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Stonyhurst yields its mystical treasures

Friday 4th May 2018

The CHC @ The Catholic Universe

Stonyhurst yields its mysteries

Jonathan Luxmorre

Through the wide windows of a rambling but stately greystone building, the northern Lancashire countryside sweeps toward the Irish Sea in a maze of fields and woodlands. Inside, spring sunlight plays over shelves and glass cases, containing faded books and ancient artifacts amassed over four centuries.

When Stonyhurst College was founded at Saint-Omer in the Spanish Netherlands by the recusant Jesuit Fr Robert Persons in 1593, persecuted Catholic priests faced a mandatory death sentence if caught ministering in England.

More than four centuries later, Stonyhurst, the world’s oldest Jesuit school, houses a remarkable collection of relics relating to the country’s many martyrs. “Many things were being destroyed in Reformation England, so when Catholic boys came abroad to the school, they’d bring vestments, manuscripts and precious objects for safe keeping,” explained Jan Graffius, the collection’s curator. “This makes us part of the story Stonyhurst yields its mystical treasures and means we know what it was like to be targeted,” she said. “At a time when people know little about the struggles of the past, these relics provide a graphic reminder of what Catholics faced in upholding their faith.” 


The collections at Stonyhurst College provide a fascinating insight into the sometimes bloody history of the struggles faced by Catholicism in England
Church vestments form a substantial part of the Stonyhurst Collections

In 1794, when the school was forced to flee the French Revolution, its collection was already extensive. It was lucky to have the current site donated by a former student, Thomas Weld, father of Cardinal Thomas Weld (1773-1837). The Stonyhurst Collection, now being opened to visitors, has continued expanding.

 Its earliest exhibits include a piece of jawbone, documented to early medieval times, said to come from St Stephen. Its most recent relic is a piece of the bloodied vestment worn by St Oscar Romero of El Salvador when he was assassinated on 24th March 1980, while celebrating Mass.

“The idea is to provide an accessible public resource with a narrative tracing back 2,000 years,” Graffius said. “These objects tell their own stories, and people engaging with them can feel uncomfortable, even revolted. But no-one remains indifferent and everyone has questions to ask,” she added.

England’s Catholic Church was effectively outlawed under Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603), who implemented her father’s break with Rome while officially seeking a Protestantled compromise, or “middle way”.

 Persecution was stepped up after Pope Pius V declared the Queen excommunicated and deposed in 1570 and following the 1588 rout of the Spanish Armada invasion fleet. It intensified following the failed 1605 Gunpowder Plot by Catholic militants against King James I, although Masses continued to be secretly celebrated at great personal risk by undercover Jesuit priests.

Choking off Catholic education was seen as key to stifling adherence to the traditional faith. It survived, but at a high price. In all, 23 Stonyhurst pupils were executed between 1610 and 1680; three have been canonised as martyrs and a dozen beatified.

The school’s Arundel Library includes works connected with the rebel Jacobite cause, as well as verses by the St Robert Southwell (1561-1595) and holographs by the 19th-century poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, who trained as a priest at Stonyhurst.

The Stonyhurst Collection also contains some macabre items: a piece of the battered skull of the 12th-century martyr St Thomas Becket, preserved after his Canterbury shrine was smashed in 1539; the shoulder blade of a priest executed at Durham in 1590, still bearing knife slashes; and the eyeball of a beatified Jesuit, Fr Edward Oldcorne, brutally killed at Worcester for alleged complicity in the Gunpowder Plot.

Although religious restrictions began to be eased in England after the 1829 Catholic Relief Act, Catholic persecution victims were publicly commemorated only after the canonisation of 40 English and Welsh martyrs by St Paul VI in 1970. The keeping of relics, stamped out with the Reformation, has been much less common here than in continental Europe.

Where they survive, they provide a tangible link with past martyrs and faith witnesses and can be a challenging but valuable asset for the prayer life of Catholics, Graffius said. “For young people especially, without much awareness of history, they can also be a good teaching resource, evoking youngsters like themselves who made difficult choices and decisions,” she said. “Today, we still ask our children to do the right things in a world not very sympathetic to religious values. And though conditions are now quite different, Christians are still being persecuted. It isn’t just ancient history.”

