Tuesday 28 June 2022

The Body of Oliver Plunket

Yesterday we looked at The Trial of Oliver Plunket by Sir Shane Leslie, the first of two papers published in the Dublin Review in the summer of 1920. Today we can turn to the second paper, The Body of Oliver Plunket,  by English Benedictine Ethelbert Horne, O.S.B. (1858-1952). Dom Ethelbert, like Sir Shane, was also a convert to Catholicism and prolific author. His paper below explains how the English Benedictines came to be in possession of the earthly remains of the Irish martyr, their sojourn at the German foundation of Lambspring and the process by which the head of Saint Oliver came to be in Drogheda. There is reference to other, now lost, relics and testimony to the care taken with the documentation of those which survive. I found myself particularly interested in the role played by English laywoman, Mrs Elizabeth Sheldon, and would like to know more of this lady who appears to have been of a practical nature and undaunted by the bloodier aspects of her task:

II—THE BODY OF OLIVER PLUNKET In a letter of about June 20th, 1681, Blessed Oliver Plunket writes to Dom Maurus Corker: 
“I see your great charity that you are desireous to be carefull of my unworthy carcas after my death wch being opus misericordiae in high degree I ought not to deprive you of it it’s reward being most precious Vidz everlasting glory.” 

On the morning of the martyrdom, just before he was led out to die, he wrote, in his usual firm, bold hand: “My body and clothes etc. is at Mr. Korkers will and pleasure to be disposed of the first July 8i      Oliver Plunkett.”

The quartered body of the martyr was given to his friends for burial and it was spared the further ignominy of being nailed up at four of the city gates. The same favour had been extended to the five Jesuit fathers who had suffered for the pretended plot, two years previously, and it was at Blessed Oliver’s own request that he was buried beside them in the old churchyard of St. Giles-in-the-Fields. We can gather some details of this burial from the following document which is kept in the reliquary containing the head of the martyr:

“The under written John Ridley Chirurgeon and Elisabeth Sheldon, doe heareby testifye and declare; That in this chest are included two tinne Boxes wherof the one being Round containeth the Head, And the other being long containeth the two Hands armes * from the Fingers End to the Elbow of the Blessed Martyr Oliver Plunkett Arch-Bishop of Armach who was hanged drawne and Quartered at Tyburne on the first Day of July An. Dni 1681 for the holy Catholick Religion under pretence of a Plott wrongfully imposed upon him and others of the same Religion. The said Head was cutt off from the Body at the tyme and Place of execution: And on the same Day the two hands armes aforesaid were disjointed and seperated from the rest of the said Body by mee John Ridley in the presence of Elizabeth Sheldon imediately before the Quarters of the said Blessed Body were putt into the Coffin in order to their Intermerment which Head, Hands, and armes were reserved by us out of the Coffin and Placed in the said two Boxes of Tinne included in this, as is above specifyed in wittness whereof wee have heareunto sett our hands and seales this 29 Day of May Ann: D™ 1682 John Ridley Elizabeth Sheldon.

[Endorsed on the back] Signed and sealed in the presence of 

Edward Sheldon. Ralphe Sheldon. 

[* Hands armes. The hand arm is the forearm. The expression is still used in Somerset.]

Although this document is not dated until eleven months after the event it records, the care with which it is drawn up is evident. It is engrossed on parchment and  folded along its lower edge to receive the inserted slips bearing the seals referred to, and it appears to be the work of a professional lawyer. ‘There is no hesitation, at this early date, about anticipating the judgment of the Church, and speaking plainly of “the Blessed Martyr Oliver Plunkett.” We can gather that Mrs. Elizabeth Sheldon, who had done so much for the Archbishop all through his imprisonment, saw his quartered body into its coffin, and was probably present at its interment. It was she who employed the surgeon Ridley to preserve the martyr’s head and arms out of the coffin, perhaps thinking that there would never be any chance of securing the rest of the body. In a postscript to a letter written the day before the martyrdom to Father Corker, the Archbishop writes, “Mr. Marshall [Dom Cuthbert Marshall or Wall] sent me a shift wh[ich] now, and alsoe tomorrow I weare. I pray you to restore it to him for the gentlewoman who gave it did desire it should accompany me to the place of execution.” This, too, was another of Mrs. Sheldon’s preparations for that final scene.

The exact length of time that Blessed Oliver’s body lay in its first grave is difficult to determine. An account is thus given by Weldon in his Collections, a manuscript work, of which there is a copy at Downside: “.. . This martyr’s body, by the means of ours was taken up out of the grave, in the heat of the day, about two years after its burial, . . . Fr. Bernard Lowick, . . . chief actor in so dangerous an adventure, after which Fr. Corker found means to get it conveyed to Lambspring. . . .” On the other hand Challoner says: “Four years after, his body was taken up and found entire,” and Wood (Athen. Oxon.) has it that the body remained here, until the Crop-eared Plot broke out. This was in 1683, which would make the two years mentioned above, and hence Challoner is probably wrong. Fr. Maurus Corker, having taken the body to his monastery at Lambspring, in Hildesheim, built over it in the crypt, a tomb where it rested for the next 190 years. In 1684 he petitioned the Holy See for permission to keep a lamp perpetually burning before the shrine, but he does not seem to have succeeded in his endeavour, but the relics of the martyr were ever held in the greatest veneration by the community and the people of the place.

