“The Godly Greedy Appetite”: New Religious Relic Circulation in the Early Modern World

Reliquary busts depicting the companions of St. Ursula / Cloisters Museum, New York

England became one of the greatest producers of new Catholic relics during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

By Dr. Igor Pérez Tostado
Professor of Modern History
Universidad Pablo de Olavide


Having lost all monasteries and a good deal of its medieval Christian movable assets, England became one of the greatest producers of new Catholic relics during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This article aims to look, from a material point of view, at the circulation and consumption of English relics on the Catholic continent. In this case, these products were created because of violence and circulated as an answer to it. Gifts and the exchange of relics served to obtain support for the exiled Catholics and for the institutions providing for their education created in the continent, and allowed them to participate in the necropolitics of the Spanish Monarchy. Relics, artifacts and printed and manuscript narratives brought back from all over the world helped construct a self-image of an English Catholic as a necrocommunity imbued by a sense of historical continuity and connected to a global imagined community.


By the late sixteenth century, England became one of the greatest producers of Catholic relics in Europe as a side effect of the religious conflict in the islands. The exile community forming in the continent was quick to recognize the formation of an eager public wishing to obtain these objects. As the head of the English Catholics exiles in the late Elizabethan period, William Allen, eagerly acknowledged the advantages to be obtained from this taste:

“The Catholics of Italy, Spain, France and namely (which is less to be marveled at) of England, more than the weight in gold would be given, and is offered for any piece of their relics, either of their bodies, hair, bones, or garments, yea or anything that hath any spot or stain of their innocent and sacred blood. Wherein surely great diligence and honorable zeal hath been showed by divers noble gentlemen and virtuous people, that have to their great danger obtained some good pieces of them, to satisfy the godly greedy appetite of holy persons of divers nations making extreme suit for them.” (Allen, 1582: C7V, cit. by Gregory, 1999: 298)

In a period of insecurity and absence of clarity, women and men of all social positions imbued everyday natural and man-made objects with spiritual properties. This tradition stretches for a long period of human history and is present, in one form or another, in most cultures. Known as reliquiae in the Latin tradition, its refers broadly to the bodily remains and objects property of or attached in a way to the people considered holy. In this interpretation, the relics have both a function of memory, as the incomplete reminder of a beloved or more glorious past, and power, as the visible material beholder of invisible religious or magical properties whose workings exceed human understanding. These sacred articles have been not only the origin of reverence and devotion, but also of shapers of individual and collective identifications and the source of competition, exchange, theft and violent conflict.

The study of material objects offers an alternative perspective from which to analyze the societies that produced and consumed them (Walsham, 2010a: 17). Putting the object at the center of our analysis offers a new perspective on the old problem of religious violence in Early Modern Europe. Objects serve, among other purposes, to demonstrate power and symbolize the owner’s place in society. They serve also as signs of changing meaning depending on the audience or as symbols, as indicators by association and conventions or referents within a specific culture. Understanding an object and its use and circulation goes hand in hand with the understanding of what its meant for its creators and users (Lubar and Kingly, 1993, ix-xi). Relics, broadly understood, offer two dimensions of analysis that must be covered simultaneously: on the one hand as a corporeal body turned into object due to modification by human beings which on the other hand and, as any object, is part of all the stages of the life of an artifact: conception, material selection, design, manufacture, distribution, use and perception. This brings thus a movable asset with a very active social, religious, cultural and political life. Thus, new relics in the Early Modern era were objects in themselves created because of violence and the reason for their circulation and consumption was also the confrontation of different confessions or the repression of one or several of them. As objects, in addition to their intended function, they represent the world of belief and the unconscious representation of a hidden mind, which uses the language of fiction but represents a deeper cultural truth, as J. D. Prown (1993: 4) puts it. The material turn allows us to focus on the relics as social objects that are the expression of meaning in masked form. In this quality, these material objects offer access to nonverbal o preverbal feelings, sensations, intuitions and understandings shared in a culture. This approach offers access to some of a culture’s hidden beliefs (Prown, 1993: 5) and, in our case, opening a new perspective on the process of incorporation of the world beyond its borders into the Spanish Monarchy of the Early Modern Era.