Beyond the window, the Ribble Valley undulates toward Clitheroe over a landscape used by the visiting J.R.R. Tolkein as a setting for his monumental Lord of The Rings trilogy as the latest generation of Stonyhurst pupils returns from afternoon activities.

Having had barely a dozen pupils when it relocated here, the school quickly became one of England’s best, and now welcomes men and women students from around the world.

While a third of its students are non-Catholic, all must attend services in the college’s six churches and chapels and subscribe to the Jesuit ethos of prayer and service. That ethos has produced outstanding alumni, including seven Catholic archbishops, assorted government leaders, artists, missionaries, war heroes and revolutionaries.

Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the sleuth Sherlock Holmes, studied here, as did Joseph Plunkett, executed for his part in Ireland’s 1916 Easter Rising, and Thomas Meagher, an Irish-born American Civil War general and later governor of Montana.

Stonyhurst College has called the stunning Ribble Valley home for over two hundred years.

So did Daniel Carroll, a signatory of the US Articles of Confederation and the US Constitution, and his brother John Carroll, founder of Georgetown University and the first American Catholic bishop, along with Oscar-winning actor Charles Laughton and George Walker, greatgrandfather of US President George W. Bush.

 Yet it’s the collection of relics that lends the most poignancy. “A centre like this should be viewed as a cultural resource, an expression of everyone’s search for God,” Graffius said.

“Faith is a lifelong journey, which requires us to open up and ask profound questions – to follow hearts and consciences without fearing the consequences. Objects like these show us how previous generations approached this vital task.”

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St Edmund’s rope binds us to the memory of his sacrifice

Friday 3rd November 2017

The CHC @ The Catholic Universe

St Edmund’s rope binds us to the memory of his sacrifice

Christopher Graffius

At Stonyhurst there’s a rope. Among all the treasures of the College this receives the most honour. Housed in a reliquary, it is placed on the altar on the great feast days. The pupil who carries it there, amid the candles and the incense, on its feast day on 1st December, will never forget the experience.

A simple rope, some five hundred years old. The rope that bound St Edmund Campion to the hurdle on which he was dragged to execution. A rope smuggled away from the butchery and worn by Fr Robert Persons, the founder of the college who escaped the martyrdom of his companion, round his waist for the rest of his life. What’s the point of a rope? Is it merely a cultural artefact collected amid the gore? Or does it hold a greater meaning? As the new Christian Heritage Centre rises at Stonyhurst these are questions worth asking.

Museums must have some relevance or the exhibits are merely dry as dust. That simple rope holds a message as important to us today as it was when it played its part in Campion’s sacrifice.

As Westminster Cathedral, Stonyhurst and many other buildings are floodlit red on 22nd November – Red Wednesday – and Christians commemorate the killing of today’s modern martyrs, there is a direct link to Campion and others who have died for their faith.

Stonyhurst College lit up for Red Wednesday in solidarity with those persecuted for their faith

Campion epitomises the heroism of recusant England.

Fr Clement Tigar, who championed the cause of the Forty Martyrs, wrote: ‘In June 1580, when Campion landed on these shores in disguise, he brought with him the spirit of chivalry in defence of the ancient Faith. By his holiness of life, his unquenchable good humour, his charm of manner, his burning eloquence, he put new heart, new courage, new enthusiasm, into the persecuted, dejected Catholics of England.’

It hadn’t always been so. Campion was a scholarship boy and learned early to please the establishment. He was chosen to speak before Queen Mary on her visit to the City and later, as a student at Oxford, to debate before Queen Elizabeth. He was described as “one of the diamonds of England”. Great men offered him patronage. In the turmoil of the Reformation this promised safety. His friend, Tobie Matthew, urged him to embrace the opportunities. Campion accepted ordination as an Anglican deacon and barred himself from the sacraments for twelve years.

His conscience troubled him. Matthew, who told him not to bother, went on to become the Anglican Bishop of Durham and Archbishop of York. As Evelyn Waugh says in his classic biography of Campion: ‘Tobie Matthew died full of honours in 1628, there but for the Grace of God went Edmund Campion.’

‘Hope, greatest and
ever-present to the Dead,
Hope is the Host
which I behold;
Here, be assembled
here,I pray;
Here celebrate God, and for
the afflicted seek peace.’

