catholic history



By Paul Stenhouse MSC PhD

This is the fourth in a series of articles tracing the history of sacred relics associated with our Lord's life and death. BY PAUL STENHOUSE, MSC PhD

STS MATTHEW, Mark and John all describe, in their gospels, how Jesus, in the Praetorium was crowned with thorns by the Roman soldiers. We let St Matthew take up the story: 'Pilate's soldiers [i.e. members of the cohort that accompanied the Governor while he was in Jerusalem] 'then took Jesus into the Governor's headquarters' [Some argue that this barracks was in the Palace of Pilate in the Western quarter of Jerusalem; others make out a strong case for its being in the Antonia Fortress in the eastern section, at the northwestern corner of the Temple] 'where they collected the whole company around him' [There were ten cohorts to a legion, and each cohort normally was made up of 400 soldiers].

'They stripped him and dressed him in a scarlet mantle' [scarlet/purple were colours of royalty] 'and plaiting a crown from thorns they placed it on his head' [another symbol of mock-royalty] 'with a cane in his right hand' [after the fashion of kings who held their staff of office in their right hands]. Falling on their knees before him they jeered at him, 'Hail, king of the Jews!' They spat on him and used the cane to beat him about the head. When they had finished mocking him they took off the mantle and dressed him in his own clothes'.1

A Circlet or a Helmet?

Christian imagination has generally depicted the Crown of thorns that the soldiers plaited as a coronet, or a circlet that went around the side of the head but did not cover the whole head. Some authorities2 have suggested that the crown was in the shape of a helmet, with the thorns sticking down into the concave- shaped helmet. The theory that the crown was actually in the shape of a crude, close-fitting cap is, seemingly, borne out by recent studies of the Shroud of Turin.3

The type of thorn used for the crown was, by general consensus, from the jujube bush which is described by botanists as having a small yellowish flower, and a red edible fruit. Its thorns are both curved and straight: similar to the relics that have come down to us.


There is a mysterious link between the past and the present. Only God, who can look across time, knows that there is no such thing as yesterday, today or tomorrow; that our whole notion of time is a delusion because we are mortal and our lives have a beginning and an end; that we are all contemporaries of Tiberius, the Emperor whose reign saw the crucifixion of Christ; and that we are also contemporaries of those who will be alive a thousand years hence and who will, given the opportunity, nail Christ to the Cross once again.

- Ivar Lissner, Power and Folly, London, 1958

Giorgio Gucci, who travelled to the Holy land in 1384 describes the thorns in more down-to-earth terms: 'The thorns with which they say our Lord was crowned are terrible to see and touch. The tree has... thorns a fist long and a finger thick, and some are more and some are less pointed and delicate. Like a saw they would penetrate the hardest thing.'4

It goes without saying that this form of torture at the hands of the soldiery caused horrible physical and mental agony to Jesus. Like the Cross and the other instruments of his Passion, the Crown of Thorns is remembered and its relics honoured because it, too, played a part in our Redemption and because of its association with our Lord who, 'though innocent of sin, was made one with the sinfulness of men'.5

The Crown 'honoured' in Jerusalem

A number of fourth, fifth and sixth century writers refer to the Crown of Thorns and the veneration it received from the faithful. St Paulinus of Nola (353/4-431) an intimate friend of St Martin of Tours (died 397), St Ambrose (339-397), St Augustine (354-430) and Pope Anastasius I (399-401) declares that the thorns with which Jesus was crowned, along with the holy cross and the pillar at which he was scourged, are 'held in honour' in Jerusalem.

St Vincent of Lerins (died before 450) describes it thus: 'It was in fact the shape of a pileus that touched and covered his head in every part'. A pileus was a close-fitting cap-like covering for the head, shaped like the half of an egg. The saint also notes that the Lord's head received 70 wounds from the sharp thorns of the helmet-like Crown; and this agrees with the number of thorns known to have existed - of which many have been destroyed either by anti- Catholic zeal or by the ravages of war.

Senator Flavius Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus (485-580) mentions the Crown of Thorns as being in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem in his day. St Gregory of Tottzt (54()-594) also comments on it, as does Antoninus of Piacenza who states that the Crown of Thorns was preserved in his day in the Church on Mount Sion. The monk Bernard in his Pilgrimage in 870 referred to the relic as still held in the Church on Mt Sion.6

The Crown of Thorns and St Louis of France

Within less than 200 years, in 1063, the Crown appears in Constantinople where eventually it came into the possession of the Latin emperor Baldwin II (1217-1273), who handed it over to the Venetians as collateral on a large loan he obtained from them7, probably to support his efforts against the Greeks and Bulgarians who were threatening his empire.

St Louis IX of France (1215-1270) who paid off the debt in 1238 at the request of Baldwin, was given the Crown of Thorns by the grateful emperor. Daniel-Rops, rather too glibly for my taste, accuses both Baldwin and St Louis of simony: Baldwin, he says, 'being short of money, sold the Crown of Thorns to St Louis'.8

From that time on, its fate has been tied in with the fate of the French monarchs.

