Thursday 30 June 2022

Venerating the Head of Saint Oliver Plunkett in 1874

Yesterday we looked at the translation on June 29, 1921 of the relic of the head of Saint Oliver Plunkett from the Dominican convent where it had been preserved since the early eighteenth century, to a new shrine in Saint Peter's Church. Today we can look at an earlier account from Dominican priest Father Austin Rooke, who in a letter at the end of 1874 detailed his visit to the reliquary at the Siena convent in Drogheda. He begins with a good summary of Saint Oliver's life and death, but in the third paragraph from the end gives an interesting description of both the reliquary and the head it enshrined:


S. Mary's Priory, Cork.

MY DEAR FATHER, -Having had the opportunity recently of visiting our good Sisters of the Second Order in their Convent of S. Catherine of Siena at Drogheda, I had the great privilege of seeing there and venerating the sacred head of the Most Rev. Oliver Plunket, the Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of Ireland, who suffered death for the faith at Tyburn, on July 1st, 1681.

I need not tell you that they guard this holy treasure with great reverence; and by their kind permission many persons are enabled to satisfy their private devotion by kneeling before that precious relic. As the preliminary inquiry has recently taken place in London, with a view of obtaining the canonization of this holy servant of God, which happy issue all are so ardently desiring, it will, I am sure, give satisfaction to the readers of the Rosary Magazine, and more especially to those who live in Ireland, to hear something about the life and death of this saintly Archbishop, and to have a description of his sacred relics.

Oliver Plunket was born at Loughcrew, in the county of Meath, in 1629; and having been educated up to the sixteen by his kinsman, Dr. Patrick Plunket, who successively ruled the dioceses of Ardagh and Meath, he formed one of a small band of youths who accompanied the Rev. father Scarampo, the oratorian, back to Rome after having fulfilled his mission in Ireland, whither he had been sent by Pope Innocent X. There he pursued and completed his studies; and afterwards he became the agent of the Irish Clergy at the Roman Court. Having been appointed to the See of Armagh, he was consecrated Archbishop at Ghent on the 30th, of November 1669, and he arrived in Ireland about the middle of the following March. He at once commenced his pastoral labours, which were rendered much more arduous on account of the evil days in which his lot was cast, and he devoted himself to provide for the necessities, not only of his own diocese and province, but for the spiritual welfare of Ireland generally. During the eleven years of his episcopate, his zeal was conspicuous in reforming abuses, in establishing seminaries and schools, and in administering the Sacraments; and in illustration of the unselfishness of his devotion to the flock committed to his care, tradition still points out the spot that witnessed the following scene. As he was being conducted across the country by a guard of soldiers on his way to prison, he met on the road a company of light-hearted young men and girls, in holiday attire, on their way to a pattern, or village feast; and obtaining leave from his guard to stop and speak to them, he exhorted them so earnestly that they resolved to abandon their intended dangerous pleasure, and at once returned to their homes.

Having been brought to London in the depth of a most rigid winter, and having suffered much on the journey, being of a very delicate constitution, he was cast into Newgate prison, where for six months he had to share the treatment endured by those who were accused of the worst crimes. And yet we read that, in addition to the sufferings of his prison, he added many voluntary penances, and especially a rigorous fast on bread and water three times each week.

At his trial he was refused a few days' respite to enable him to bring over witnesses and documents from Ireland, which would have proved that the accusations brought against him were false; and the same impious judge - Lord Chief Justice Pemberton - after passing the sentence of death upon his victim, refused his request to be allowed to have the spiritual aid of a Catholic priest. "You will have,” he replied, “a minister of the Church of England ;” but the Archbishop answered, “I am obliged for your good intentions, but such a favour would be wholly useless to me.”

A Protestant chronicle of that time says that the Earl of Essex, being convinced of his innocence, applied to Charles II. for a pardon, as he had clearly been condemned upon false evidence; but when the king in a great passion refused to grant it, he concluded by saying to the King, "His blood be upon your head, and not upon mine."

The sentence of death did not affright him; on the contrary, he marvelled that he felt no fear of death; and in a letter he wrote from his prison cell to a relative, he says: “But how am I, a poor creature, so stout, seeing that my Redeemer began to fear, to be weary and sad, and that drops of His blood ran down to the ground? I have considered that Christ, by His fears and passions, merited for me to be without fear."

Nay, so resigned was be to die the death of a Christian martyr, that not only did he exclaim, “Deo gratias," as soon as the judge delivered the sentence, but, on the testimony of a Protestant historian, the keeper of Newgate said that, when he told his prisoner that he was to prepare for his execution, he received the message with all quietness of mind, and went to the sledge as unconcerned as if he had been going to a wedding." And a Catholic eyewitness of his death records, that “on the scaffold, by the singular composure of soul and actions, he seemed like an angel descended from paradise, who was joyously arrived at the moment of once more returning thither.” He was the last of those glorious Confessors of the Faith who, bound down to a hurdle, were thus dragged to Tyburn to undergo their iniquitous sentence of being "hung, drawn, and quartered".

