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III. SECRETS OF THE IVORY TOWER


Tuesday, 24 August 80

“Eadward, wake up, you lazy dolt. The King comes!”

Abbot Alcuin shakes the drowsy monk who springs to his feet not a moment too soon. No trumpet announces the king’s return from the morning’s hunt, but the commotion in the abbey courtyard outside is more than sufficient. “Are you ready?” the older monk whispers, nervously picking at the other’s robes like a mother hen while the young man smoothes the hair fringing his tonsure.

Brother Eadward barely had time to nod before Charlemagne strides in, surrounded by a cloud of courtiers. Though almost sixty, the King of the Franks and Lombards and now Emperor of the Romans is still a tall, powerful man who needs no crown to dominate the room. Age has slimmed the greatest ruler of the West and given him a limp. But silver-bearded and with a booming voice, King Charles is treated with the awe befitting the living image of God the Father.

“Where’s this fabulous prize the Empress sent us to help keep these unruly clerics in order?” the King demands. “The world must be shown that although the pope may crown an emperor, he does not rule him.”

“Sire, this way,” Alcuin says. “Brother Eadward, an instructor at the court school, has laid out everything for you to see.”

Charles nods, his eyes already fixed on the linen-shrouded objects. Together the monks lift the sheet, revealing a gorgeous white stone box inlaid with rows of jewels and gold medallions. Golden loops at both ends serve as handles, and the opening is topped with a silver wire grill decorated with pearls.

“Sweet Jesus, I had no idea it would be breath-taking,” Charles marvels. “I expected naught but a simple stoneware bowl.”

“The Sacred Basin is indeed just that, Majesty,” the abbot says. “This is the magnificent reliquary the Greeks made to hold it, and which it arrived in.”

“Why is the foot there?” the King says, pointing. Atop the grill is a life-sized, golden representation of a left foot with a swollen big toe.

“It contains a toe bone of Saint Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine, who recovered the Holy Tub. The curing of her gout proved that this is indeed the Most Holy Footbath of Christ, loaned to him by his holy mother.”

“Cured her gout?” the Emperor laughs. “God’s teeth, this may be of real use. It figures those idolatrous Greeks would put that garish thing on top, but it’s ugly. It needs a decent Frankish cross or something with jewels.”

“Splendid idea, Majesty,” Alcuin says, “The Empress will be delighted.”

“Why?” Charles snorts. “The witch’s never getting it back. We spent too much gold, surrendered too much good land we had seized for that. Let this be her gracious way of accepting our imperial title without acknowledging it.”

The monks share looks. “Of course, Majesty. If we may continue,” the abbot says, bowing, “may I present the Most Holy Footbath of Christ?”

Lifting the sheet further, they uncover a humble grey kitchen pot, rectangular in shape with round corners and lug handles, stained and battered from long service. Several cracks, bound together with gold wires, extend to the base. A chip is missing and there are ancient words crudely scratched on the side. One lip is worn and smudged from the kisses of countless devotees.

“Huh,” Charles laughs, unimpressed. “That dirty old pot? ’Tis a mean thing indeed. Hard to believe this is supposed to overawe the Roman patriarch with its sanctity. I see why it’s kept hidden in that gaudy container.”

“Indeed, but there’s no doubt, sire, it will most assuredly greatly impress the Holy Father,” the old monk says. “In all Christendom, there can be no more holy relic than the Pelluvium Sanctissimum save for the True Cross and other implements of the Passion. Yet most significant is the Gospel story of the Holy Tub, Your Majesty. It enjoins humility and service in our spiritual leaders, and Peter, the first pope, is principally singled for criticism by Our Lord.”

“That so?” Charles says. “I doubt having the pope wash my feet suffices for having to kiss his, but if you say the bishops will get the message, so be it.”

“Aye, sire, just so. With your leave, I also wanted to mention the containers, Your Majesty, are more than merely gorgeous,” Alcuin quickly says. “Brother Eadward noticed several interesting practical details, sire.”

Charles notes the skinny young monk for the first time. “Yes, Your Imperial Majesty,” Eadward says with unaccustomed timidity. “As you ordered, we examined everything the Greeks brought along with the Holy Tub most carefully as well. Pray note, sire, what fastens the cover to the reliquary.

“See how the hinge is held together by a curious device. This pin is cut on the end with a groove of metal which cunningly fits into a piece likewise cut, so.” He unscrews the wing nut and holds it with the spiral for the Emperor to examine. “It’s a new way of holding pieces of metal together, sire. No longer must we depend upon breakable rings, weak leather, or cords liable to fray, my lord.”

This excites the Emperor, who shares it with his companions.

“What is this marvelous connector called, little monk?”

“The ‘screw’, Lord, from the twisting motion it requires to fasten or loosen,” Eadward replies. “There’s something else, sire,” the young monk continues, throwing off the linen. It reveals an iron frame. Beneath and on the sides are plates of metal attached by spiral loops of steel. “This sturdy box of iron carries the Holy Tub within the reliquary.” He presses it down and releases. It vigorously bounces back.

“See how the metal springs back, Majesty? Such old Roman cleverness prevents the Holy Tub from ever breaking against the side,” Eadward says.

“Amazing, we’ve never seen iron so flexible.” Charles tries pushing the frame down, chuckling delightedly as it rebounds. “Look at this, Oliver.”

“It’s a kind of steel, my lord,” Alcuin says, “not beyond the skill of your best smiths. The Greeks say they also know how to use bronze in like fashion.”

“Notice how it bends just like a bow,” Charlemagne says. “What a vision this conjures before my eyes! Can you not see it, my brave paladins? Mighty steel bows as strong as Saracen swords which will not break in battle, wielded by knights clad in impenetrable plate, well and truly screwed. By Christ’s blood, such an army would be invincible!” His laughter booms. “Well done, little monk. This may prove to be worth the trouble it took to acquire after all.”

The great king smiles shrewdly at Brother Eadward as his eager captains discuss the idea, and says, “Worry not; you will not be forgotten.”

The Emperor is true to his word. In a few years, the monk is rewarded with a rich abbey with libraries and workshops to benefit the kingdom: reforming writing, using wind for mills, and improving horse collars for pulling heavier loads. But whenever Eadward recalls this day, it is not with pride but with a strange sense of guilt which clings to it like a chill gray mist.

The Maundy Grail becomes a prized heirloom of the Holy Roman Empire. Its fame swells, as does the covetousness of popes and princes. Fed by the tales of troubadours, the mystical reputation of the Maundy Grail continues to grow, flowering into strange and extravagant beliefs.


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“The contrast between the humble Holy Footbath
– a plain, broken, graceless vessel that is a living fountain of grace
– and its ark of royal opulence, proudly encrusted with jewels yet of far less worth than its holy cargo, could not be more vivid.”

– Br. Eadward of York, Inventory of Imperial Treasures, 801

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