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The Bury St Edmunds Cross

Updated on December 19, 2017

A book review of King of the Confessors about its discovery

Also known as the Cloister Cross, this ivory altar cross was discovered by Thomas Hoving in 1962 while he was a curator of medieval art at the Metropolitan Museum in New York City. Hoving wrote a book about the discovery, his research into its history and his attempts to acquire the cross for the Museum. The book is called King of the Confessors and it was originally published in 1981.

I read this book some time in the early 1980s and I loved it. I loved reading about the research that Hoving was required to do and which was described in minute detail. This book is the main reason why I fell in love with art and art history even though religious scultures such as this one, are not what I am interested in. This book showed me that all art needs to be investigated and thoroughly researched. For someone like me who LOVES doing research, this discovery was a major eye opener for me.

Thomas Hoving was born in January 1931 and died in December 2009

King of the Confessors - The story of the Bury St Edmunds Cross

In 1981 Thomas Hoving published his book, King of the Confessors, a rippling narrative of his pursuit and purchase of the Bury St. Edmunds Cross, a masterpiece of medieval sculpture for the Cloisters Museum in upper Manhattan.

Now, (in 2001) having uncovered new information, Hoving has rewritten his original book to reveal the controversial and disturbing truths about the history of the cross.

(source - Forbes article - Cross of Shame - See links)

I have not read this book for over 20 years. If it has been re-issued with new information, then I must try to obtain a recent edition and read it for myself.

Excerpt from the Cross of Shame article from Forbes Magazine

Are you sure the cross is not a fake? Why is it controversial?

Well, we know it's not a fake for many reasons, including the Bury St. Edmunds Abbey records, which are housed in Cambridge University.

No, it's the real thing, of course, and perhaps tragically so. You see, the inscriptions on the cross are almost entirely anti-Jewish. They're all about the Jews sacrificing Christian children--a common anti-Semitic propaganda device of the time--in tandem with Old Testament texts about God's wrath with the Jews. This was at a time of Christian pogroms against the Jews in 12th-century England, following a change of power in the abbey and of mood in England generally when anti-Semitic feeling suddenly flared up. It's something that really haunts me about the piece. The inscriptions are so hate-filled and yet it's such a masterwork. It's as if Hitler and Michelangelo collaborated to make a masterpiece.

All these years nobody's noticed it or chosen to stay silent--the inscriptions are tiny and in medieval Latin. In 1994, the Cloisters did a huge book on the cross, and they don't mention it at all. This will be revealed for the first time in my [e-book]. It's actually a great thing to be able to rewrite a book like this and rediscover overlooked truths and set the record straight.

We still don't know who really owned the cross before the war. It had certainly started out in England at Bury St. Edmunds. But under Henry VIII, the monasteries were destroyed and their possessions dispersed. Then the record is a blank until Topic gets it in separate pieces before and after the war. Topic told the British that when he got it, it was black. There was black grime still in it when I got it. So it was probably in a grave or under the earth somewhere in Europe for centuries. But we still don't know. Perhaps this will reopen the case.

See Cross of Shame, Forbes Magazine 2001 in the Links.

Interview with Thomas Hoving

Photos of the Cloisters Cross

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Your turn to speak - Have you heard of the St Edmunds Cross

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    • Glenis Rix profile image


      22 months ago from UK

      This is fascinating. I was drawn to your article because I was in Bury St Edmunds last week - my sister lives in one of the outlying villages -and I have just written a hub about the town. I have often visited the ruins of the Abbey and St Edmundsbury Cathedral. Can’t help feeling that the Cross belongs there. As my sister and I both love English history, I’m now planning to get hold of two copies of the book. Thanks.

    • JohnTannahill profile image

      John Tannahill 

      7 years ago from Somewhere in England

      I think I've just discovered another amazing ancient artefact - this lens.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      I've read this book 3 times and have loved it each time. I'm definitely interested in new research on the piece! Truly gripping story.

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      Fascinating subject. I watched the video featuring Thomas Hoving. He's one of five people profilled in John McPhee's fifth book, "A Roomful of Hovings," which can be found on my John McPhee lens. He's a very interesting character.

    • TonyPayne profile image

      Tony Payne 

      9 years ago from Southampton, UK

      Fascinating story. I wonder where the cross really lay hidden during those missing times. Lensrolled to my One Hundred Years Ago lens.

    • norma-holt profile image


      9 years ago

      Really interesting subject and great story. Featured this on The Great Roman Conspiracy

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      Thanks for sharing, what a very interesting lens.

    • delia-delia profile image


      9 years ago

      Another great and interesting lens...thanks for sharing! I love art, art history, and have visited many Museums including in Germany and Austria

    • joanv334 profile image


      9 years ago

      Thanks for sharing!

    • aesta1 profile image

      Mary Norton 

      9 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      This is really interesting. Sometimes, we cruise through galleries and museums unaware of the history of many of the pieces we look at.


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