In May of 1942 Exeter cathedral was damaged in an air raid. In September of the following year, repair work was well underway and in the course of that work an extraordinary discovery was made. A series of stone screens are used to divide the quire from the aisles at Exeter cathedral and in an opening under one of them is the tomb of Bishop Edmund Lacey bishop of Exeter from 1420-1455. On the top of the screen in a void directly above Lacey’s tomb, were found pieces of glass, oyster shells, splinters of stone and over a thousand curious wax objects. The finds were written up in an article by U. M. Radford, published in the Antiquaries Journal in 1949 (note 1). Among the thousand objects were fragments of wax heads of men and women, young and old; there were hands, fingers (some with rings), feet that were shod and unshod, limbs without torsos and torsos without limbs. There were fragmentary figures of horses, pigs and horned cattle.
Among this collection, was a complete image: the figure of a young woman eight inches tall. Dressed in a skirt and with a buttoned-up bodice and with veiled hair, her hands are clasped in prayer.
All of these objects are made of a richly coloured natural beeswax, varying in hue. They had been cast in moulds and some of the fragments have loops of string attached to them like candle wick, as though they were intended to be suspended.
So what are these objects? They appear to be a unique survival in England of what are termed ‘ex-voto’ or ‘votive offerings’ and if the style of dress of the surviving figure is any indication, they date from the very end of the Middle Ages.
A window in York Minster gives a good sense of what votive offerings were and how they were used. The window in question, the St William window, dates from the 1420s and depicts the hagiography of William Fitzherbert – ‘St William of York’ who was canonised in 1227. The window, which was close to the shrine of William itself, was put in to reinforce the status of his cult and remind those visiting of the value of their devotion. There are lots of images of people visiting William’s shrine and of the miraculous cures that were said to have taken place there. In the panel shown above, a man who has prayed at William’s shrine and has been cured of a leg complaint is shown offering at the saint’s shrine a full-size wax replica of his leg – in gratitude for his cure. This is an ex-voto and on a rail beside the shrine, can be seen ex-voto offerings left by others who had been similarly cured as a consequence of their intercession to the saint: there is a female head, a leg, a hand and heart. These are all coloured yellow with silver stain, perhaps to suggest that they are made of yellow wax. It is a hoard of these objects that were found in Exeter in 1943.
As well as the wonderful visual source this window provides, there are plenty of documentary sources from elsewhere that refer to the practice of leaving ex-voto offerings at the shrines of the saints. Over two thousand images in silver and in wax were apparently hung over the shrine of Thomas Cantilupe in Hereford Cathedral. Gerald of Wales refers to the story of a knight called Milo, who developed an infection in his arm and was expected to die. He prayed to St Hugh of Lincoln and a cure was affected and on visiting the saint’s shrine in Lincoln, he deposited an accurate wax model of his arm s a thank offering. (note 1)
Exeter cathedral had no saint’s shrine in the late Middle Ages, but the discovery of the hoard at Exeter does indicate that there was some significant cultic activity focused on a tomb in the cathedral. As Radford makes clear in her article of 1949, there is only one tomb in the cathedral at the end of the Middle Ages that was the focus of any sort of cultic activity and that was the tomb of Bishop Edmund Lacey himself. Lacey had a reputation for holiness in his life and by the early 16th-century his tomb had become a focus of significant devotion particularly for those seeking healing and it was said that ‘many miracles were said, and devised, to be done at his tomb’. His tomb was clearly a target during the Henrician reform of the cult of saints and when Leland visited in 1543, the tomb had a been defaced by Dean Heynes, presumably deliberately. This little hoard of wax ex-voto offerings was found in a void in the screen directly above Lacey’s tomb and it is very tempting to think that these items were hanging about the tomb and were removed and hidden above perhaps temporarily (note 1).
References and sources
Note 1. U. M. Radford, ‘The Wax Images Found in Exeter Cathedral’ in Antiquaries Journal 29, issues 3-4, pp. 164 and 168. The black and white images are taken from this article.
Note 2. J. Crook, English Medieval Shrines (Woodbridge, 2011), p. 22.
The colour images of the pieces can be found here: https://www.exeter-cathedral.org.uk/history-heritage/cathedral-treasures/medieval-wax-votive-offerings/