Not the hand of St James


The hand at St Peter’s, Marlow. Photograph author


St James the Great

JAMES the Great was the brother of the apostle John, and the son of Zebedee, a fisherman, and Salome, arguably (at a stretch) the Virgin Mary’s sister. James and John may thus have been first cousins of Jesus. Following the account in Acts 12, 1-2, James was executed in Jerusalem with the sword on the orders of King Herod Agrippa I, grandson of Herod the Great, in AD 42 or 44. What happened thereafter has been a matter of some controversy, and I shall examine two mythical histories which have met with very different levels of success.

The Santiago de Compostela myth

THE official line, synthesised from various legends dating back to the seventh century, was that the apostle had preached in Spain during his lifetime, and that at his death two of his disciples, Athanasius and Theodore, had taken his body to Spain, landing at Padrón on the Galician coast.  It was then taken inland to Compostela, and buried. Later the two disciples were buried nearby, and the discovery of graves that fitted this story in 814 AD was taken as evidence that it was true.  The Historia Compostellana, an account written by an author in the circle of Diego Gelmirez of Compostela (Bishop 1100-20, then Archbishop until 1140), was in some sense a codification of the cluster of Spanish legends, and the success of Santiago as a pilgrimage destination testifies to its general acceptance.

Compostela claims to have the entire body except for two pieces.  Between 1048 and 1054 an arm was sent by the King of Navarre to the Bishop of  Tongres and Liège in modern Belgium, and permission was granted for a lock of hair to be taken by the deacon of the Bishop of Pistoia in 1144.  He took bone along with the hair, but was allowed to keep it, and this act of generosity was to prove useful in the later history of the shrine.  Pope Callixtus II gave Compostela the privilege of granting a plenary indulgence to pilgrims to the shrine in 1122, and this was confirmed by Pope Alexander III in the Bull, Regis Aeterni, issued in 1179. Most recently in 1884 Pope Leo XIII proclaimed in the Bull, Deus Omnipotens, that the relics in Santiago were those of St. James.

The Arm at Torcello


The Tomb of St James, Valley of Josaphat, Jerusalem. Photograph A. Salzmann 1854-56.

DESPITE all this, the story is inherently unlikely, and a second myth seems on the surface to have much more going for it.  In this account, James was not only executed in Jerusalem but was buried there too. In the late fourth century Bishop Heliodorus of Altino visited his shrine and took away an arm. In 640 the arm was given to Torcello Cathedral, on an island at the northern end of the Venetian lagoon; a safer home than Altino which was overrun by Lombards. There it stayed until the visit of Adalbert, Arcbishop of Hamburg Bremen in the 1040s, when Bishop Vitalis of Torcello surrendered the hand, retaining the rest of the arm, to the Archbishop. Adalbert’s visit to Italy was as a member of the court of Emperor Henry III, who convened the Council of Sutri at which three rival claimants to the papacy were deposed in favour of the Emperor’s own candidate. Adalbert was his first choice, but turned it down and Henry’s own confessor, Bishop Suidger of Bamberg, was elected as Clement II. With the power of the Emperor behind him, Adalbert apparently had no difficulty in obtaining the relic he desired.

The hand in the Imperial Treasury

WHEN Adalbert died in 1072, his treasury contained little except books, vestments and relics, and these were seized by Emperor Henry IV, subsequently passing to his son and successor Henry V. In 1114 Henry V married Matilda, the 12-year-old daughter of King Henry I of England, and when he died in 1125 her opportunities in Germany were extremely limited, so she left for Normandy taking her personal collection of jewels, her own imperial regalia, two of Henry’s crowns, and the hand of St James.

The hand at Reading Abbey

A charter dated 1126 states that King Henry I gave the hand to Reading Abbey at the request of his daughter, Matilda, who had brought it from Germany. This charter is demonstrably either corrupt or a forgery, but the chronicler Matthew Paris recorded that the relic was sent to Reading from Normandy by the king in 1133, and this might be the true date of its arrival. Within three years it had gone again. In 1136 it was borrowed by the new king’s younger brother, Henry of Blois, Abbot of Glastonbury and Bishop of Winchester, and he could not be persuaded to return it until 1155. It was certainly back at the abbey by 1161, when it was mentioned in an indulgence issued by Theobald, Bishop of London as being there. Thereafter it was mentioned occasionally throughout the pre-Reformation period most notably, perhaps, in a manuscript of circa 1200 that describes 28 miracles, mostly cures, worked by the hand. It was recorded in the relic list of circa 1190 now in British Library MS Egerton 3031 as Manus sancti Iacobi cum carne et ossibus (the hand of St James with flesh and bones), and the final mention was in the short list of relics made in 1538 by Dr London at an early stage in the Dissolution of the house. 

The rediscovery of the hand

IT is at this point that the Reading hand disappears from the historical record, but it might have survived the Dissolution.  In October 1786 workmen digging the foundations for Reading Gaol discovered a left hand in a wall at the east end of the abbey church.  Interestingly, although nowhere in the medieval accounts of the hand is it stated whether it was a left or a right hand, the image on the abbey seal in use in 1239 clearly shows a left hand raised in benediction, accompanied by the words ORA PRO NOBIS SANCTE IACOBE, which would be unusual unless this represented the reliquary itself.

