|The curious graves at Jamestown|
Curious events were made public this past week. Two years ago, archeologists exploring the remains of the English settlement at Jamestown (Virginia) which had been founded in 1607, discovered four graves beneath what had once been the chancel (altar area) of the colony’s Anglican church. Continued excavation and research these past two years identified the remains as those of the Reverend Robert Hunt, Anglican priest of the colony; Sir Ferdinando Wainman; Captain Gabriel Archer; and Captain William West. The position of the graves within the church indicates the high status of the four men, but what has captured attention of historians is that in Captain Archer’s grave a small silver box, apparently containing the relics of a saint (or saints) was found. This is extraordinary given that the Church of England—the Church to which the colonists have always been thought to belong—was in an extreme Puritan phase at the time and would have abhorred the idea of any Anglican having such a papist trinket. Now Captain Archer’s parents, John Archer Sr. and Eleanor Frewin from Mountnessing in Essex, England were known to be Recusants (secret Catholics), so was their son also a Roman Catholic? Secret, of course, as it was highly illegal to be a Catholic in England—or England’s colonies—especially in those days after the Gunpowder Plot. Nevertheless, if Archer were secretly a Catholic he wasn’t alone. George Kendall, a member of the Colony’s Council was secretly a Catholic and George Percy, son of the Earl of Northumberland and at times Governor of the Colony came from a family that had largely remained Catholic (though secretly) after the Reformation. (Kendall was apprehended and executed as a spy, presumably for Catholic Spain.) Was there then a secret Catholic congregation in the settlement?
Well there is not sufficient evidence to affirm or deny an underground Catholic Church in Jamestown, but there are some interesting things to consider. The first thing to consider is that the reliquary was placed atop the coffin and not within it. Had Archer been Catholic and were there surviving co-religionists in the colony at the time of his death, is it likely that that the reliquary would have been buried with Archer? It seems more likely that it would have been passed over to remaining members of the covert community for veneration. It certainly would have been a precious object from a religious point of view and I do not think would have been abandoned to the grave unless there was a secondary reason. Secondly, if surviving Catholics had intended to bury the relic with Archer for some reason or other, they more likely would have put the reliquary in the coffin and not atop it in the grave. (The archeological evidence is that the reliquary was found resting on a piece of coffin material which means it would have been on the coffin in the grave and not within.
Now here is the more curious thing. Archer’s body, like that of the Reverend Mr. Hunt, was buried with its head towards the east. In Catholic tradition, the bodies of the Laity are buried facing East, that is feet to the East—the direction from which Christ will appear at the Last Judgment so that in the resurrection they will rise facing Christ; but the bodies of the clergy are buried with the heads to the East—that is the body itself is facing West—since 1 Corinthians say that the dead will be raised in their proper rank and the clergy, ranking first, will appear coming with Christ while the mere laity will have to wait their turn with everything for the common folk sort of pall mall. Regardless what we today might think of this distinction, this is how it was done in the Catholic Church at the time these graves were dug, and for centuries before. Mr. Hunt, of course, was not a Catholic priest but it is not unreasonable that the practice of burying the clergy with their heads to the East had yet survived in the Church of England. What is surprising is that Captain Archer was buried in the same clerical position while Sir Ferdinando and Captain West were buried in the normal position of the laity. Some have opined that perhaps Archer was not only a secret papist but a secret papist priest.
It is unlikely that he was a priest as he was married—though his wife had not come with him to Virginia—and even more conclusive is that there is no record of his having gone to the continent for training as a priest. Nevertheless his having this reliquary is strange, particularly so as Catholic priests would have had just such a reliquary to use as a portable altar for the celebration of Mass. In penal times—and later as a somewhat normal occurrence while travelling—a priest would have such a reliquary to slip beneath the tablecloth on the table where he was celebrating Mass. Burying the object beneath the chancel floor would permit later priests—should any covertly visit the colony—to celebrate the Eucharist on a table, even a Protestant Communion Table, positioned over the grave.
At the end of the day with the limited information that we have, this reliquary raises more questions than it gives answers but it may mean that much needs to be rethought concerning the state of religion in the Virginia Colony and also the degree of covert tolerance that may have existed among the colonists during a desperate period where their survival could not permit dissension within the community.
One other curiosity which may indicate Archer being Catholic is that this skeleton seems to indicate that he was buried with his hands folded, a Catholic practice abandoned by the Puritans at the Reformation. Mr. Hunt’s hands also appear to have been folded. The other two skeletons appear to have their hands at their sides in the Puritan fashion. (I can only say appear as I am going on an examination of the photos, not a reading of the report.) Hunt also was known to have been married so it seems unlikely that he was a secret priest, and being the clergy person for the colony it is unlikely that he would have been a secret Catholic. So again, there are just more questions but it does seem that there was more to the Jamestown religious scene that we previously thought.