St John's Church, just outside the city walls of Chester, the oldest surviving church building in Cheshire and location of the annual gathering of minstrels, was home to a renowned relic known as The Holy Rood of Chester.
This was a silver gilt crucifix containing a fragment of wood from the True Cross upon which Christ had been crucified, rood being a medieval word for cross. It was present in St John's church from the mid-13th century and was the city's most revered relic.
How it came to be in Chester is unclear. According to legend it had arrived in Chester after travelling from Ireland on the tide and several 15th century poems allude to this. The mid-13th century date for the earliest mention and its location in St John's church might suggest another possible origin. Earl Ranulf de Blundeville, (who was famously saved by the Minstrels of Chester), had been on crusade to the Holy Land, setting out in 1218. It is just possible that he acquired a piece of the True Cross in Jerusalem and returned with it to his treasured church of St John. Geoffrey Dutton, a Cheshire knight and member of the family of benefactors of Norton Priory, accompanied Earl Ranulf on this crusade. The only named relic at Norton Priory was a Holy Cross of Norton, mentioned as performing two miracles in 1287. Coincidence perhaps, or did the two warriors both bring back pieces of the True Cross for the churches they were so attached to?
The Holy Rood of Chester was sworn upon in oaths. Business contracts were agreed in St John's, in the presence of the Rood and in the 14th century "Vision of Piers Plowman" there is the following vow;
"I promise to repay - if I have pounds enough - All the wealth I have gained since I first walked, even though this may give me too little to live on. Each must have his own, ere I join the hereafter; and if any remains, with the rest, by the Rood of Chester, I shall turn pilgrim towards Truth, rather than seek Rome."
The Holy Rood of Chester was known across England, also in Gascony, and was particularly revered in Wales. No less than eight medieval Welsh poets wrote about the relic, for example Guto'r Glyn made an appeal to the Rood to heal his patron. Maredudd ap Rhys wrote his poem to the Cross in the 15th century, you can hear a translation being read in this clip, filmed in St John's Church.
In 1492 a Chester plumber was asked to make moulds for two pilgrim signs for St John's Church, one being an image of St John the Baptist, it is tempting to think of the other being an image of the Holy Rood.
An early 16th century commonplace book with woodcut prints pasted in bears the owner's personal notes of saints and relics that were particularly dear to them. The "image of ye rode of Chestre" appears at the top left of the page.
What happened to the Holy Rood of Chester at the Reformation is unknown, but it's great to see the heritage of St John's still being celebrated today and bringing visitors from across the world.