– An extract from Anima. The
original copy of Anima, which
Edmund Campion composed in
Latin in 1581 as he was
returning to the mission field in
England – and to certain death
– is held in the Collections

A 1581 illustration of St Edmund Campion and his execution.

Nevertheless, many remained loyal to the Church, and  Catholicism was particularly strong in some of the great aristocratic households of the Thames Valley and the Sacred County of Lancashire. It was to these houses, with their secret Catholic chapels and holes in which the sacred vessels and vestments (as well as the priests themselves in time of emergency) could be hidden, that Campion went to minister. In disguise he travelled  extensively ‘through the most part of the shires of England’ (Persons) hearing confessions and saying Mass for the faithful who would have had no access to the sacraments for many years and yet who had kept faith.

During this time Campion wrote Decem Rationes defending the claims of the Church against those of the state church. This document was widely circulated and led to an increase in the government.

He escaped overseas and was reconciled at Douai. He walked to Rome to join the Jesuits. He was assigned as a school master to the college at Prague. He might never have seen England again. A life in community and academia beckoned.

The call to the English mission came as a surprise. Campion answered it despite his fear that he had not the “constitutional courage”. He entered the country disguised as a jewel merchant and with Persons and others began the reorganisation of the scattered and dispirited Catholics. He travelled across the country between safe houses, confessing, offering the Mass, putting new spirit into those worn down by fines and imprisonment. “The harvest is wonderful…I cannot long escape the hands of the heretics; the enemy have so many eyes…I am in apparel to myself very ridiculous…”

With Persons he set up a secret printing press to circulate his ‘Ten Reasons’ for being a Catholic and his ‘Brag’ a justification of his mission and a challenge to the authorities. ‘And touching our Society, be it known to you that we have made a league—all the Jesuits in the world…cheerfully to carry the cross you shall lay upon us, and never to despair your recovery, while we have a man left to enjoy your Tyburn, or to be racked with your torments, or consumed with your prisons. The expense is reckoned, the enterprise is begun; it is of God; it cannot be withstood. So the faith was planted: so it must be restored.’

In the summer of 1581 he rode out of London, pausing at Tyburn to pray under the gallows. “Because”, says Persons, “he used to say that he would have his combat there.” He stopped at the Catholic house of Lyford Grange to say Mass, but there was a priest hunter in the congregation. The Gospel of the day was prophetic, ‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets.’

Captured, he was bound to his horse with the sign ‘Campion, seditious Jesuit’ pinned to his hat. He disappeared into the Tower for four months of interrogation and torture. Rumours flew, he had recanted, accepted a bishopric, betrayed his hosts. When he emerged, brought to debate with the Anglican divines, it was the same gentle, eloquent Campion who confounded his adversaries. Except, at his trial, he couldn’t lift his right arm to take the oath because of the racking.

Condemned to death by perjured witnesses and a packed jury, Campion spoke for all Catholics: “In condemning us, you condemn all your own ancestors, all our ancient bishops and kings, all that was once the glory of England; the island of saints, and the most devoted child of the See of Peter.”

He was dragged to execution on 1st December, his feast day. He greeted the crowd “God save you all, and make you all good Catholics.” His final words were to pray for the Queen; that “we may at last be friends in heaven, when all injuries shall be forgotten”.

The Campion Rope, which tied him to the hurdle and is now owned by the BritishProvince of the Society of Jesus.

So to the rope. We all face the same choice, whether to conform or stand for the truth. Today, we will probably not be called to a physical martyrdom. Instead we face the hostility of secularism, of licence masquerading as liberty and the marginalisation of spirit and faith. That’s as much a threat as anything the martyrs faced. Meeting it demands the constant courage and faithfulness that Campion inspires

That’s what the rope means.

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Relics of how brave Catholic missionaries cracked China

Friday 3rd March 2017

The CHC @ The Catholic Universe

Relics of how brave Catholic missionaries cracked China

‘The desire for God is written in the human heart, because man is created by God and for God; and God never ceases to draw man to himself…. In many ways, throughout history down to the present day, men have given expression to their quest for God in their religious beliefs and behaviour: in their prayers, sacrifices, ritual, meditations, and so forth.

‘These forms of religious expression, despite the ambiguities they often bring with them, are so universal that one may well call man a religious being.’ 