The following text looks, then, at the creation of new relics in Early Modern England and their circulation, preservation and consumption. It also focuses on who acquired them and which uses and meanings the relics acquired over time. This article will argue, through the study of the circulation of relics between Britain, Ireland and the Spanish Monarchy, that their ability to link individuals, communities and spaces was key in creating a network of interconnections that sustained particular imagined communities and political orders.


The St Oswald relic / Wikimedia Commons

The relic is a sacralized object, that can be either a bodily remain, a purpose-built object or an ordinary natural or manufactured product that is resignifed as sacred due to its contact or relationship with a person or event considered holy or miraculous. Robert Friedel reminded us of the importance of not forgetting the materials that go into artifacts, that is, the stuff that makes up a thing (Friedel, 1993: 42). In the case of relics, the main and most valued “stuff” from which they are elaborated are human remains, which most frequently undergo manipulation to ensure their preservation. Objects that had been in touch with the deceased, such as clothing or personal belongings, are considered relics and receive, in many cases, the same treatment and use. Thus, although venerated human bodies could be kept in one piece, such treatment was rare, even among very distinguished deceased and owners. In most cases, multitudes of relics could be created out of a single corpse. Authenticity was subordinated to faith, tradition and other economic and political considerations, thus creating a context in which relics and connected objects could be multiplied (Johnson, 1996; Gillingham, 2010; Lazure, 2007: 59-61). In addition, other related and essential objects, such as the recipients in which human remains are preserved and enhanced due to costly materials or expert craftsmanship (Hahn, 2010), pieces of visual art or textual descriptions (printed and manuscript) and the life and death of the martyr, blur the limits of the sacred and cult object, expanding the availability and reach of relics. Overall, relics had the capacity of infinite duplication and fragmentation (Harris, 2014: 225). Thus, relics were among the most precious objects within a rich universe of sacramental objects obtained, trafficked and put into use by the Catholics of Britain and Ireland. Other such objects included Catechisms, Bibles, works of controversy, pictures, crucifixes, agni dei, holy water, candles, brooches, complete rosaries and rosary beads (McClain, 2004: 106-107).

Religion in England in the late 16th and 17th centuries was defined and enforced by law, which the state was unable to do so uniformly (Collinson, 2009). Despite the destruction of the early Reformation period, the rhythm of creation of new relics and introduction of relics in Britain could not be completely stopped by the rudimentary surveillance deployed by Elizabethan and Stuart information services. On occasions, secular authorities faced extreme difficulties to maintain public order during executions. An example of the extreme interest that obtaining of part of the body or a belonging of the executed Catholics in England generated can be inferred from the execution of William Hart in York in 1583. There the authorities had to intervene to put an end to the scramble to obtain his clothes when he just had barely died, and several kinds of measures were adopted to avoid the widespread practices of dipping cloth in blood and the theft of body parts during the execution, quartering and public exposition of body parts (Gregory, 1999: 298-299). In the execution of Edmund Campion in London in 1581, relic seekers not only frayed with the executioner to cut parts of his body, but others also offered him money in order to obtain relics for them (Hanson, 1991: 68-69). The new martyrs not only imitated the first Christian martyrs in their handling of imprisonment, trial and execution and the reporting of it, strengthening the idea of an unbroken connection with Christian antiquity and tradition, and thus making the new martyrs and their relics as important and valuable as the ancient ones (McClain, 2004: 242). Nor were exalted mob assaults over funerals of holy people to obtain relics unheard of in the Spanish Monarchy. Touching one’s own objects (such as rosaries or crosses) to the deceased body to impregnated them with its supernatural powers was another, less aggressive or more sustainable, way of fabricating relics with protective powers from the allegedly saintly deceased (Haliczer, 2002: 293-275). In extreme cases, even when they were still alive, the blood of supposed saints in the making could be collected and distributed as relics (Keitt, 2005: 108).

