Naming the Unknown Martyr: Could These Remains Be St. John Plessington?

The Diocese of Shrewsbury is asking for funds to identify the remains of a martyr killed as a result of an anti-Catholic hoax more than 300 years ago.

The bones which are believed to belong to English martyr and priest St. John Plessington.
The bones which are believed to belong to English martyr and priest St. John Plessington. (photo: Photo courtesy of the Diocese of Shrewsbury/Simon Caldwell)

SHREWSBURY, United Kingdom — The English priest St. John Plessington was among dozens martyred because of an anti-Catholic hoax in the 17th century. Now, a diocese seeks to confirm whether remains long venerated as a martyr’s relics are truly his.

The Diocese of Shrewsbury is appealing for donors to fund research to confirm the identity of the remains.

Bishop Mark Davies of Shrewsbury praised the saint’s “faithfulness to the point of death” and his witness to priestly life and mission in the diocese.

St. John Plessington was canonized in 1970 by Blessed Paul VI as one of the 40 Martyrs of England and Wales.

“As one of England’s 40 martyrs, he points to the long continuity of our Catholic faith and our unswerving loyalty to the See of Peter,” the bishop told the Shrewsbury Catholic Voice.

“If funds could be found to identify and authenticate his relics, it would allow our connection to his heroic ministry and martyrdom to become visible and tangible in a new way for generations to come,” he said.

St. John Plessington was born into a recusant family, English Catholics who refused to attend the state-sanctioned Church of England services, and was ordained abroad in 1662. He returned to England to minister.

In 1679, Titus Oates fabricated evidence of a Catholic conspiracy to kill King Charles II. Royal authorities believed the hoax and began to enforce strict Elizabethan-era laws that considered being a Catholic priest an offense of high treason.

St. John Plessington was charged with being a Catholic priest and was executed by being hanged, drawn and quartered. He was among more than 35 Catholics executed as a result of Oates's fictitious “Popish Plot.”

Before his execution, the saint wrote down his final testament. He said he was a priest and affirmed he was innocent of treason and plotting; he also said he was willing to die for his faith.

Many of the saint’s bodily remains were lost after his execution in Chester, more than 40 miles north of Shrewsbury.

In the late 19th century, bones were discovered hidden in a pub next to St. Winefride’s Well in Flintshire, a Welsh county that borders Chester. The location was a headquarters of Jesuit missionaries, though Plessington was not a Jesuit.

These bones were taken to the Jesuit retreat house of St. Beuno’s and venerated as the relics of an anonymous martyr. Forensic scientists who examined the bones said they are the skull and the right leg of a priest hanged, drawn and quartered. The skull has a hole punctured by a pike pushed through the head. The bones were found in a garment dated to the period of St. John Plessington’s execution.

Bishop Davies and others hope that DNA testing of the bones can be matched with known relics to prove they are the remains of St. John Plessington.