This quote, from the Catechism of the Catholic Church on the Vatican’s website, underpins the selection of astronomical artefacts in this article. These artefacts span different religions and cultures. The collections at Stonyhurst include some remarkable scientific artefacts, reminders of the significant role played in astronomy by Jesuits in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Some, such as the Viatorium, were part of a missionary enterprise by the Jesuits, whose scientific expertise gained for them access to regions and countries which would otherwise be forbidden territory. 

The Christian Heritage Centre at Stonyhurst exists to provide a suitable setting for the rare and significant collections which the college has acquired over the centuries. Through careful, scholarly interpretation and explanation, these objects have a vital role to play in the education and illumination of all who come into contact with them.

The watercolour of Fr Matteo Ricci SJ was made by Charles Weld, a pupil of Stonyhurst College in the early nineteenth century. He spent much time in Rome from 1845 to 1850 copying paintings of significance to the Jesuit order. An inscription by Charles Weld at the bottom of the paper records that the original painting hangs in the Museo Borgiano at the Collegio Propaganda Fide in Rome. It is assumed that the original painting was by a Jesuit lay brother living in China with Matteo Ricci.

China in the 1550s was a self contained world with its own distinctive ancient culture. Since the eighth century, Christian missionaries had been trying to gain a foothold there without any real success. 

The watercolour of Fr Matteo Ricci SJ by Charles Weld, a Stonyhurst pupil in the early 19th century

In 1552 St Francis Xavier died in sight of mainland China, without ever setting foot on Chinese soil. That same year, Matteo Ricci was born in Italy. He became a Jesuit at the age of nineteen and in 1582, he arrived as a missionary in China. Ricci was highly educated, having studied mathematics, astronomy, literature, philosophy and mechanics.

He reported back to his superiors: ‘I have applied myself to the Chinese tongue and can assure your reverence that it is a different thing from German or Greek … the spoken tongue is prey to so many ambiguities that many sounds mean more than a thousand things … As to the alphabet, it is a thing one would not believe in had one not seen and tried it as I have.’

Ricci quickly adopted the dress and habits of the people around him, and became fluent in Mandarin. His intellect and wisdom earned him great respect in China, and it was his scientific expertise that finally won him an invitation to Peking (now called Beijing) from the Ming emperor, Wan-li (1573-1620), who heard about his collection of European clocks.


The viatorum Fr Schall used in his missionary work in China in the 17th century

The emperor was greatly impressed with Ricci’s learning and kept him at court for 10 years, never actually meeting him, but his favour opened to the Jesuit the doors to Chinese society. Ricci lectured widely on physics, philosophy and Western science, attracting thousands to hear him.

He died at the height of his fame in 1610, fully aware that he had achieved little in the way of converts to Christianity but hoping that he had prepared the way for subsequent missionaries to build on his reputation. His epitaph read: ‘The man from the distant west, renowned judge, author of famous books.’ More than a thousand Jesuit missionaries were to follow him to China in the hundred years after his death. One such was Johann Adam Schall von Bell, a German Jesuit astronomer from Cologne who was sent to Peking as a missionary in 1622. Schall was noticed by the emperor of China, Zhu Youjian, through his faultless predictions of the timings of two lunar eclipses. He wanted permission to preach Christianity but he needed the emperor’s approval

As a test of his scientific skill, in 1627 the emperor ordered him to reform the Chinese calendar which was based on the movements of the constellations, and which over many centuries had become unreliable through inaccurate astronomical observations. Fr Schall worked on the project until 1635, and the recalibrated calendar earned him great fame and respect, as well as the all-important permission to carry out his evangelising work. 

Schall was a respected and honoured scholar at the Chinese court, but on the death of Zhu Youjian in 1644, he was thrown into prison and condemned to death. 

He was saved by a severe earthquake in Beijing which was seen as a judgement on the sentence on such a notable scholar. He was released from prison and spent the last year of his life in the capital, dying in 1666.

The Viatorium was used for astronomical and surveying tasks. The case carries an inscription with Fr Schall’s name and the date 1638. The lid has characters which translate as Sun and Moon dial for a hundred wanderings. 

