In Southern Germany the Friday after Ascension Day is known as Blutfreitag – ‘Blood Friday’. At Weingarten, just north of Lake Constance, there is the most remarkable pilgrimage and procession of the relic of the Precious Blood: the largest equestrian pilgrimage in the whole of Europe.
This year there were 2336 horses, ridden by members of the Equestrian Guild. They escorted the relic, which was carried by the parish priest of the great Basilica of St Martin at Weingarten. It was until very recently a Benedictine Abbey. The priest is traditionally mounted on a white horse, and blesses pilgrims with the relic along the route. Local parishes from the twin towns of Weingarten and Ravensburg, and from villages around, form the procession.
This year there were a hundred parish groups. Each had its own equestrian guild carrying banners, followed by large parish bands, and then the parish clergy. The clergy were also on horseback, in cassocks, cottas, and red stoles. They were accompanied by similarly mounted servers, with the smallest in scarlet cassocks and cottas riding appropriately-sized ponies. The pilgrimage route is thirteen kilometres long, and the procession took some three hours to pass by the town-hall balcony where the bishops, ecumenical guests, local Burgermeisters and other guests were gathered. It is estimated that around 25,000 people took part in this year’s pilgrimage.
How did this remarkable pilgrimage originate, and what is its history? The story goes back over a thousand years, when in 1074 the princess Judith, a daughter of Baldwin IV, Count of Flanders, came to Weingarten to marry Welf, Duke of Bavaria. She came bringing the precious relic from Flanders as part of her dowry, and was accompanied, it is said, by 3,000 horses. Judith had an English connection, having been previously married to Tostig, the Earl of Northumbria and the brother of King Harold, who was killed at the battle of Stamford Bridge, just before the Battle of Hastings.
The relic of the Precious Blood preserved at Weingarten was originally part of the relic of the Precious Blood at Mantua, where the relic is venerated in procession on Good Friday. The diocese of Mantua is still represented at Weingarten by clergy and riders. According to tradition the Mantua relic had been originally preserved by Longinus, the soldier who pierced the side of Christ with a spear, who brought it to Mantua. Lost for centuries, the relic was discovered in 804, and then hidden again because of hostile invasions. It was rediscovered in the eleventh century, when Pope Leo IX and the Holy Roman Emperor Henry III came to venerate it. A part of the Mantua relic was given in 1055 to the Emperor, who in turn gave it to Baldwin of Flanders and thence to the Princess Judith. Weingarten Abbey was endowed with many relics, books, and treasures by the Princess Judith – but the relic of the Precious Blood was the most valued and venerated. In England King Henry III gave a relic of the Precious Blood to Westminster Abbey, and the Abbey of Hailes in Gloucestershire, which also had a relic of the Precious Blood, became a centre of mediaeval pilgrimage.
Blutfreitag in Weingarten shows that devotion to the Precious Blood is still powerful, a tangible reminder of the Cross and Passion of Christ, and of the sacrificial cost of our redemption. It reminds us no less of those who by martyrdom in many centuries – not least our own times – have witnessed in their dying to their faith in Christ.