Was There a Crypto-Catholic in Anglican Jamestown?

A recent discovery at an excavation site has archaeologists trying to piece together a 17th-century mystery.

Randall Kremer, director of public affairs at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, stands next to an image showing the contents of a well-preserved silver box believed to be a Catholic reliquary, during a news conference in Washington, on July 28. The box was found resting on top of the coffin of Capt. Gabriel Archer at the site of the 1608 Anglican church at the historic Jamestown colony site in Virginia. It is believed that the box contains seven bone fragments and two pieces of a lead ampulla, a container used to hold holy water.
Randall Kremer, director of public affairs at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, stands next to an image showing the contents of a well-preserved silver box believed to be a Catholic reliquary, during a news conference in Washington, on July 28. The box was found resting on top of the coffin of Capt. Gabriel Archer at the site of the 1608 Anglican church at the historic Jamestown colony site in Virginia. It is believed that the box contains seven bone fragments and two pieces of a lead ampulla, a container used to hold holy water. (photo: AP photo/Susan Walsh)

Several articles have appeared recently about the discovery and identification of remains in Jamestown, Va., in The Atlantic, Smithsonian Magazine, The New York Times and The Washington Post. The Atlantic headline on July 28 summed up the issue: “A Skeleton, a Catholic Relic and a Mystery About American Origins.” In the article by Adrienne Lafrance, the researchers at Jamestown and others discuss the ramifications of one of the discoveries in the grave of Capt. Gabriel Archer, a leader of the English colony. His grave and those of three others were found in the sanctuary of the Anglican chapel.

A small silver box found in his grave is “a historical bombshell” because the archaeologists believe it is a reliquary, which leads them to believe that Archer, who had many conflicts with Capt. John Smith of Pocahontas fame, might have been a secret Catholic in Anglican Jamestown.

A reliquary is a receptacle containing a piece of bone or some other object associated with a saint. Relics have always been important to Catholics: Every church altar contains a reliquary, and the priest kisses the altar, usually on top of the reliquary, at the beginning and end of each Mass.

The presence of a Catholic reliquary buried in an Anglican church has provoked quite a few questions. Was Archer secretly a Catholic and just seeming to conform to the Church of England, with King James I as its supreme governor and defender of the faith? Since Jamestown “was fundamentally anti-Catholic” and was “meant to be the beachhead for an English empire in America that will serve as a bulwark against Catholicism,” The Atlantic article states, his crypto-Catholicism brings questions about his leadership in the colony.

Researchers are wondering if Archer was a Catholic agent in Jamestown and if his conflicts with Smith were motivated by his wanting to prevent the success of the colony.

At least one other person at the time was a crypto-Catholic and knew that Archer was one, because someone had to know how important the reliquary was and that Archer would want it buried with him. Archaeologists have also determined that his captain’s staff was placed in his coffin when he died between 1608 and 1616.

The Smithsonian article on the discovery of the reliquary notes that Archer’s father was a recusant, fined for not attending Anglican services, while The Washington Post article adds the detail that those fines were levied in England. Is this a case of like father, like son?

The president of the Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation, James Horn, even wonders if Archer might have been a secret Catholic priest, according to The Atlantic article. That seems unlikely since, although missionary priests in England (like the Jesuit martyrs Sts. Edmund Campion and Robert Southwell) wore disguises and used aliases to avoid recognition as priests, they would not attend Church of England services — that would be apostasy.

In early 17th-century England, fear and hatred of Catholics was at one of its all-time highs (perhaps only the “Popish Plot” in the 1680s exceeded those years for anti-Catholic hysteria). The discovery of the “Gunpowder Plot” to blow up King James I, his family and British Parliament in 1605 led to the enactment of restrictive and oppressive penal laws against Catholics. Any priest found in England, especially a Jesuit, was suspected of knowing about and abetting plots against the realm. King James would not be pleased if a secret Catholic was leading his colonial enterprise in the New World.

Nevertheless, in 1629, 22 years after the founding of Jamestown, James I’s heir, Charles I, granted George Calvert, First Lord Baltimore, permission to found the colony of Maryland. This new colony had the distinction of religious freedom, allowing both Catholics and Anglicans to worship without government interference or sponsorship.

Catholics would eventually lose those rights, after the last Catholic king of England, James II, was overthrown in the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688. Catholics in Maryland worshipped secretly, were not permitted to vote or serve in office and were liable to fines. Religious toleration would not be re-established until Maryland’s constitutional convention of 1776, with the help of Charles Carroll of Carrollton, the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence.

Today, the discovery of a silver box containing small pieces of human bone and an ampulla, or small container for oil, water or blood, is raising even more questions about the role of Catholics in colonial America.

As James Horn notes in The Washington Post article, these questions mean “[m]ore research, more work. ... Frankly, we need more help with interpreting this.”

Stephanie A. Mann is the author of Supremacy and Survival:

How Catholics Endured the English Reformation (Scepter).

She resides in Wichita, Kansas, and blogs at SupremacyandSurvival.blogspot.com.

Horace Vernet, “The Angel of Death,” 1851

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“Each man receives his eternal retribution in his immortal soul at the very moment of his death, in a particular judgment that refers his life to Christ: either entrance into the blessedness of heaven — through a purification or immediately — or immediate and everlasting damnation.” (CCC 1022)

Horace Vernet, “The Angel of Death,” 1851

Don’t Wait to Cram for Your ‘Final Exam’

“Each man receives his eternal retribution in his immortal soul at the very moment of his death, in a particular judgment that refers his life to Christ: either entrance into the blessedness of heaven — through a purification or immediately — or immediate and everlasting damnation.” (CCC 1022)

Francisco de Zurbarán, “The Family of the Virgin,” ca. 1650

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