The circular brass plate on the lid shows the phases of the moon, and the twelve two-hour periods into which the Chinese day was divided. The dial shows the days of the month and the twenty-four solar periods of the year. Inside the box is a space which once contained a compass and a Chinese proverb advising the reader to be aware of the fleeting passage of time and of the need to use it wisely

The college possesses a celestial globe made for Islamic scientists. This brass globe, which maps out the heavens for astronomers, is the eleventh oldest Islamic globe known to exist.

It was made in India at the court of the great Mughal emperor, Jahangir (1569-1627), whose son, Shah Jehan (1592-1666), built the Taj Mahal. Jahangir was a cultured man, keen on science, who welcomed western scholars and scientists, particularly Jesuit astronomers, to his court.

The globe is inscribed ‘Qaim Muhammed ibn Isa ibn Allahdad Asturlabi Lahuri Humayuni’ and is dated 1623.

Qaim Muhammed was an astrolabe maker in Lahore, part of a remarkable family which had produced fine quality astronomical instruments for four generations. Their family firm was renowned for its celestial globes such as this one. The globe is seamless, made by a process known as the lost wax method, also used by western Renaissance sculptors. It seems likely that the highly prestigious and expensive globe was commissioned by Itiqad Khan, the brother of Jahangir’s wife, Nur Jahan.

The principal stars of the heavens are indicated by silver dots inlaid into the brass and arranged in Islamicate zodiac form. The circle of the sun’s path is clearly marked, as are the lines that divide the sphere into celestial longitude and latitude. The globe shows all the visible stars and the forty-eight constellations listed by the ancient astronomers such as Ptolemy. It is constructed in such a way that the observer has to imagine that he is placed in the heavens looking down on the constellations, while the earth is hidden inside the globe.

The celestial globe used by the Islamic scholars

 The faith of Islam requires its followers to pray five times a day at specified positions of the sun, and facing Mecca. Using spheres such as this one, in conjunction with other instruments, astronomers were able to use the stars to pinpoint the correct location of Mecca and the exact times for prayer. 

The importance of dates and times for Islamic prayer was also the reason for the creation of a small, beautifully illuminated Persian manuscript, which intermingles mathematical tables, with prayers and instructions for ritual washing.

As the Catholic catechism acknowledges, man has historically sought the meaning of his own existence, and wondered at the glory of the heavens, using his God-given intelligence and ingenuity to try and puzzle out the laws of the Universe.

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Relics reveal rich tapestry of England’s Catholic past

Friday 3rd February 2017

The CHC @ The Catholic Universe

Relics reveal rich tapestry of England’s Catholic past

The Pedlar's Chest, used to smugle vestments during the Reformation

Stonyhurst College cares for a spectacular and rich array of historic vestments in its collections, many of which were smuggled across the Channel to the school during the time it was based in St Omers near Calais, between 1593 and 1762.

Vestments were particularly singled out for destruction in Reformation England. In the eyes of the Elizabethan government, they represented priestly authority and the celebration of the forbidden Mass.

From the onset of the Dissolution of the Monasteries until the late 17th century, vestments in England and Wales were systematically sought out and destroyed by government agents, keen to suppress all signs of Catholic worship. Ironically a good many which survived the reign of Protestant Edward VI and were brought out in the reign of his Catholic half-sister, Mary Tudor, were subsequently seized and destroyed in the reign of Elizabeth I.

There are numerous examples of Catholic families and communities hiding precious pre-Reformation vestments from the searchers, storing them in attics, in hidden compartments and even burying them, in an attempt to preserve them. Very few survived, and many of these were sent abroad for safekeeping, to the English seminaries and Colleges in Rome, Valladolid, Douai and St Omers.

Many pre-Reformation vestments were richly embroidered with the intricate needlework known as opus anglicanum. The embroideries were removed from the chasubles and dalmatics to make them easier to hide and transport abroad. Once at St Omers, they were re-attached to new, rich fabrics and used in the celebration of Mass for the young boys attending the college. They symbolised England’s Catholic past and were a sign of hope for the restoration of the Catholic faith in England in the future.