In 1883, the then Prior of Downside, now Cardinal Gasquet, accompanied by the late Dom Gilbert Dolan, went to Lambspring with a view of once more resuming possession of the martyr’s body. ‘The monks had been expelled from Lambspring Abbey by the Prussian Government in 1803, and so for eighty years the guardianship of the body by Benedictines had ceased, and hence they were anxious to take it up again. On January 10th, 1883, the permission of the Bishop of Hildesheim and of the Prussian Government having first been obtained, the grave in the crypt was opened in the presence of the two Benedictines and the parish priest, the Rev. Ferdinand Stammel. The tomb was on the south side of the crypt, in a recess formed in the thickness of the wall by the arch of a window, which had been filled in. In this opening, on the old window-ledge, had been placed a coffer made of one piece of red sandstone, and covered with a slab of the same, merely lying on it and not cemented down. The whole window recess had been walled in, and a huge stone, with the inscription and date, occupied the greater part of the opening. When the stone coffer was taken out, it was reverently carried to the sacristy and the lid removed. The four quarters of the martyr, each wrapped separately in linen clothes, were then exposed, and some relics being removed for keeping in the church, as directed by the Bishop of Hildesheim, the coffer was closed down again, and sealed by the parish priest.

It was then packed in a wooden case and forwarded to London. Through the kind influence of the late Sir Stuart Knill the box was passed through the Custom House unopened, and it reached Downside on January 31st, with the seals unbroken. A small relic* was given to Sir Stuart Knill, a part of which was exposed with lights in St. Chad’s Cathedral, Birmingham, at the hour of the Martyr’s Beatification. On the feast of St. Gregory the Great, March 12th, 1883, the late Bishop Clifford opened the box in the presence of the community. At his direction a medical examination of the relics was made by Dr. Francis Lee, and a list was drawn up of all that the coffer contained. The relics were then placed in a specially made chest, which was afterwards enclosed in another and soldered down. ‘This chest was sealed by the bishop, and full acta were drawn up of all that had taken place during the translation, which he signed.

[* “I hereby certify that on the 12th of March, 1883, a small portion of the remains of Archbishop Oliver Plunkett, consisting of a piece of one of the left ribs slightly marked with blood, was enclosed in a glass bottle and sealed with my episcopal seal. William Clifford Bishop of Clifton.”]

At the end of the north aisle of the Abbey church, a plain stone tomb was prepared, and within it for the next thirty-five years the body of Blessed Oliver Plunket rested. On March 11th, 1919, this tomb was opened, and the body taken out. The Bishop of Clifton examined the seals placed by his predecessor and found them intact. He then resealed the case, which was at once enclosed in lead and soldered down so that it may last indefinitely. On Whit-Sunday last, the day of the Beatification of the Martyr, the leaden chest having been enclosed in a massive one made of oak, the body was raised on a temporary shrine, and adorned with lights and hangings. It will remain in this position until the solemn translation to its place above, and at the back of the high altar, takes place in the autumn.

Chief of the other relics of Blessed Oliver is his head. We have seen above that it was not buried with the body, but enclosed by Mrs. Elizabeth Sheldon in a round box of tin. Dom Maurus Corker is said to have taken it to Rome in 1685, and to have presented it to Cardinal Howard. On the Cardinal’s death in 1694 it was kept in the English Dominican Convent of SS. John and Paul, and later again, in the Irish College. In 1721, it was given by Dr. Hugh McMahon, Archbishop of Armagh, into the care of Mother Catherine Plunkett, the first Prioress of the Dominican nuns at Drogheda, and it is still in the possession of this venerable community. The following is an extract from a letter, dated July 27th, 1874: “Probably you have learned from persons who have seen the relic, what appearance it presents. The flesh and skin are still upon the face,—the skin a dark brown colour. Part of the left cheek and a little of the upper lip are burnt quite black. . . . There is a little hair on the back of the head, and there is the mark of a deep cut across the top as if an attempt had been made to split the skull.”

The other relics of the martyr were the two forearms, which, as we have seen, were not buried with the body. In Weldon’s Collections, a MS. before referred to, occurs the following: “The English Benedictine nuns in Lark Fields [Champ de l’Alouette] at Paris have one of his arms, which I saw here on the day of his martyrdom, which then made up exactly eleven years since it had happened. It was all whole and entire, with all the flesh on, and even the nails, without the least offensive smell. . . The arm was given to the nuns by Fr. Corker.”

This relic is now lost, having disappeared during the French Revolution. There is, at present, no trace of the other forearm and hand. At the Franciscan Convent at Taunton, is kept the left humerus—the bone from the shoulder to the elbow. ‘This was given to the community in 1857 by Mrs. Monnington, of Sarnesfield, Herefordshire, and it appears to have a fairly continuous authentication.

Perhaps of few relics does so large an amount of documentary history exist, as that concerning the body of Blessed Oliver Plunket. From first to last, everyone who had to deal with the relics of the martyr seems to have been anxious to make their authenticity sure against the time of his Beatification, which has been expected from the day of his martyrdom.


'The Blessed Oliver Plunkett: II. The Body of Oliver Plunkett', The Dublin Review, Vol 167, (July, 1920), pp.19-25.

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