That he might have escaped death, even after his condemnation, he himself asserts in the document he drew up just before his execution, a copy of which is still in the archives of the Propaganda at Rome. Therein he says: “I assure you that a great peer sent me notice that he would save my life, if I would accuse others. This treacherous offer he disdained—indeed, there was no one to be accused. Father Corker, a Benedictine priest, who had been the faithful friend of the holy primate, and his fellow-prisoner for the faith in Newgate, has written a beautiful narrative of the "glorious Archbishop and Martyr,” as he calls him, from which I cannot refrain from quoting the following passages:

“The trial being ended, and he condemned, his man had leave to wait on him alone in his chamber, by whose means we had free intercourse by letters to each other. And now it was I clearly perceived the spirit of God in him, and those lovely fruits of the Holy Ghost, charity, joy, peace, &c., transparent in his soul. None saw or came near him, but received new comfort, now fervour, new desires to please, serve, and suffer for Christ Jesus by his very presence. After he certainly knew that God Almighty bad chosen him to the crown and dignity of martyrdom, he continually studied how to divest himself of himself, and become more and more an entire and perfect holocaust, to which end, as he gave up his soul with all its faculties, to the conduct of God, so for God's sake he resigned the care and disposal of his body to unworthy me. But I neither can nor dare undertake to describe unto you the signal virtues of this blessed martyr. There appeared in him something beyond expression-something more than human; the most savage and hard-hearted people were mollified, and attendered at his sight. Many Protestants, in my hearing, wished their souls in the same state with his. All believed him innocent, and he made Catholics, even the most timorous, in love with death.

When he was carried out of the press-yard to execution, he turned him about to our chamber window, and, with a pleasant aspect and elevated hands, gave us his benediction."

On the scaffold, with an heroic courage, he addressed the crowd of spectators for nearly an hour, disproving the false charges of conspiracy which the three apostate priests and some wicked laymen had sworn against him, confessing the faith, and pardoning his murderers, and then kneeling down prayed fervently, and recommended himself to God through the merits of Christ, and the intercession of the Blessed Virgin and all the Angels and Saints; and as he was repeating the words, "Into thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit," the cart was drawn away, and he hung suspended between heaven and earth, "a spectacle to angels and to men.” Before he was dead, he was cut down, and the inhuman process of dismemberment took place, the bowels being taken out and thrown into a fire which was kindled for that purpose, and the head severed from the body, and the body cut up into four parts. A medical man who was allowed to examine the head not long since, says that it must have been cut off before he was actually dead, for the skin at the back of the neck has shrunk away from the cut, which would not have been the case had life been extinct.

After the butchery was over, permission was obtained to collect the scattered remains, and they were with due solemnity buried in the churchyard of S. Giles-in-the-fields, “under the north wall,” Dodd says in his Church History; and near to the Jesuit Fathers who had suffered in 1679, and for whom the saintly prelate had a great veneration. To the coffin was attached a copper-plate, which I saw at the Convent, and which hears a Latin inscription, of which the following is a translation: “In this tomb rests the body of the most Rev. Lord Oliver Plunket, formerly Archbishop of Armagh, Primate of all Ireland; who, out of hatred of the Faith, having been accused of high treason by false witnesses and on that account condemned to death, underwent martyrdom with all constancy, being hung at Tyburn and his bowels being taken out and cast into a fire. During the reign of Charles II., King of Great Britain, &c., July 1st, 1681."

The English Catholics defrayed the expenses of his funeral, as they had done for his keep during the seven months of his imprisonment in London, and for the bringing over witnesses in his behalf from Ireland. In a letter the Archbishop wrote to his relative, Michael Plunket, after sentence had been passed on him, he says: “The English Catholics were here most charitable to me; they spared neither money nor gold to relieve me, and in my trial did all for me that even my brother would do. They are rare Catholics and most constant sufferers.”

At the time of the interment of the holy body, a surgeon, named John Ridley, cut off the arms at the elbows and placed them in a tin box, and he placed the head in another tin box, as the original written parchment, which is also in the possession of the Nuns at Drogheda, declares. The following is a copy of it:

“The under-written John Ridley, Chirogeon, and Elizabeth Sheldon, doe hereby testifye and declare; That in this Chist are included two tione boxes, whereof the one being round containeth the Head, and the other being long containeth the two Hands armes from the Finger's 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: Doi: 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 separated from the rest of the said Body by mee Jobn Ridley in the presence of Elizabeth Sheldon imediatly before the quarters of the said Blessed Body were putt into the Coffin, in order to their Interment 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 above specyfyed.

