It was once as iconic as the Stone of Destiny and gave legitimacy to the Scottish Crown at home and across the realms of medieval Europe.  

Yet for centuries the mysterious artefact known as the Black Rood has been lost to history, its story forgotten despite the exalted status it once held among the country’s treasures.  

Said to be a crucifix which contained a piece of the wooden cross on which Jesus died, the Black Rood was kept in golden case, and “held in honour and awe by all the people of Scotland”, according to one contemporary writer.  

Now a new book is bringing its tale to light once again, and unearthing an intriguing mystery never before uncovered about the holy relic’s past.  

David Willem, author of Black Rood: The Lost Crown Jewel of Scotland, first became interested in the artefact’s story when researching a book about St Cuthbert, a 7th Century Anglo-Saxon saint buried in Durham Cathedral. 

The Black Rood’s long history stretched back almost to those times, and it was brought to Scotland by Princess Margaret, sister of the last Anglo-Saxon King of England, as she and her family fled the Norman invasion of 1066. 

Edgar, son of Harold Godwinson – who famously died at the battle of Hastings – never ruled over England but was crowned on the run as Wiliam the Conqueror took control.  

Fleeing to Scotland in 1068, he hoped to bolster an alliance with King Malcolm III, and Margaret was duly married to the Scottish monarch with the Black Rood passing into the royal household as part of her dowry.

HeraldScotland:   David Willem

While the Crusades to the Middle East in the coming decades and centuries would see the churches of Europe inundated with ‘holy’ relics, possessing a piece of the true cross, as it was known, before that time was an incredible coup for the Scottish Royal family, linking them not just to the divine, but to wider great houses and states. 

Mr Willem said: “It gives Malcolm III this sudden increase in his dynastic status and his international status, because he is now connected to the House of Wessex, and he also possesses this relic of the crucifixion. 

“It gives him this connection all the way back to Jerusalem, but also to the Pope and to the Roman Emperors.  

“It’s a very, very powerful statement about the legitimacy of the Scottish Royal Family.” 

Malcolm’s son David I would go on to build Holyrood Abbey - which gives its name to the Scottish parliament today – which became home to the Black Rood.  

Mr Willem said: “Holyrood Abbey is a place where the Black Rood can certainly be stewarded and celebrated. The Black Rood is central to the ritual space and the political space that became Holyrood Abbey and Holyrood Palace. 

“There’s no statement that can be pointed to, but it’s inconceivable that you build an abbey called Holyrood and you have a reliquary called the Black Rood that the two aren’t connected.” 

HeraldScotland:

The symbolic importance of the Black Rood to the mind of medieval Scots cannot be overstated. The author believes the only modern equivalent in the public conscious would be the Saltire.  

He said: “It’s like the flag, the cross of St Andrew. That’s the only modern symbol that has an equivalent weight. That’s what it’s like – except a flag is reproducible by everybody whereas a crown jewel is only owned by the monarch.” 

But the Black Rood would not stay in Scotland for long. Looted by Edward I during the Wars of Independence alongside the Stone of Destiny, it was placed in his private chapel alongside a similar cross from Wales. 

It is unclear if it was returned to Scotland after the Battle of Bannockburn – Robert the Bruce was crowned without either the Stone or Black Rood – but it next resurfaces in 1346.  

Following the defeat of the Scottish king David II at the hands of Edward III near Durham, at the Battle of Nevill’s cross, the Black Rood was gifted to Durham Cathedral.  

There it remained until the dissolution of the monasteries in 1538 by order of King Henry VIII, when the relic vanished after the Cathedral was stripped of its wealth.  

But while researching his book, author David Willem found tantalizing clues that all may not be as it seemed.  

Descriptions of the Black Rood seized by Edward I – a gold cross on a gold chain in a silver box – do not match the descriptions of the artefact – a black cross in a gold box – made when it first arrived in Scotland.  

Just as legends have persisted that the Hammer of the Scots was fobbed off with a counterfeit Stone of Destiny, there is now the possibility he was also slipped a stand-in for the Black Rood. 

And in a further twist, when the tomb of St Cuthbert – which has been opened several times during his long rest in the Cathedral – was investigated by in 1827, only one precious item remained unlooted, caught up in his shroud: A golden cross, now housed in the Cathedral’s museum.  

An image of this cross, which is not mentioned in records of the Saint, appears to have been depicted on a pewter pilgrim’s badge found near the Cathedral.

HeraldScotland:  

St Cuthbert's Cross

These tokens were souvenirs bought by travelers to holy sites and featured their symbols, and this particular item dates back to the 1300s, around the time the Black Rood was donated to the Cathedral.  

Mr Willem, however, is coy about the link. He said: “I’m not in any way saying that the Cuthbert Cross is the variation of the Black Rood that was given to Edward I.  

“I’m saying that the Cuthbert Cross doesn’t make sense, and that the intriguing possibility is that the Black Rood was hidden somewhere in Durham Cathedral. 

“I’m not making a statement on that, but the mystery is alive. That’s as far as you can go.” 

Black Rood: The Lost Crown Jewel of Scotland is published by Whittles Publishing and is available to buy 

Who held the Black Rood? The medieval monarchs who carried the Holy relic:

 

Margaret of Wessex 
A Hungarian Princess, later known as Saint Margaret of Scotland. Born to the House of Wessex to an exiled Anglo-Saxon Prince,  Margaret returned to England but fled after the Battle of Hastings. She brought the Black Rood to Scotland and passed it on to the Royal family when she married King Malcolm III.

Edgar the Atheling
Edgar was the last Anglo-Saxon King of England. Crowned on the run after his predecessor Harald Godwinson was killed at the Battle of Hastings. He hoped to form an alliance with Scotland through his sister Margaret's marriage to Malcolm III. 

Malcolm III 
Malcolm 'Canmore'; Ruled Scotland for 35 years and stabilised the country's relations with its new Norman neighbours to the South. Agreed to William the Conqueror's overlordship, but died in battle alongside his son, Edward. 

David I
The son of Malcolm III and Margaret of Wessex, David I oversaw the laying of the foundations of much of the medieval Scottish state during his 29-year rule. Built Holyrood Abbey, home to the Black Rood, and brought about reforms of feudalism and governance later dubbed the "Davidian Revolution".

David II
The son of Robert the Bruce, some chronicles say he possessed the Black Rood, losing it when he was captured at the Battle of Neville's Cross in 1346.  The last male of the House of Bruce, David died, childless, in 1371 after a reign of 41 years.

Edward I
The English King who ignited the wars of Independence. Claimed the Black Rood along with the Stone of Destiny as spoils of war. The holy cross was carried in his private chapel and was presumably with him when he marched north for the final time in 1307.

Edward III
One of England's longest-reigning monarchs. The grandson of Edward I, he gifted the Black Rood to Durham Cathedral in thanks to God after defeating the invading Scots army of David II. 

 

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