In 1239 the Crown arrived in France, having been brought by two Dominicans. A contemporary account describes what happened:

'On having word of its approach - it was August of the year 1239 - (the king) went out joyfully to meet it, accompanied by his mother and brothers, the Archbishop of Sens and other prelates and as many barons and knights as could be gathered at short notice. They met the returning envoys about five miles beyond Sens, bearing a wooden chest. Opening it, they found a silver coffer fastened with the seals of the officials of the Eastern empire and the Doge of Venice. When these were broken a case of pure gold appeared within, containing the Holy Crown itself. All gathered round to see it, moved by devout fervour as if they beheld the Sacred Head of the Lord who once had worn it. The boxes were then closed and made fast with the royal seal. Next day Sens was entered. The whole populace came to meet them, rejoicing. The king and the count of Artois walked barefoot, carrying the reliquary on their shoulders. They were surrounded by knights and nobles also barefoot. The procession was headed by the clergy carrying bones of the saints and other relics. The citizens displayed their richest treasures in the streets. The whole town was full of lighted candles and the sounds of bells and organs and the joyous voices of worship. The Sacred Crown was borne into the Church of St Stephen and there uncovered before the people.9

The next day the procession moved towards Paris which was reached on the eighth day at dawn. After visiting Notre Dame for Mass the Crown was taken to the Palace and deposited in the Chapel of St Nicholas. Louis then had the magnificent Gothic shrine now known today as La Sainte-Chapelle 'The Holy Chapel' built between 1245 and 1248, to house the two most precious relics - the Crown, and a relic of the True Cross.10

Over the revolutionary period the Crown providentially escaped destruction when La Sainte-Chapelle was desecrated by the mob in 1791. It was kept in the Bibliothèque Nationale only being restored to its shrine in La Sainte-Chapelle in 1806. When La Sainte-Chapelle was again secularised in 1906, the relic was transferred to its present resting place in Notre Dame. The faithful may view it on Good Friday.

An English Connection

The Empress Irene sent Charlemagne several thorns which he enshrined in Aix-la-Chapelle otherwise known as Aachen. When Pope Leo III spent Christmas 804 with Charlemagne, the newly crowned Holy Roman Emperor, there were reputedly eight thorns from the Crown in the Cathedral. Perhaps it was one of these that Duke Hugo Capet, known as 'the Great,' founder of the third Frankish dynasty, sent to the Anglo-Saxon King Athelstan in 927. Whatever its provenance, Athelstan was sent one of the thorns from the Crown by his French brother-in-law.

The thorn sent by Hugo the Great found its way eventually to the Benedictine Abbey of Malmsbury in Wiltshire — founded in the seventh century by Mayldulphus a Scottish Benedictine monk and to be confiscated along with all of England's Abbeys and Monasteries by Henry VIII in the sixteenth century. The fate of this thorn is unknown.

There is another thorn preserved at Stonyhurst College that appears11 to have been one given by Mary queen of Scots to Blessed Thomas Percy, Earl of Northumberland executed in 1572 by Elizabeth for his part in the Pilgrimage of Grace.

Percy was betrayed by the Scots with whom he had sought refuge. Elizabeth paid his Scottish hosts £2000 'blood-money' for the pleasure of killing the Catholic Earl. Mary queen of Scots who shared his Faith, also shared his fate. She went to the block in 1587.

Some unbelievers, and sadly, numerous so-called Christians, have scoffed at the fact that throughout the world there are more than 70 thorns allegedly from the Crown of Thorns venerated in the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. Some, perhaps all, of these are genuine. It is simply impossible to judge at this distance without documentary and other proof that 2000 years of war and pillage have wantonly destroyed.

Others that are not 'genuine' may well have been given to Churches and Abbeys, to Kings and Popes as second-class relics (having been touched to the original) and with the passing of time have been confused with the original thorns. To impute bad-faith to good people who reverence the memory of Christ's sacrifice, and respect these precious mementos of our Lord defies rational explanation.

Curiously, in the time of Henry VIII those who scrupled to reverence relics connected with our Lord or his saints, had no such scruple about worshipping money.

When the sacred vessels and reliquaries of the Abbey of St Albans were handed over to the king's treasurer on December 17, 1539 there were 122 ounces of gold, 2990 ounces of gilt plate and 1144 ounces of parcel gilt and silver, along with countless jewels and precious vestments.

Among the jewels they stole was, one presumes, the famous jewel donated to the shrine of St Alban by King Ethelred II (968-1016). Those who took it in the name of King Henry VIII forgot, in their haste that Ethelred sometimes called the 'unready', in a rare moment of foresight requested the abbot and convent to lay an excommunication against anyone who should steal his gift.12 How well that curse worked may be gauged from the consequences for the Romans and for the Tudors, of forgetting St Paul's warning that we would do well to take to heart: 'Make no mistake about it: God will not be mocked.'13

  1. Mt xxvii, 27-31.
  2. quoted by New Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. iv, pp. 483-484.
  3. Relics, by Joan Carroll Cruz, 1984, p. 34.
  4. Visit to the Holy Places by Frescobaldt, Gucci and Sigoli, Jerusalem 1948, p. 121. See also 'Recherches sur les plantes de l' Évangile,' Revue Blblique 1933, p. 230.
  5. 2Cor v, 21.
  6. For the quotes from Paulinus of Nola, Vincent of Lerins and Cassiodorus, see Cruz, ed. cit.
  7. See St Louis, by Frederick Perry, G.P. Putnarn's Sons, New York 1901, p.101 where the figure of 'ten thousand pounds' is given as the ransom paid by Louis for the Crown.
  8. Cathedral and Crusade, London, 1963, p. 37.
  9. St Louis, ed. cit. p. 102.
  10. The building and the shrines cost 140,000 pounds, and, until they were desecrated and sacked during the French Revolution, the two shrines were encrusted with gold and jewels as a fitting resting place for the relics.
  11. See Cruz, ed. cit. p. 36.
  12. Matthew of Paris, Additamenia, ed. Luard, vi. p. 387.
  13. Galatians, vi, 7.

From "Annals Australasia" January/February 2000

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