“In Witnesse whereof wee have hereunto sett our hands seales this 29th day of May, An: Dni: 1682.
“ John RIDLEY.

 On the back of the Parchment is written:

"Signed and sealed in the presence of

Dr. Challoner tells us that in 1684, when the body was disinterred, it was found entire; and Hugh McMahon, Archbishop of Armagh, in a work of his entitled “Jus Primatiale," attests that many miracles were performed by these sacred remains.

Father Corker, after his own release from prison, had the holy relics transferred to a monastery of English Benedictines at Lambspring, in the Duke of Brunswick's territories in Germany, where they were received with great pomp and reverence, and a handsome monument to his memory was afterwards erected in the Church there, bearing a Latin inscription, of which the following is a translation: -“The remains of Oliver Plunkett, of holy memory, Archbishop of Armagh, Primate of Ireland, who being hanged through hatred of the Catholic Faith, and his bowels being taken out and cast into the fire, a glorious martyr, laid down his life in London, the 11th of July, 1681.” The date is according to the old style, which accords with July 1st of present style. The right band he caused to be placed in a rich case, which is still preserved there. The head he placed in a silver reliquary, and petitioned the Holy See to allow a lamp to be always kept burning before it. Subsequently Father Corker gave the head to Cardinal Howard (a member of the Norfolk family), who was residing in Rome; and after the Cardinal's death, it was preserved in a convent of the Dominican Order in that city.

Dr. Hugh McMahon, when a student at the Irish College in Rome, had many opportunities of venerating the sacred head of that prelate, whose virtues, we are told, he had striven to imitate from a child; and later on, after he had been translated to the primatial See from that of Clogher in 1714, he obtained possession of this precious relic; and in 1722 he deposited it in the Dominican Convent at Drogheda, which he had founded there in the previous year by permission of the General of the Order. And most appropriately was that Convent chosen for its resting place: not only because when alive he had been much attached to the friars of that Order, but more especially because the first prioress, who was then presiding over that community, was the venerable mother, Catherine Plunket, the grand niece of the holy martyr.

At present it is enshrined in an ebony reliquary, with silver ornaments. The sisters have a tradition that this shrine passed through the Custom House as a clock-case, and the silver ornaments were placed on it in Ireland. There are two doors, one in front, and one behind, and inside of each there is a glass plate, through which the head is seen. On a silver plate affixed to the front door are the primate's armorial bearings, surmounted by a silver mitre. The head, which still retains some white hairs, is quite perfect with flesh and skin, and is of a brown colour. The nose has evidently been injured by fire, and the tradition is that when the head was cut off and cast aside, it came in contact with the fire in which his entrails were burnt. There is nothing repulsive about it; the eyelids are closed, and there is a calm repose upon the features, proving how placid must have been his death, notwithstanding its terrible violence.

Such is the history of the holy relic I have described. And to-day Ireland awaits with anxious expectancy the fulfilment of her long-cherished hopes--that this glorious prelate, the first and foremost of those heroic souls that she has so lavishly sent to join "the noble army of martyrs” in heaven, may be inscribed in the Calendar of the Church, by the authority of God's Vicar upon earth. And at this very moment England, through her Catholic hierarchy is petitioning for this boon in the same breath that she asks for a like favour for some of her own heroic martyred children; thereby trying to atone for the crime that has stained her annals in the unjust condemnation and barbarous execution of the noble-souled and gentle-hearted prelate, the worthy son and saintly successor of S. Patrick in his own See of Armagh.

When that solemn act shall have taken place, and the devotion of the Irish nation shall have raised a special sanctuary to his memory, attached to the Conventual Church of the Siena Convent at Drogheda, we may hope that a great pilgrimage will be organised in England to cross the channel and assist at the solemn translation of this Sacred Relic. And a touching sight will it be, and consoling to the faithful Catholics of Ireland, to see that English pilgrim band, with Cross and banner and holy chant, winding its way up that steep street in Drogheda, down which ran streams of the blood of its massacred citizens after the fatal battle of the Boyne, on its way to venerate that head which uttered such loving words of forgiveness for his murderers from the scaffold at Tyburn; and in return, humbly to ask his forgiveness on behalf of their nation, which so unjustly deprived him of his life; and at an earlier period so ruthlessly slew the innocent inhabitants of that town, who had taken refuge in their parish church. May you and I live to see, and, if it please God, to share in it!

Your affectionate Brother, December 1st, 1874.

F. AUSTIN M. Rooke, O.P.

The Monthly Magazine of the Holy Rosary, Volume 3, (February 1875), 185-193.

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