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E06410: A letter of Pope Gregory the Great (Register 9.229b) of 599, to Reccared, king of the Visigoths, mentions relics he has sent the king: a reliquary in the shape of a key, containing iron from the chains that had bound *Peter (the Apostle, S00036), and a cross containing both a fragment of the True Cross and some hair of *John the Baptist (S00020). Written in Latin in Rome.

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posted on 11.09.2018, 00:00 by frances
Pope Gregory the Great, Register of Letters 9.229b

Extract from the end of a long letter relating to the conversion of Reccared and his kingdom to orthodoxy:

Clauem uero paruulum uobis a sacratissimo beati Petri apostoli corpore pro eius benedictione transmissimus, in qua inest ferrum de catenis eius inclausum, ut quod collum illius ad martyrium ligauerat, uestrum ab omnibus peccatis soluat. Crucem quoque latori praesentium dedimus uobis offerendam, in qua lignum domincae crucis inest et capilli Iohannis Baptistae. Ex qua semper solacium nostri saluatoris per intercessionem praecursoris eius habeatis.

‘We have sent you a small key from the most holy body of Saint Peter the apostle, as his blessing, which contains some iron from his chains, so that what had bound the neck of that man for martyrdom might free yours from all sins. We have also given a cross to be offered to you by the bearer of this letter, in which there is wood from Christ’s cross and hair of John the Baptist. From this may you always have the comfort of our Saviour through the intercession of his precursor.’

Text: Norberg 1982, vol. 2, 810. Translation: Martyn 2004, vol. 2, 703, modified.


Evidence ID


Saint Name

Peter the Apostle : S00036 John the Baptist : S00020

Saint Name in Source

Petrus Iohannes

Type of Evidence

Literary - Letters



Evidence not before


Evidence not after


Activity not before


Activity not after


Place of Evidence - Region

Rome and region

Place of Evidence - City, village, etc


Place of evidence - City name in other Language(s)

Rome Rome Rome Roma Ῥώμη Rhōmē

Major author/Major anonymous work

Gregory the Great (pope)

Cult Activities - Protagonists in Cult and Narratives

Ecclesiastics - bishops Monarchs and their family

Cult Activities - Relics

Contact relic - instrument of saint’s martyrdom Reliquary – privately owned Bodily relic - nails, hair and bodily products Division of relics Transfer, translation and deposition of relics Making contact relics Privately owned relics Other activities with relics


A letter transmitted as part of Gregory the Great’s Register of Letters. This letter collection, organised into fourteen books, is large and contains letters to a variety of recipients, including prominent aristocrats, members of the clergy and royalty. The issues touched on in the letters are equally varied, ranging from theological considerations to mundane administrative matters. This collection of letters, which was possibly curated by Gregory, was originally much larger. The surviving Register comprises several groups of letters which were extracted at several later moments in history, the largest of which took place in the papacy of Hadrian I (772-795).


Gregory sent relics, containing filings from the chains that had bound Peter, to a substantial number of his most distinguished correspondents: two were within reliquaries in the form of a cross: E06436 and E06343; most within reliquaries in the form of keys, an obvious echo of Peter's role as the keeper of the keys of heaven: E02814, E02825, E06345, E06363, E06383, E06410, E06422, E06427. Several letters tell us that they were designed to be worn round the neck of the recipient, and would offer protection against various evils. They are sometimes described as a 'most sacred key from the body' of Peter, suggesting that, as well as containing a relic of the chains, they had lain for a period in close proximity to Peter's grave. From a letter of Gregory to Theoctista, the sister of the emperor Maurice (E06375), we learn that at least one such key was made of gold, and that the practice of distributing them began before Gregory's pontificate, since a story told in this letter has a gold key being returned to Gregory's predecessor, Pelagius II (pope 579-590). Rome also claimed chains that had bound the Apostle Paul, from which Gregory also sent out fragments: E06351 and E06436. In a letter to the empress Constantina, offering her fragments of the chains of Paul (E06351), Gregory explains how these were obtained: by a priest applying a file to them; he is, however, careful to state that this did not always work, implying that divine sanction was also required.


Edition: Norberg, D., S. Gregorii Magni, Registrum epistularum. 2 vols. (Corpus Christianorum Series Latina 140-140A; Turnhout: Brepols, 1982). English translation: Martyn, J.R.C., The Letters of Gregory the Great, 3 vols. (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 2004). Further Reading: Dal Santo, M., Debating the Saints' Cult in the Age of Gregory the Great (Oxford: OUP, 2012). McCulloch, J., "The Cult of Relics in the Letters and Dialogues of Gregory the Great," Traditio 32 (1976), 145-184. Neil, B., and Dal Santo, M. (eds.), A Companion to Gregory the Great (Leiden: Brill, 2013).

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