Henry III’s devotion to St Edward the Confessor is fairly well known. If you haven’t yet read David Carpenter on the topic, if I simply say “Westminster Abbey”, that might be enough to be going on with.[1] What is rather less well known is Henry’s (albeit passing) attention to St Nicholas. Since the Feast of St Nicholas (6th December – not to be confused with the feast of his translation on 9th May) is so closely associated with Christmas these days, I thought it would make an appropriate point of discussion in Advent. This post is based on yet another one of the things in my *large* ‘to-do’ pile: I plead the last throes of thesis drafting… In the mean while, here is a rather preliminary collation of my musing on the matter which I hope to write up more formally and extensively in the reasonably near future.

St Nicholas and the miracle of the golden cup, Bourges, Cathédrale St Etienne. Photo by Gordon Plumb via Flickr.

St Nicholas and the miracle of the golden cup, Bourges, Cathédrale St Etienne. Photo by Gordon Plumb via Flickr.

The evidence of the Close Rolls suggests his release from captivity following the Battle of Evesham (4 August 1264) may have evoked in Henry a brief period of increased devotion to St Nicholas, patron saint of, among other groups, prisoners and the innocent.[2] On 7 September the king promised to pay 50s. annually for masses to be said by a canon of St Margaret’s-without-Marlborough in the chapel of St Nicholas at Marlborough Castle.[3] Just two days later, an order was issued for the restoration of an altarpiece depicting the saint in that chapel,[4] and more substantial renovations were ordered in October.[5] The order for masses to be said at Marlborough seems to have been executed, since a contrabreve on the Liberate Rolls, c. March 1266, authorised the payment of two 25s. installments to the relevant canon to be made annually at Michaelmas and Easter.[6] Masses were still being heard in the chapel in honour of the saint’s feast in 1270, when 1m. was delivered to the clerks of the king’s gift,[7] although by 1271 the payments for masses had fallen into arrears.[8] Also in 1265, perhaps reflecting the new significance of St Nicholas to the king, an order was sent to the sheriff of Somerset and Dorset to “repair and amend without fail out of the issues of the counties” the chapel of St Nicholas at Dorchester along with the house wherein the king’s pleas were held.[9]

Noting the restoration of the St Nicholas chapel at Marlborough, Powicke deduced evidence of the king’s recovery from his recent experiences and his generally ‘observant mind’, placing it on a par with orders for repairs of the castle’s fishponds and other amenities,[10] but it seems likely to have arisen from much more deliberate and specific motives than Henry’s general instinct for architectural order and aesthetics. Indeed, given the association between St Nicholas and the troubled, the unjustly accused, and prisoners, attention to the saint is unlikely to indicate that Henry had put the circumstances of the past 15 months behind him. The Ordinances of Winchester would shortly prove the king’s state of mind to be far from sanguine.

St Nicholas had not previously featured significantly among Henry’s regular observances, where his long devotion to St Edward the Confessor is often noted.[11] In 1262 an order for a large sum of money to be sent to the king in France for purchasing robes for Martinmas celebrations and against his hospitality needs for Christmas mentions the feast of St Nicholas only as a reference date by which the money for the latter expense needed to be in the king’s hands.[12] Similarly, mentions of the feast in the Fine Rolls generally adopt the date as a payment or accounting benchmark rather than a feast celebrated in its own right, and occasional references to it as the date of an annual fair granted to Robert of Narford in 1223 are also unconnected with veneration.[13] The king had made the handsome gift of a gold cup – a significant object in the legend of the saint – to the monks of St Nicholas at Exeter in 1250,[14] and he had given instruction for improvements to the St Nicholas chapel at Marlborough in 1251,[15] but these were relatively isolated instances. There are no records equivalent to the large numbers of obols of musc’ (for alms), new vestments, and fine spices obtained at great expense for the king’s celebrations of major feasts such as those of St Edward, and, with less financial outlay, St Edmund, and St Paul.[16]

Priory of St Nicholas, Exeter.

Priory of St Nicholas, Exeter.

