible, therefore, that the reliquary was passed on as a family heirloom before the Reformation. This would explain its survival and preservation by a Catholic family that had no particular connection to St Edmunds Abbey at the time of the Reformation.
Whatever the exact nature of its provenance, the reliquary’s connection to fourteenth-century Bury St Edmunds seems convincing; it joins the small but distinguished list of surviving treasures of St Edmunds Abbey, along with the Bury Bible and the Cloisters Cross. The reliquary is currently on loan from Douai Abbey to the Victoria and Albert Museum.
I am grateful to Abbot Geoffrey Scott for permission to reproduce images of the reliquary.