The Reliquary, and burials in the Jamestown church

It’s been several years since the discovery of a reliquary in a 1609 grave in the chancel of the first church in Jamestown Virginia.  The grave was that of Gabriel Archer, one of the founders of the Jamestown colony.  I’ve been surprised how little discussion this has stirred in the Anglican and Catholic communities, given the location in the oldest church in British North America.  The reliquary is the first clear evidence that saints, and the material culture of the Catholic Church, accompanied Protestant colonists to the New World.
The Jamestown settlement was established at a time when Catholicism had been driven underground in England.  After Henry VIII broke with Rome, Catholics – Papists, as they were called – were presumed loyal to Spain, and therefore seen as potential traitors to the English king.  The faith was outlawed, and churches sacked and shuttered.  That was a very divisive thing for many Britons, as so many of them were Catholic.
Some followed their King into the new Anglican faith, which was part of the Protestant Reformation sweeping Europe, while others preserved Catholic traditions underground.  Hidden faiths were dangerous, and many were executed in the spirit of religious fervor.  Henry’s successors veered back and forth between Catholicism and Protestantism, which tore the country apart with religious civil war.
Gabriel Archer was born into an English Catholic family in 1575.  Not much is known of his parents but parish records do show they were fined for being “recusants;” the name given to people who refused to attend and support the Anglican Church.
By the turn of the seventeenth century Catholics were more than simple religious dissidents because they owed their allegiance to the Pope, and not the King.  It could be very dangerous to be openly Catholic in England or its colonies back then.  Catholic churches were demolished but most often their relics, icons, and valuables were preserved at great risk by the faithful, to resurface at some future date.
That was environment within which Archer attended Cambridge University, and then studied law at Gray’s, one of the English Inns of Court.  It was probably there that he made the acquaintance of Bartholomew Gosnold.  The two of them traveled on expeditions to New England in 1602 and Virginia in 1607.
Gosnold and Archer arrived at Chesapeake Bay in late April 1607 and chose the site for James Fort the following month. The settlement of Jamestown would grow from the fort, which was carved out of forest near the James river. Archer was wounded in a skirmish with Indians shortly after, but he recovered and became the colony’s first secretary.  He’s believed to be the author of several early accounts of life in Jamestown and exploration inland.  Archer returned to England with Christopher Newport in 1608, and went back to Virginia the following spring. He arrived in good health, only to die later that winter.  Later settlers would refer to one’s first year in the colony as the “seasoning time,” and those who survived it counted themselves lucky, or blessed.

Disease was the biggest killer, with bad food and water a major contributor.  Accidents and injuries killed many more and finally there was the ever present danger of other humans.  Indians killed quite a few colonists, and colonists killed each other.  The winter of 1609 brought another killer – starvation.

Visitors to Jamestown today get no sense of what the original settlers faced when they disembarked from ships that had carried them from England.  Colonists arrived exhausted, often staving and sick, after a sea voyage that frequently lasted a month and a half.  Ships of that day were small, cramped, dank, and unheated.  The food the men ate (there were seldom any women) would not be fit for animals by modern standards, and the water was tainted and spoiled.  Disease often ran rampant in the confined space below decks, and there were voyages where the whole crew was decimated.