The Lamb Chasuble, which is still used on special occasions at Stonyhurst

 Medieval examples such as the beautiful St Dunstan’s Chasuble survive at Stonyhurst today, smuggled from Canterbury to St Omers, and then brought back to England when the college moved to its present location in 1794. The Dunstan Chasuble is the property of the British Jesuit Province, and is cared for at Stonyhurst. It features highly intricate embroidered 14th century images of saints associated with Canterbury, and probably once adorned a cope, or copes. Thomas Becket features in four scenes, as might be expected for Canterbury’s most famous saint and martyr. The panel depicting his martyrdom is spectacularly fine, and has retained much of its colour and freshness. When these embroideries arrived at St Omers they were re-shaped into their present form on a Roman chasuble, which takes its name from a delightful image of St Dunstan of Canterbury pinching the nose of the devil with tongs.

The St Norbert Cope, made from the umbrella of an Indian maharajah’s elephant

Another rare medieval chasuble was commissioned in the 1490s by King Henry VII for use in Westminster Abbey. It was originally part of a massively expensive and prestigious matching set of twenty-nine copes, a chasuble, dalmatic and tunicle. These were woven in Florence from cloth of gold and red silk velvet damask, with interloped threads of gold, in a technique known as riccio sopra riccio, or richness upon richness. The design features red rose of the House of Lancaster, the portcullis badge of Henry’s mother, Margaret Beaufort (the Tudor’s main claim to royalty came through Margaret) and embroideries showing the Good Shepherd and angels incensing a monstrance. Of the set (which was taken to the Field of Cloth of Gold by Henry VIII), only two pieces remain; this chasuble and a cope.

Both arrived at St Omers early in its history and were known to have been used in ceremonies at the college as early as 1609. 

A poignant reminder of the personal cost paid by Catherine of Aragon for refusing to fall in with her husband’s desire to annul her marriage, can be seen in a set of chasuble, dalmatic and tunicles bearing rich embroidery of grapes and vines. This set is said to have been embroidered by Catherine and her two ladies-in-waiting during her incarceration at Kimbolton in the fifteen months before her death. The set was restored on arrival at St Omers in the late 17th century, and then again in the 1850s, but much of the original embroidery and design remains.

The college also commissioned new chasubles for use in its three chapels. There were many communities of English nuns in the Low Countries in the 17th century, exiled from home because of their faith. It is likely that some of the exquisite Flemish embroideries at Stonyhurst originated in English convents in places like Bruges, Louvain, Antwerp and St Omers. The Lamb Chasuble features rich gold scrolls, laid out like a formal garden parterre, and in between are brilliantly coloured tulips, roses, lilies, violas and honeysuckle, which symbolise different aspects of Mary’s virtues. On the back is a solid panel of silk embroidery with silver and gold thread showing the Lamb of the Apocalypse, lying on the Book with Seven Seals. This chasuble is in remarkably original condition, and is used on special occasions at Stonyhurst.

Missionary priests in 17th century England found it difficult to minister the sacraments to the Catholic communities they visited, as many houses had no place to hide the vessels, books and vestments necessary. It was dangerous for priests to carry these items with them as they were proof that the owner was a priest, which carried the death penalty. Many, however, took that risk as there was no alternative. 

In the container known as the Pedlar’s Chest, at Stonyhurst, there is a unique collection of simple vestments made from ladies’ dresses, along with a travelling altar stone, pewter chalice, alb, rosary ring and a quantity of church linen including altar frontals, chalice veils, burses and amices. These were used by priests travelling the Lancashire countryside, visiting remote Catholic farmhouses, manors and hamlets.

The chest itself is made from pine and is covered with ponyskin. The interior is lined with crudely printed wallpaper of hunting scenes. It is exactly the sort of container used by travelling salesmen, or chapmen, using fell ponies over the rough packhorse routes of rural England, and it was this persona that the priests adopted, travelling in disguise.


The St Dunstan Chasuble, featuring scenes from the murder of St Thomas Becket

The packhorse trails had the advantage of bypassing villages with their government-paid ‘watchers’ waiting to interrogate travelling strangers. The paths were rugged and uncomfortable, but they linked Catholic houses, and allowed priests disguised as pedlars to arrive at the back door offering threads and patterns, thimbles and pins. Secret signs and words were exchanged with the lady of the house and the priest was taken to a discreet room to unpack the vestments and celebrate Mass.

A later vestment tells the story of the changing situation for Catholics in the early 19th century. The Arundell Cope is a sumptuous robe, made from rich, dark red velvet, embroidered with jewels, pearls, gold and silver thread. The velvet was originally used for the coronation robes of James Everard, 10th Baron Arundell of Wardour, who wore them to Westminster Abbey for the crowning of George IV in 1821. His attendance at the coronation was an indication that Catholics were becoming accepted after centuries of exclusion. 