3 Seal Press 2 Box 1_2 - Copy

The seal of Abbot Adam of Lathbury, Salisbury Cathedral Treasury

THE newly rediscovered hand came into the possession of one Dr Hooper, who gave it around 1801 to the Athenaeum, the museum of the Reading Philosophical Institute, where it was displayed for some years.  When this closed down in 1853 the relic was returned to Dr Hooper’s executors, who sold it to the Roman Catholic Lewis Mackenzie in 1855.  Mackenzie died the following year, and his heir sold the hand to Charles Robert Scott-Murray (1818-82) for 50 guineas. Scott-Murray had converted to the Catholic faith in 1844, and he engaged the architect Augustus Welby Pugin to build a catholic church dedicated to St Peter in Marlow-on-Thames, and a private chapel at Danesfield, his own house nearby.  The hand was kept in Danesfield chapel until the house was sold out of the family to Robert William Hudson, heir of the Sunlight soap magnate Robert Spear Hudson, in 1897.  Hudson rebuilt the house and demolished the chapel, and the hand was given to St Peter’s Marlow, where it is still preserved in a casket of brass and glass.

Competing claims

FATHER John Morris, a Roman Catholic parish priest of Marlow in the 1850s, took a great interest in the hand, attempting to secure it for pious purposes while it was still in the museum, and in 1852 writing to ask Archbishop Miguel Garcia Cuesta of Compostela whether the apostle’s body had a hand missing. The archbishop replied that the tomb was not accessible, having been dismantled in 1597 when Sir Francis Drake attacked nearby Corunna. The body was concealed below the sanctuary for safe keeping and walled in.  This was clearly something of an embarrassment to the Spanish authorities, and in 1878 Cardinal Miguel Paya y Rico, the new Archbishop of Compostela, authorised a search for the apostle’s bones to be performed by Canon Antonio López Ferreiro, the historian of the church, and another canon.  They ultimately announced their success, having found a chest of brick and stone under the floor behind the altar.  It proved to contain the bones of three men, one of whose skull had damage consistent with a decapitation.  When the relic of bone and hair at Pistoia was remembered, it was sent for and proved to fit the skull, and this was taken as confirmation that this was indeed St James, accompanied by his two disciples.

THESE events, and the consequent proclamation that the relics were genuine in Pope Leo XIII’s Bull of 1884, obviously had implications for the other alleged relics, and when the scholar Brian Taylor asked whether the state of the bones identified as the apostle’s was consistent with the claims of Torcello, Liège and Marlow he received a scribbled and unsigned note in reply, ‘Parece que si’ – apparently yes – for Liège; ‘No consta’ – no clear evidence – for Torcello; and ‘Parece que no’ – apparently not – for Marlow.

Scientific testing before 2018

THE hand was X-rayed in 1960, and Mr Mulvaney of the Hospital of St John and St Elizabeth in London stated that it belonged to a mature male, and had suffered a fracture to the little finger a short time before death. In 1965 it was submitted to Professor A. J. E. Cave of St Bartholomew’s, who had previously examined the skull of the Blessed Ambrose Barlow, executed as an unrepentant Catholic at Lancaster in 1641. Prof. Cave was unable to provide any useful information about the hand, but he did show it to an expert at the British Museum , who observed that it was preserved by desiccation – a typically Middle Eastern process.

Radiocarbon dating evidence, 2018

THE hand was recently submitted to the Oxford University Research Laboratory for Archaeology and the History of Art for radiocarbon dating, and the results were made available to St Peter’s in Marlow earlier this year. Radiocarbon dating provides a value for the date of death of a living organism, calculated from the decay of radioactive carbon-14 in a sample.  If this were the hand of St James the Great, we would expect a date range around the year 44 AD when he was executed. The results date the death of the hand to AD 994-1037 with a 68% degree of certainty, and to AD 987 – 1150 with a 95% degree of certainty.


THE fact that the hand is mummified suggests that it came from the Holy Land at some stage.  It is clear that this hand did not belong to the arm collected from Jerusalem by Heliodorus, taken to Altino and transferred to Torcello – it is not old enough. It may, however, be the hand that left Torcello, in which case the switch could have been made by Bishop Vitalis, which would explain why Archbishop Adalbert received a hand rather than the arm he was expecting.  This would make the relic an extremely modern one at the time the exchange was made, presumably a recent addition from Jerusalem. There seems no reason to suspect any chicanery while the hand was in the possession of Archbishop Adalbert or the Imperial Treasury, and we can be confident that Matilda thought she had the genuine relic. Similarly a substitution seems unlikely while the hand was in Reading, except for one occasion – the period from 1136 to 1155 when it was borrowed by Henry of Blois. He could certainly have exchanged the hand for a relic of less value from Winchester or Glastonbury.

Plate 15

Harry Morley. 1917. The Martyrdom of Hugh Faringdon, last Abbot of Reading. Reading Museum

The hand that was discovered in 1786 on the abbey site must surely have come from the abbey, and the method of preservation suggests a relic rather than a burial. It was presumably the hand that was venerated as St James’s during the life of the abbey, although it is fair to point out that the twelfth-century relic list mentioned another hand, that of St Anastasia, which had become a hand of St Anastasius by the time of Dr London’s visit in 1538. As it happens, we know something about this relic too. At the Dissolution, the Abbot of Reading, Hugh Cook of Faringdon, was executed along with two of his monks, John Eynon and John Rugge. From Thomas Cromwell’s papers we have a series of questions he had prepared for Rugge’s examination, including a request for an explanation of his possession of the hand of St Anastasius. It is hard to imagine that this hand was not destroyed by Cromwell’s agents.

Further Reading

R. Baxter, The Royal Abbey of Reading, Woodbridge 2016.

B. Kemp, ‘The Miracles of the Hand of St James’, Berkshire Archaeological Journal, 65 (1970), 1-20.

B. Taylor, ‘The Hand of St James’, Berkshire Archaeological Journal, 75 (1994-97), 97-102.


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