Jamestown Graves

This is from an article in the i by Michael Ruane yesterday:

“When his friends buried Captain Gabriel Archer in abut 1609, they dug his rave inside a church in Jamestown, Virginia, lowered his coffin into the ground and placed a silver box on the lid. the English outpost was a desperate place. They called it ‘the starving time’. Scores had died of hunger and disease…

the tiny, hexagonal box, etched with the letter ‘M’ contained a 7 bone fragment and a small lead vial, and it was probably an object of veneration,m cherished as a disaster closed in on the colony. This week, Jamestown Rediscovery and the Smithsonian Institution announced that archaeologists have found it, as well as the graves of Archer and 3 other VIPs. …

It also raises intriguing questions about Jamestown’s first residents. Where did the silver box come from? Are the bones inside it human? And why wsa the box placed in Archer’s grave?

Mr Horn says the box is a reliquary, a container for holy relics, such as the bones of a saint. ‘It’s a sacred object of great significance… Such object have a long tradition in he Catholic Church. So the appearance of one in post-Reformation Jamestown is mystifying. Did it belong to Archer, whose Catholic parents had been ‘outlawed’ for their faith in England?…

Archer was about 34. He wa a lawyer ad scribe. Archer was buried in a coffin of white oak, and the silver box was found on top. …

In 1607 George Kendall, a member of the settlement’s governing council, was executed as a Catholic spy.’

But another theory is that the reliquary belonged to Jamestown’s fledgling Anglican church. Even though reliquaries were ‘relics of the old religion’.. some were retained for use in the Early Protestant Church. If that’s the case, the reliquary was the ‘heart and soul’ of the English church in the new world. And its burial with Archer could be a last desperate act to save it from desecration by Indians. ”

Well, this is intriguing, but possibly more so as it is just after the death of Elizabeth in 1603. Henry VIII had founded the Anglican church, not because it was corrupt or unpopular, as in Europe, but because he needed an heir. As such, religious practice took a long time to become settled. Henry outlawed pilgrimages, but the big iconoclasm happened during the reign of his son Edward VI. with the return of Catholicism under Mary, many of the religious practices recovered, but Elizabeth, besieged by Catholic Europeans, went much further to abolish Popish practices.

But all this was beyond the common people. The middling sorts bought up church property, but the common people tried to cling to the old practices, praying over their beads, asking saints for intercession etc. It is not clear what Catholicism or Protestantism meant to most people at this time. When they were in trouble they must have turned to anything that offered hope, and this outpost must have been in need of god in whatever form they could summon him. I doubt if this story will ever be clear, but it does remind me of a -possibly apocryphal story- about W C Fields. He was visited in a nursing home, reading the bible, and asked if he had found religion. He replied that he was just looking for loopholes.

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