There is a final, intriguing item worth looking at. Known as the St Norbert Cope, it has a hood decorated with rich 17th century embroidery showing that saint holding aloft a monstrance. The fabric of the cope is bizarre; deep purple, gold and silver asymmetric designs, fringed with silk and paisley motifs. It was originally the umbrella of an Indian Maharajah’s elephant


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Romantic relics from Stuart queens and Jacobite princes

Friday 6th January 2017

The CHC @ The Catholic Universe

Romantic relics from Stuart queens and Jacobite princes

With Burns’ Night nearly upon us, it seems an appropriate time to examine some of the remarkable Stuart and Jacobite artefacts preserved at Stonyhurst College. These objects have powerful and romantic stories to tell, and have long been a source of fascination.

The Book of Hours of Mary, Queen of Scots is perhaps the most famous, associated with the romantic, doomed queen, although it was not originally made for her. The book is the property of the British Jesuit Province, and came to Stonyhurst in 1794 via the Jesuit Seminary at Liege. It is a beautiful, lavishly bound prayer book printed in France in 1558. The exterior is rich red velvet which extends below the bottom edge of the book in a deliberately.

The front of the book carries silver-gilt letters spelling MARIA, a gilt pomegranate and a Tudor rose. The back bears the letters REGINA and an enamelled coat of arms surmounted by a queen regnant’s crown.

The original owner is easily identified: the pomegranate of Katherine of Aragon, the Tudor Rose of Henry VIII, and the royal arms of Queen Mary Tudor of England. The queen must have ordered it from France, but died before the book was complete. Somehow it passed to her cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots, who was at that time married to the French Dauphin and it stayed in her possession throughout her life.

On 7th February 1586 Mary, who had been imprisoned in England since 1568, was informed that she was to die the following morning. She spent her last night settling her affairs, distributing her personal possessions amongst her ladies, Elizabeth Curle and Jane Kennedy, and praying. It was probably at this point that the queen gave the book to Elizabeth Curle. At seven the next morning she was taken into the great hall at Fotheringay, accompanied by Jane and Elizabeth. All three read psalms from prayer books, and so it is almost certain that this book was on the scaffold with Mary, though not in her hands.

The red velvet cover for a Book of Hours which belonged to Mary Queen of Scots

After the execution, Elizabeth Curle moved to Antwerp to join the substantial group of English and Scottish Catholics in exile. In 1620, she bequeathed her possessions to her nephew, Hugh Curle, a Jesuit priest, and he in turn left them to the Jesuits when he died in 1638, with specific funds dedicated to the support of poor Scottish seminarians. The prayer book became part of the Jesuit Library at Liege Seminary, and moved to Stonyhurst in 1794.

Perhaps the most renowned of the many relics housed and venerated at Stonyhurst is the Holy Thorn, often called Mary Queen of Scots’ Thorn. It too belongs to the British Jesuit Province, and has been associated with the college since 1665. It consists of a single thorn from the Crown of Thorns originally kept in the Sainte Chapelle in Paris entwined with freshwater pearls within a gold and enamelled reliquary from the late Elizabethan period.

The Fourth Crusade which sacked Constantinople in 1204 saw the dispersal of the renowned Byzantine Imperial collection of Passion Relics. In 1238, the Crown of Thorns, with many other relics reputed to have been discovered by St Helena in fourth century Jerusalem, was sold to Louis IX, King of France. These arrived in Paris in August 1242 to national rejoicing, and Louis built the Sainte Chapelle at a cost of 60,000 livres as a fitting shrine for the relics. We first hear of this particular thorn in John Gerard’s famous account of his life as a Jesuit missionary in Elizabethan England. He describes how the thorn came into his hands in 1594.

‘At this time I was given some very remarkable relics, and my friends had them finely set for me. They included a complete thorn of the holy crown of Our Lord which Mary, Queen of Scots, had brought with her from France (where the whole crown is kept) and had given to the Earl of Northumberland, who was later martyred. While he lived, the earl used to carry it round his neck in a golden cross, and when he came to execution he gave it to his daughter, who gave it to me. It was enclosed in a case set with pearls.