When the survivors arrived they found a swampy island that was home to poisonous snakes, malaria-carrying mosquitoes, and a suspicious native population.  The land of plenty they’d expected was nowhere to be seen.
From the beginning the colonists fought with the native population.  The English had better weapons but were vastly outnumbered, and to make things worse they were much less adept at living in that land. The survivors found themselves penned up in a fort at the tip of Jamestown Island.   As the winter of 1609 arrived the colonists were trapped.  Their crops had failed, and they could not venture outside to hunt or fish, for fear of attack. Behind the palisade walls colonists were reduced to eating snakes, rats, and ultimately, human corpses.
Evidence of the “starving time” and life in early James Fort can be seen today in the exhibits of the Nathalie and Alan M. Voorhees Archaearium at the Jamestown historic site.  A replica of the reliquary and its contents is also on display.
Back in the colony, as winter 1609 settled in, the colonists wondered if any of them would survive till the spring.  More than a fourth of them didn’t, and that was the setting in which Gabriel Archer died.  People were dying every day by that point, and most were buried naked, in shallow graves.   Archer must have been a very respected leader to have been buried in a coffin in the chancel of the church.  After the coffin was set in the ground, his captain’s ceremonial staff was laid beside his left arm, and a small silver box was set atop the casket above his feet.
Four hundred years passed, and in that time, the site of James Fort was lost.  Then the fort was found, and the walls reconstructed.  In 2013 the original church was located, and four graves were discovered in the chancel.  After much careful detective work each of the burials was identified, and the news was released in 2015. The graves contained the remains of Reverend Robert Hunt, the colony’s original Anglican minister, Captain Gabriel Archer, Sir Ferdinando Wainman, and Captain William West. 
Church burials of that day followed strict customs, one of which was that priests were buried to face the congregation, and congregants faced the priest.  Rev. Hunt had been the first to be buried in this church, having died in 1608.  He was interred facing the congregation, as would be expected.  Archaeologists were surprised to find Archer buried the same way.  Some speculated that Archer had  served as a minister after Hunt’s death, though no evidence of that has surfaced.  Others opined that he was buried that way out of ignorance as the colony’s only minister had died the year before, and not been replaced.  Finally, some believed he was a secret Catholic priest and his burial reflects that. 
So far, no evidence has come to light to support any of those theories.
Then there is the reliquary.  After Archer’s body was set in the grave, someone leaned down and set a small silver box atop the casket, at his feet.  The box was a reliquary holding human bone fragments and holy water.  The reliquary is traditionally a Catholic object that may have come from a church in England or Europe.  Analysis would reveal that the silver of the box was continental European in origin.

The identity of the saint whose bones are in the reliquary is unknown. The only markings on the reliquary are a letter M and some symbols that do not match any known Catholic graffiti.  One scholar (Christopher Allison) has made a case that the bones may be those of Cuthbert Mayne, a Catholic priest who was martyred in 1577.  

The actual reliquary next to a reproduction. The actual piece cannot be opened
Relics and reliquaries have no place in the Anglican church, and no other reliquary has ever been found buried in early Virginia. It’s a mystery why this one was set on Archer’s casket.
Even though the Anglican church dismissed the idea of relics, many people believed in their power, and the power of being close to Godly people.  That was the original reason people sought to be buried in monasteries and why in 1600 leading citizens continued to seek burial in church chancels – to be forever in proximity to ministers and their prayers.  Some Protestants and many Catholics also still believed in the eternal benefit of burial in proximity to saints.
In view of that, the reliquary’s position atop Archer’s casket, and Archer’s position within the church chancel may be signs of the great respect colonists felt for him, even in death.  There is also another possible explanation.  The Second Council of Nicaea had decreed that all Catholic churches have relics of a saint in their altars.  Some churches had relics embedded in or below the altar rail, but other churches buried the relics below the altar instead.
The position of this reliquary at Archer’s feet would have placed it in close proximity to the altar, and that might mean that the church was viewed as consecrated ground by both Anglican Protestant settlers and by Catholic colonists. That’s particularly likely if Archer was a secret Catholic priest or deacon.  The historical record does show that there were Catholics among the first settlers, and there were surely others whose faith was kept hidden.

The reliquary’s placement atop the casket may have been meant for the good of Archer’s soul, or the benefits it would confer upon the altar above, or both.  We cannot know what anyone was thinking as they stood at his grave but it seems likely that whoever placed it there had one of those purposes in mind.  The most we can do is interpret the find in light of what’s know of religious tradition and the times.

Some scholars ask how we know the reliquary belonged to Archer.  The fact is, we don’t.  All we can say is that the reliquary was carefully placed atop the casket with an east-west orientation, and the dirt filled around it so as not to disturb that orientation.  From that evidence, and the evidence of the reliquary itself we can say the object had great significance.  It was probably Archer’s, but we cannot be certain.