Henry’s newfound appreciation for St Nicholas might have rested on his own status as a captive and an innocent, but equally his devotions might have celebrated the safe deliverance of his eldest son from his incarceration (even though Edward was a grown man by now). Among the best known miracles of St Nicholas was the ‘Miracle of the Cup’, in which the sins of a father who had tried to deceive the saint (by offering a counterfeit gold cup) were visited upon his son through drowning, but the boy was subsequently rescued by the saint, and the father went on to offer both the real and replacement cups to St Nicholas.[17] Perhaps Henry felt his offerings to this patron saint of children needed to be increased following his own son’s deliverance. Indeed, previous instances of devotion to the saint can sometimes be linked directly with the suffering of his children, such as the lamp, “continually burning day and night in the chapel of St Nicholas” in Salisbury castle which the sheriff of Wiltshire was ordered to arrange on 8 July 1246. On the same day the expenses of Queen Eleanor in remaining at Beaulieu Abbey by the side of her seriously ill son, Edward, were provided for.[18] Later that year, after Edward’s recovery, order was made for four tapers weighing 100 pounds each to be purchased for the church of St Nicholas at Exeter.[19] It seems likely to be significant that Henry and Eleanor had, at that time, four living children: Edward, Margaret, Beatrice, and Edmund. Votive candles, made to the height or weight of a person in need of holy grace, were significant symbols, and acts, of prayer.[20] These suggest that the king and queen were both giving thanks for the preservation of their offspring, and entreating the saint to intercede for their future protection. Katherine, a daughter born to the royal couple in 1253, appears to have suffered from a serious ongoing illness, perhaps a degenerative disease.[21] Her apparent absence from the household of royal children in mid 1255 may indicate a significant downturn in her condition,[22] and at about this time an image of St Nicholas was ordered to be painted at Ludgershall, possibly in the queen’s own chamber.[23]

The last mention of this feast in the Fine Rolls records the part payment of a fine to have the king’s good will made by the prior of St Swithun’s, Winchester, into the Wardrobe during the seige of Kenilworth.[24] The feast appears to have been important in the symbolism of remitting the king’s anger at his and Edward’s treatment during ‘the disturbance of the realm’, since the Liberate Rolls record an acquitance to the citizens of Hereford for an installment of a similar fine on the morrow of St Nicholas, 1265.[25] Did this simply reflect a convenient moment for accounting, or was the significance of St Nicholas to captives briefly playing a symbolic and political rôle even in royal financial dealings?


[1] See D. A. Carpenter, ‘King Henry III and Saint Edward the Confessor’, English Historical Review, 122 (2007), 865-91; idem, ‘Westminster Abbey in Politics’, in Thirteenth Century England [TCE] VIII, eds Michael Prestwich, and others (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2001), pp. 49-58.
[2] For the Battle and its context see: David A. Carpenter, The Battles of Lewes and Evesham 1264/1265 (Keele: Mercia Publications, 1987); J. R. Maddicott, Simon de Montfort (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994). To understand why Henry might have been pretty cheesed off by then, see: Benjamin L. Wild, ‘A Captive King: Henry III between the Battles of Lewes and Evesham, 1264–5’, in TCE XIII, eds Janet Burton, and others (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2011), pp. 41-56.
[3] Calendar of the Patent Rolls [CPR] Preserved in the Public Record Office, 1258–1266 (London: HMSO, 1971), pp. 448-49.
[4] Calendar of the Close Rolls [CCR] Preserved in the Public Record Office, 1264–1268 (London: H.M.S.O., 1937), p. 71.
[5] Calendar of the Liberate Rolls [CLR], 1260–1267 (London: HMSO, 1961), p. 183.
[6] CLR, 1260–1267, p. 206.
[7] CLR, 1267–1272, p. 115.
[8] CLR, 1267–1272, p. 201.
[9] CLR, 1260–1267, p. 212.
[10] F. Maurice Powicke, King Henry III and the Lord Edward. 2 vols (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1947), p. 503.
[11] See n. 1, above.
[12] CCR, 1261–1264 (London: H.M.S.O., 1936), p. 157.
[13] Calendar of the Fine Rolls [CFR] of Henry III, 1248–1272 (London: King’s College London and The National Archives, 2011). 7/169; 12/34, 36; 16/2; 26/541; 35/96; 38/27; 42/125; 45/144; 50/79. See <http://www.finerollshenry3.org.uk/home.html>
[14] CLR, 1245–1251, p. 298.
[15] CLR, 1245–1251, pp. 294, 362.
[16] CLR, 1260–1267, pp. 144-45, 48-49, 59.
[17] Roger Rosewell, Medieval Wall Paintings (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2008), p. 337.
[18] CLR, 1245–1251, p. 65; Margaret Howell, Eleanor of Provence: Queenship in Thirteenth-Century England (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998), pp. 100-01.
[19] CLR, 1245–1251, p. 93. On the same day similar tapers were ordered for the celebration of the feasts of St Thomas the Martyr at Christ Church, Canterbury, and of St Edmund at his feretory in Suffolk.
[20] Nicholas Orme, Medieval Children (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), pp. 110-11.
[21] Margaret Howell, ‘The Children of King Henry III and Eleanor of Provence’, in TCE IV, eds P. R. Coss and S. D. Lloyd (Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer, 1992), pp. 57-72 (pp. 63-64).
[22] Howell, ‘Children’, (p. 64).
[23] CLR, 1251–1260, p. 223.
[24] CFR, 1248-1272, 50/79.
[25] CLR, 1260–1267, p. 189.