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St Laurence and the Holy Grail

One of the few carvings in Royston Cave that every historian tends to agree who it depicts is that of St Laurence. He is shown in the cave holding a representation of the gridiron on which he was martyred. His long shirt was once marked with a cross, to depict him as a saint, but this is now hard to distinguish.


A carving of St Laurence in Royston Cave. © Royston Cave.

It is generally accepted that Laurence was born in December 225 AD, in Huesca, a small town near Aragon in Spain. Not much is known about his early life but he was sent to Zaragoza, in Aragon, to complete his studies in theology. This is where he first met the future pope, Sixtus II. When Sixtus became Pope in 257 AD, Laurence travelled to Rome with him and became one of his trusted Archdeacons. He oversaw the Church’s treasury and was responsible for distributing alms to the poor. He was also head of the seven deacons of the Church.


Valerian was the Roman Emperor at the time. While abroad fighting the Persians, Valerian sent letters to Rome ordering the senate to act against the Christians and perform sacrifices to the Roman gods, or else lose their property and titles. He then ordered the execution of Christian leaders, charging them with ‘hatred of the human race’. Pope Sixtus II was arrested along with the deacons and they were all beheaded.


What happened next has been merged with legend, pseudo history and possible translation errors. It is believed that the prefect of Rome, responsible for law and order in the city, demanded that Laurence handed over the treasures of the Church. Laurence, now acting Head of the Church, said that he required three days to collect the treasures together.


During that time, Laurence set about distributing all the Church’s money, sacred vessels and treasures to the poor and disabled people of Rome. On the third day, he invited these people together and presented them to the prefect, declaring that the people were the real treasures of the Church. The enraged prefect had Laurence arrested. He was held prisoner at San Lorenzo in Fonte, Rome, where he baptized fellow prisoners, including his prison officer, Hippolytus.


One legend says that Laurence helped save the Holy Chalice. The Holy Chalice is the vessel that was said to have been used by Jesus during the Last Supper, thought to have been used thereafter during mass in the Roman Church.


It is said that Laurence gave the cup to a Spaniard called Precelius, and, with an accompanying letter, was to be delivered to Precelius’ family in Huesca, Spain. The letter has since been lost but there is reference to it in a manuscript from 1134, held at the monastery of San Juan de la Pena. In the manuscript, it describes the vessel in which ‘Christ our Lord consecrated his blood’.


The cup was later thought to have passed to King Martin el Humano, king of Aragon and Valencia and is now on view in Valencia Cathedral, in a humble chapel, encased in glass. It is a small agate cup, dating from the 1stcentury, mounted on a medieval base of gold, pearls and precious stones.


Over the centuries, the story of the Holy Chalice has become interwoven with the Holy Grail, but originally the two were different. The grail, thought to come from old French word “graal”, meaning cup or bowl, was first seen in an Arthurian legend written c. 1190. In this story, the grail had healing powers and was guarded by the Fisher King, the last in a long line of English kings tasked with guarding it. It wasn’t until the 12th century that the grail was portrayed as Jesus’s vessel from the Last Supper. It said that Joseph caught the blood of Christ in the grail before laying him in his sepulchre. The Victorian hunger for medievalism and tales of chivalry then saw tales and paintings of grail quests, which further merged the stories of the Holy Chalice and the Holy Grail.


On August 10 258 AD, Laurence was placed on a gridiron, lowered over hot coals and burned alive. Legend says that, after enduring pain for a long time, Laurence quipped: ‘I’m well done on this side - turn me over.’ This may be why he is a patron saint of both cooks and comedians. A gridiron held in Basilica Minore di San Lorenzo in Lucina, Rome, is believed to be the one used in Laurence’s execution.


Hippolytus was said to have taken the remains of Laurence and buried him at the catacombs of Via Triburtina, Rome, where, in 330 AD, Emperor Constantine ordered the building of a basilica in his memory. Laurence’s death caused mass conversions to Christianity. After St Peter and St Paul, Laurence is counted as one of the most distinguished martyrs of Rome.


10 August is also St Laurence’s feast day. If you look to the skies on this date you may well see falling stars, said to be the tears shed by St Laurence during his martyrdom, otherwise known as the Perseid meteor shower.


*****


References


Beamon, S.P. (1992). Royston Cave: Used By Saints or Sinners? Baldock: Cortney Publications.

Houldcroft, P.T. (2008). A Medieval Mystery at the Crossroads. Royston: Royston and District Local History Society.

Bennett, J. (2004). St. Laurence And The Holy Grail. San Francisco: Ignatius Press.


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