That leads to another question – what was a Catholic reliquary doing in the Virginia colony? The construction of this particular reliquary was fragile – a sliding door that could easily open and spill the contents. The reliquary was pocket sized, but too big to be carried like a locket.  That suggests the reliquary had been stored in a protected place, and not carried.  The most likely reason it was in Virginia was that it was carried there in hope of consecrating Catholic ground if and when the opportunity arose.  The number of relics in the box suggest it came from a church, as opposed to the smaller or more ephemeral personal relics some Catholics maintained.

With that interpretation, it’s tempting to jump to the conclusion that the reliquary is evidence Archer was a secret priest, since only an ordained member of the clergy could have consecrated a church.  However, the Anglican church had similar rules about what lay people and clergy could do, and what required a bishop, and those rules were commonly ignored for practicality in the Virginia colony.  Archer might just as well have been a devoted lay person who was entrusted to bring the relics and establish a church in Virginia.  Many of the later Virginia churches would be established by lay vestries, who sought out ministers, contrary to the practice in England or Europe, where churches were established by the bishops.

Whoever carried the reliquary to Virginia was almost certainly a person of stature in the Catholic community they came from in England, to have had the object in the first place.  They brought it here with a purpose, which may well have been accomplished when it was buried beneath the altar rail.  However, the church was abandoned within a few years, and the reliquary remained untouched; buried for the next four centuries.

Earlier excavations in basements and trash middens at Jamestown have revealed a number of Catholic crosses and rosary beads.  In earlier interpretations, the Jamestown colony was a strictly Anglican place where relics and crosses had no place.  Consequently those items were dismissed as trade goods; junk that might have been bartered to natives.  Discovery of the reliquary on Archer’s casket casts doubt on that interpretation.
A cross recovered from a Jamestown site circa 1609
Rosary beads from Jamestown, circa 1610


The reliquary and captain’s staff were carefully placed into the grave, begging another question: was the reliquary a sign of religious tolerance in the colony?  It may be that Catholicism was more openly accepted that historians believed, but the fact is such views must have varied greatly from one individual to another.  All the men buried in the chancel died before their 40th birthdays, evidence of the great mortality in early Virginia.  A tolerant leader was just as likely to have an intolerant successor, as the records show.  
One consequence of this high mortality was that things were often lost in early Virginia.  One would think that a church building would be central to a community, and the burials within would be respected and maintained.  Yet the evidence shows that this church burned down or fell down within ten years of Archer’s burial, and knowledge of it was lost after a larger brick church was erected about fifty feet away.   Even that was forgotten when the original Jamestown settlement was abandoned in the following century. 

The original church outline, as reconstructed by Jamestown Rediscovery


The chancel of the first church in relation to the later brick replacement.  


The chancel burials, from Jamestown display


Traditions of religious tolerance did not develop in Virginia until the arrival of women in large numbers, and the birth and survival of children. That allowed for the development and maintenance of a continuing culture.  Prior to that Virginia was essentially a military garrison, and such places are not known for tolerant views.
Jamestown archaeologist Merry Outlaw among some of the many objects they have  conserved
Scholars continue to study the reliquary and the context in which it was found.  My own interest in it is rather tangential, and bears explaining.  My area of study is autism, and how autistic people fit into the context of history.  I am autistic myself, as was my father and as is my son.  There is considerable evidence that autism like mine has been woven into the human genome for thousands of years, maybe considerably longer.  When I was born, my father was a Protestant minister, and we have many clergy in our family tree reaching back to Roland Jones, who held the pulpit in Jamestown and nearby Middle Plantation in the 1670s. My ancestor was buried beneath the chancel of the Middle Plantation church (known as Bruton Parish today) in 1688.  That give me a personal connection to the story, though I have no connection to Archer or anyone else mentioned here, nor do I have any reason to suspect they were autistic.
That said, I believe autistic people have long found a home in the church, and that is the context in which I study history of the early Anglican Church in America and England.


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John Elder Robison
John grew up in the 1960s. He knew he was different, but didn’t know why. His early social and academic failures would be signs of disability today, but back then, they were dismissed as laziness or a bad attitude.
John Elder Robison

John Elder Robison

John grew up in the 1960s. He knew he was different, but didn’t know why. His early social and academic failures would be signs of disability today, but back then, they were dismissed as laziness or a bad attitude.

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