Monks in tug of war over Saxon king's holy bones

Emma Brooker visits the town that wants its saint back
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The Independent Online
IN Florence they have been fighting for the nation's beef, at Wembley and Lord's for sporting honour, but tomorrow the citizens of Shaftesbury, west Dorset, will be engaged in what they consider a more important battle: over the bones of an Anglo-Saxon King of England now in the possession of Russian Orthodox monks.

The bones belong, according to the citizens of Shaftesbury, in their ruined abbey, where King Edward was proclaimed saint and martyr in 1001.

It was to Shaftesbury that pilgrims flocked from all over Europe in the Middle Ages, hoping to benefit from the healing properties of the king's mortal remains. Now there is a new altar ready to receive Edward, fitted with a steel-lined cavity for his bones and consecrated last year by Anglican and Roman Catholic bishops.

Tomorrow, Edward's feast day, up to 400 local people will march across rolling hills to the abbey to hold a service and call for the return of the bones.

"No one wants to be horrid about it or create unpleasantness," says Sara Jacson, a Shaftesbury vicar's wife and organiser of the protest pilgrimage, "but it would be lovely to have Edward's bones back."

The monks, however, are determined to keep them. They have the bones in a corner of Brookwood cemetery, near Woking in Surrey. They say that Shaftesbury can have Edward back only if they move with him, to ensure his proper veneration.

Mrs Jacson is unimpressed. "That's a building project," she said, "and we don't have money to do that. Shaftesbury is a hilltop town and it's quite chilly. They certainly couldn't live here in a tent."

Saint Edward, also known as Edward the Martyr, was aged 17 and had been king for just three years when he was murdered at Corfe Castle in 987, supposedly on the orders of his stepmother, who wanted her natural son, Ethelred the Unready, to take the throne. He had, according to a contemporary chronicler, "inspired in all not only fear but even terror, for he scourged them not only with words but truly with dire blows". But miracles of healing were reported from his graveside and his body was disinterred and moved to Shaftesbury Abbey.

His remains were buried in a secret place in the abbey's grounds during the Reformation, for safe keeping. They were dug up again in 1931 and that was when the trouble started. The strife has involved the High Court and even the Attorney General's office.

Two brothers, members of a family that then owned the abbey grounds, revived the spirit of internecine feuding in which Edward had died. The elder brother, the late John Wilson Claridge, actor and cinema proprietor, claimed the king's remains belonged to him. Although not religious himself, he wanted the relics to be venerated, and when the bishops of Winchester, Exeter and Plymouth successively spurned his offer of the bones, John decided to present them to a couple of Russian Orthodox converts looking to set up a new order.

"We heard that the relics were being held in a bank vault and we felt it was inappropriate," says Father Alexis, a trainee estate agent before his conversion. He raised money to buy the old chapel of rest at Brookwood and went on to found the St Edward's Brotherhood.

But the younger Claridge brother, the late "Colonel" Geoffrey, hotelier, antique dealer and farmer, issued a High Court summons only days before the bones were to be officially handed over to the brotherhood. He wanted the bones to stay in Shaftesbury and disputed his brother's right to give them away. Geoffrey died in 1986 leaving the court action unresolved.

The Attorney General's office intervened, claiming an interest because the case concerned the bones of a former English king. Father Alexis and the other brothers were allowed to keep the skeleton in their church on condition that they introduced high-security measures, stipulated by the Attorney General's surveyors.

The people of Shaftesbury still believe they will get the bones back. "I don't think it's going to happen overnight," says Mrs Jacson. "It really is very tortuous and it is going to take a long, sensitive negotiation."

Father Alexis holds out little hope: the bones, he argues, would suffer the indignity of becoming a sightseeing gimmick. "We realise that the town has a historical claim," he says, "but we think the spiritual claim is stronger. No, I really don't see them going back to Shaftesbury." Even if the brotherhood looked likely to die out, he added, "I think we would transfer them to another Orthodox church where we know they'd be properly looked after."

Perhaps it would be just as well if St Edward's remains stayed away from Shaftesbury: his return would be sure to spark another argument. Father Jeanneau, the town's 77-year-old Catholic priest, doubts that the bones are Edward's at all. In his opinion it could be the skeleton of any Tom, Dick or Harry, and he wouldn't therefore be happy about it being placed inside the altar. He wants the body back in Shaftesbury but "I just want it buried exactly where it was found, properly and decently, and no more tinkering with the bones".