Possibly it was a wedding present on Mary’s marriage to the French Dauphin in April 1558. The widowed queen brought the thorn back to Scotland when she returned there after the death of her young husband. 

Her later misfortunes in Scotland are well known. Mary crossed into England in May 1568, and was taken to Carlisle Castle. Thomas Percy, Earl of Northumberland was active in raising opposition to Elizabeth, with the intention of freeing Mary, placing her at the head of an army, and, ultimately, on Elizabeth’s throne. The thorn must have been given as a pledge of her gratitude for his support. Following Percy’s execution after the failed Rising of the Northern Earls, the thorn passed to his daughter, Elizabeth, and thence to her confessor, Fr John Gerard. By 1666 it was recorded as being at St Omers College. It was the property of Mary, Queen of Scots for only a relatively short time, yet such was her fame that the relic has always been associated with her name

The Holy Thorn, a thorn said to be from Christ’s crown of thorns

A more startling group of Jacobite relics includes a piece of the flesh of James II, his hair, a piece of flannel, and linen soaked in his blood. A few scraps of manuscript pasted beside the objects record, ‘Ex carne Jacobi 2i Regis. Accepi a P. Hen:Humberston/ K J haire & a piece of his Flesh allso a Piece of the Flanell wastecoate he dyed in/ Of ye Blood of King James ye 2nd’

Stonyhurst College is home to a rich variety of relics from Britain's Catholic history

Henry Humberston was ordained as a Jesuit in 1669. He worked in England during the 1680s and was well known to James. In 1701 he become the Rector of St Omers. James II died on 16th September 1701 and bequeathed his large intestine to St Omers, as a mark of honour; bowels were believed to symbolise compassion. The framed fragment is the only surviving remnant, the rest was destroyed during the French Revolution. Many shortbread tins boast an image of Bonnie Prince Charlie in improbable tartan. There are very few surviving pieces of fabric that can be proved, beyond reasonable doubt, to have been on the back of Charles Edward Stuart, but such a fragment survives at Stonyhurst, with a manuscript note.

‘This piece of cloth is part of a kilt left by Prince Charlie in the House of Campbell, Island of Glass, 30th April 1746.

‘Robert Hemsley Tarber (?) House, got it from a descendant of Campbell’s and sent it to Walter Armstrong of Tarff House, Kirkcowan, who gave it to JS Maitland on 19th April 1887.

‘In landing on the island Prince Charlie got wet. His kilt was not dry in the morning when he wished to start, so he left his own behind and took one of Campbell’s kilts.

‘The above was told me by W Armstrong, of Kirkcowan.

‘Glasgow, April 1887. JS Maitland, HM Inspector of Factories.’

The tartan made in the same pattern as an actual piece worn by Bonnie Prince Charlie

Immediately following the defeat at Culloden on 16th April 1746, Prince Charles and some companions escaped to Borrodale on foot, arriving on 20th April. The prince was well acquainted with Angus and Catriona Macdonald of Borrodale, having stayed with them in July 1745 when he landed in Scotland. One of Charles’s fugitive companions described how the prince acquired the Borrodale tartan,

‘Early upon the 20th (April) his royal highness got up and went straight to Arisaig to a town called Glenbiastill, where the prince got a sute of new Highland cloaths from Angus Macdonald of Boradale’s spouse, the better to disguise him and to make him pass for one of the country.’

The prince then fled to Scalpay, known in Gaelic as Eilean Glas – the Island of Glass on the Maitland manuscript note. On arrival at Scalpay ‘every stitch they had as stiff as buckrum from the salt water.’

Their new host, Donald Campbell, provided the prince with a change of clothing, and so he left his wet Borrodale clothes behind.

The design of the tartan is simple: a black check on a lavender blue ground with an overlay of fine red and yellow stripes. The fabric, as it appears today, has darkened with time, but when new it would have been bright and eye-catching. In 1995 the original tartan was recreated and named Lady Borrodale’s Gift, in honour of Catriona Macdonald. The tartan is now worn by girls at Stonyhurst College as part of the school uniform.

These stories have considerable romantic associations, which overlay a more sobering undercurrent of religious dispute, war, rebellion, persecution and disenfranchisement. It is important that such issues are examined openly and without partisanship, as part of the religious and historical education of young people in Britain.