Wending on my winsome way as I am wont to do, lonely as a cloud with my head among the stars, I stumbled into a disused ha-ha somewhere outside the Essex town of Basildon. I flailed about for a little, partly trying to recover my composure, but also gaining some enjoyment from the motion, when my knee knocked against something sharp. With deft fingers, I quickly unearthed a long, cylindrical object covered in mud, about as heavy as a bag of sugar. And I knew I had something. Years of watching Antiques Roadshow had not gone to waste. There was a glint, a glimmer, a hint of promise in it, so I stuffed it into my pocket and made like a lithe person.
I perched myself on a grassy knoll, somewhere beside the A127 and examined my find. With the aid of a bottle of Evian and a pocket handkerchief, I gradually revealed a long, slightly curved shape, something like a gherkin that seemed to be made of glass, although so grimed by centuries of greyness that I could make neither head or shoulder of it. Nor knees or toes either. At both ends, the object appeared to be encased in metal of a dull bronze colour, engraved with some sort of decoration that might have included leaves, flowers and circles. Intriguingly though, there was a distinct rattle: not of something that had become dislodged over time, but most distinctly of something contained within. Yet try as I might, I could not manage to prise it out.
The skies over Basildon.
My choices were few. The A127 hummed along on one side and on the other lay the waterlogged fields where a small herd of cattle nibbled pitifully. But there, in the distance, there was a broken church spire. Once the proud community landmark, it had lost its prophetic top hat and now presented a flat top to the sky. I reached it as a lone bell in the tower was pealing and the vicar was scraping chewing gum off a misericord. He cast me the look of a man tired, but I went to meet him eagerly, bearing forth my find. When he saw what lay in my hands, his demeanour changed at once.
“Oh! No! No dead things, absolutely no dead things, they make the church smell.”
“No, no, it’s something else,” I urged, “it’s solid and hollow at the same time, I think it’s old.”
In the vestry, we applied every substance and implement we could find, until the mystery item yielded up some of its secrets. The vicar held it up to candlelight, his eyes aglow.
“I don’t believe it! I can’t be! I’ve heard legends of its existence but I never really thought…”
“What? What is it?”
“Look, this central section is carved from crystal, hollowed out to create a chamber inside. It’s bound in gold on either end, and these things that the toothpaste cleared up so well; those are emeralds.”
“Yes, it’s a high status item. A reliquary dating from the late sixteenth century.”
A term of lectures under Dr Mutton Chop came back to me. “Hang on, I thought they’d done away with reliquaries, icons and all that stuff by then. Weren’t they all collected by Cromwell and burned on a pyre at Chelsea?”
“Yes indeed. Sorry, I wasn’t clear. This isn’t a reliquary. It is the reliquary.”
“If I’m not very much mistaken,” he dribbled, “this is the reliquary known as the Virgin’s Pizzle, made at Greenwich in 1603. Rumour has it that it was interred in the old chapel at Greenwich Palace but that with the erosion of the Thames, and a series of Victorian storms, some of those goods were carried down river. Metal detectors regularly turn them up on the Essex mudflats.”
“The Virgin’s Pizzle? What on earth?”
He nodded. “I know, but it is exactly what it sounds like. You’ve heard the legends that Elizabeth I was actually a man?”
I laughed. “What nonsense.”
“Nonsense, is it? That’s what they all want you to think. Dr Blarney was successful. But no, she wasn’t, not according to a diary entry made in code by the doctor who carried out her post-mortem.”
At this point, I could scarcely believe my ears, but I encouraged the man to tell me all and he was faithful to a fault. He knew about the diary only because, as a young trainee, he had access to secret records held at Lambeth House. Whilst researching the baptism of a certain dwarf pig in the 1270s, he had found a note scribbled in the back of a diary in an unrecognisable cipher. Having spent the intervening forty years attempting to decode it, he had finally managed to ascertain that the entry, made by a Dr U.R. Blarney, referred to his examination of Elizabeth I’s body, prior to her embalmment in March 1603.
“He spoke of their horror, of a secret oath,” the vicar whispered, although we were quite alone in the church, save for the ghosts of the past. “A secret oath, that each of the five doctors were forced to swear, on pain of immediate death. He swore along with them, of course, but there was more and Dr Blarney’s conscience clearly did not rest easy. It was only a few scratched lines, but he conveyed the incredible secret that the Queen had, after all, been born a man. Worse still, he had seen the terror, the fear in these doctor’s faces, the panic as they struggled to conceal their knowledge; the shame and dishonour to the great memory of their glittering majesty. So he acted on impulse. The Queen must be buried as she had lived: as a great woman. With his surgical blade, Blarney had snipped off the offending item and ordered the creation of what he called the casket. His diary entry was finished only with the words “crystal and emerald, Greenwich Chapel, 27 March 1603.”
I looked at the object. I gave it a little rattle. I could scarcely believe that it contained the organ of the great virgin queen. I confessed myself at a loss; to whom could I trust this knowledge, this great secret, without letting it become tainted, discredited, ridiculed? I stuffed it up my jumper and ran out of the church. The vicar was chasing after me, almost close enough to reach me at one point, although he must have forgotten about the existence of the ha-ha.
At home, I sit and wait. The reliquary sits in an armchair opposite me, on the other side of the fire, warming slightly. The clock ticks. My heart beats. Where will this discovery take me?
A crystal reliquary dating from the early medieval period, but not The Reliquary of the Virgin’s Pizzle.
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Jeff R Vescent has currently gone to ground.