IN a glass case at St Peter's Church, Marlow, Buckinghamshire is a mummified hand some think is that of the Apostle James. It was found in an old iron chest by workemn digging at Reading Abbey in 1786. Is it genuine? There is documentary evidence that, from the 12th century until is dissolution in 1539, the abbey possessed a relic it believed to be the hand of St James. According to early records it had been kept in Italy until 1046 when it was brought to Hamburg by Adalbert, Archbishop of Bremen. In Germany it has been part ofthe imperial regalia, until it was brough to England by Matilda, daughter of Henry I, and was given to the Abbey.
After its 18th century rediscovery it was displayed in a museum, but after this closed was acquired by a Mr Scott Murray of Danesfield. When his private chapel was old in 1896 the hand was given to St Peter's Church.
One way to test its authenticity would be to see if the apostle was buried with a missing hand. Tradition said his body was buried at St Iago de Compostella. In 1879 the archbishop authorised a search for the grave. Sir Thomas Kendrick in his book, St James in Spain, described what happened after the tomb was found:
"It was about three feet long, a foot deep and a foot wide, and it contained a quantity of very old bones. The party was overwhelmed by emotion. one workman fainted and remained blind for half an hour after he had recovered consciousness. The Clerk of the Works was sent to tell the Archbishop, though the time was 2am, and woke up the place by throwing stones at the coachman's window."
Pope Leo XIII declared the bones those of St James, but it was unclear whether a hand was missing. Or whether it was far away in the English town of Marlow.
Strange Wycombe, detailing legends and folklore of Wycombe in Buckinghamshire, has been out of print for some time but a few copies of the 1991 edition are still available. See Strange Wycombe page for more details.