A reliquary found in Jamestown, Virginia, gives a Catholic foundation to a country so often thought of as Protestant

Jamestown, Virginia, was the first permanent British settlement in the New World, and today survives as an archaeological site. The colonists who first went to Jamestown, or James Fort, arrived in 1607 and had a terrible time of it, thanks to conflict with the Native Americans, their inexpert attempts to grow food, and the depredations of disease, among which the worst killer was probably malaria.

Jamestown nowadays is famous as the place where the Princess Pocahontas married John Rolfe. This romantic story has long been popular, long before the film about the princess was made. Pocahontas herself died of some European disease to which she had no immunity at the age of 22 and is buried at Gravesend.

Life was pretty hard in those days, and the most recent excavations at Jamestown have revealed four graves under what was the chancel of the church, which of course was the first place dedicated to Anglican worship in the New World. The Washington Post has a long report of these excavations, which have brought to light a reliquary found in one of the coffins, that belonging to Captain Gabriel Archer, who died in about 1609 at about the age of 34.

The reliquary presents us with a mystery, because, as we have all been told many a time, the first colonists were Protestants, indeed Anglicans, and thus would have had no time for relics. Indeed, the Washington Post tries to make the claim that some early Anglicans might have treasured relics, but this is most unlikely, indeed impossible, given what we know of the Elizabethan and Jacobean Church. Was Archer a Catholic? His parents were recusants, so this is possible. He may have been one of the so-called “mislikers”, someone who had conformed to the Anglican Church but who hankered after the old ways.

Jamestown Discovery

As for the reliquary itself, that is interesting, in that it is of continental not British silver, so may have been a family heirloom picked up somewhere on the Continent, and preserved from the depredations of the iconoclasts. By the time of Captain Gabriel Archer, this family treasure may well have been regarded as a lucky charm, rather than a relic of religious significance. It is odd that it should have been buried with him. After all, relics are taken from graves, not put into them. Presumably the people who placed it on his coffin had no idea of its true significance as a relic.

And what of its true significance? To me it seems clear. The letter “M” means only one thing to a Catholic. But here we have a problem. There are relics associated with the Blessed Virgin’s clothing, but there are no particles of her bones, given her bodily assumption into heaven. The reliquary contains a vial, which might have contained a relic of the Blessed Virgin, such as her tears. Perhaps the bones of some lesser saint were added later. But how interesting, if true: to think that in the oldest settlement in what is now the United States, someone buried a relic of the Blessed Virgin. That would constitute a Catholic foundation for the country that is so often thought of as Protestant and of the Enlightenment era. It would perhaps shift our focus from Elizabeth the supposed Virgin Queen after whom Virginia was named, to the true Virgin Queen, Mary our Mother.

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