Starting in the reign of Henry VIII, London was the place where most of the executions of Catholics took place and, thus, where more opportunities arose to obtain remains from which to create relics. The symbolic centrality of London in the imagination of English Catholics was so clear that a piece of old gallows of Tyburn, “which they keep for a holy Relique” was preserved at the English College of Valladolid (Owen, 1626: 54). At the time of the execution of Edmund Campion in 1581, the Spanish ambassador Bernardino de Mendoza had noted that people were putting themselves in evident danger of punishment by English authorities to collect his relics (Redworth, 2008: 74; Gregory, 1999: 19-20). Protestant authorities made efforts to dispose of the corporal remains of executed Catholics in undignified and exemplary ways that also prevented their recovery by relic hunters. Confronted with such tactics, relic hunters could take extreme risks and show great perseverance, as in the recovery and reburial of the body of Margaret Clitherow in 1586, which took two months (Covington, 2009: 288-289). By 1612, the dangers to relic rescue parties had grown from interception by pursuivants, to include the possibility of a clash with another rescue party (Redworth, 2008: 210-211). By then too, England had clearly become the leading supplier of new relics for “the godly greedy appetite” that they inspired on the continent, which William Allen had identified in the 1580s. New English relics could also be created on the continent, especially in religious institutions hosting exiles. The Poor Clares who died in Spain and whose corpses were said to have been miraculously preserved, had their teeth pulled and made into relics (Coolahan, 2007: 316).


Council of Trent, Session 25 / Wikimedia Commons

The XXV session of the Council of Trent reinforced the value of the cult of relics for Catholics. As a result, princes, aristocrats, church authorities, religious communities and other individuals increased the demand for the remains of holy persons, in most cases brought from areas in Europe torn by religious conflict: the Netherlands, the British Islands, France and the Empire (Édouard, 2005: 305-306). The Roman endorsement of relics and their growing cult among Catholics in a context of religious conflict also meant that relics and devotion to them had to be firmly controlled by Church authorities in order to avoid superstition, heresy and mercantilization. The Catholic reform of popular religion, as Euan Cameron (1998: 187) put it, did not pretend to create a whole new religion. It had to do more with controlling the rituals and practices that had become vulgar magic under Christian names. The fact that the cult of relics was sanctioned by the Council of Trent forced clerical authorities to take a very serious stance on forgeries, the cult of alleged saints not yet recognized as such by Rome and allegedly miraculous relics and images. In the case of the Spanish Monarchy, the inquisition was the institution in charge of curving the overzealous or over credulous and establishing the limit between devotion and superstition, the acceptable and the unacceptable (Keitt, 2004). If the control over relics that the Council had sought proved far from complete on the Catholic continent, it was simply impossible to carry out in Britain and Ireland due to the lack of a regular Catholic administration as well as the high volume and fast distribution of the new relics created.

The acquisition and deployment of relics responded to sophisticated needs and strategies, only some of which had to do with piety. On the continent, not only exiles, but also kings, aristocrats, high churchmen, religious orders and cities competed for prestige, patronage and legitimacy. From the late Roman empire onwards, the exchange of relics reflected and were part of wider networks of patronage, alliances, dependencies and favors (Brown, 1981: 89-90). The beginning of the arrival of “new” relics from the British Island to the continent fueled an already-thriving trade in relics. In the 19th century, Marx denounced the mercantilization of the sacred. Yet the process seems more nuanced. Present-day historians, following the ideas of Igor Kopytoff, have seen it as a process that developed over time (Kopytoff, 1986). Thus Alexandra Walsham refers to a “commodification of the holy” (Walsham, 2010a: 31) and Harris to a “sacred economy of relics” (Harris: 2014) in which an economic or exchange value is attached to holy objects.

If Early Modern changes promoted new patterns of exchange and circulation, it was in the activity beyond theft, which had a long history by then (Geary, 2011). It was the violent expansion of the frontiers of Catholicism, both within Europe and beyond, and the risk posed by the wars of religion that fueled the availability of new relics. Most of the new relics being generated in the Early Modern world headed towards continental Europe, either from Protestant areas or from the colonial frontiers. Relics departing continental Europe, eithre to the northern part of the continent, or outside it, formed the exception rather than the rule, in spite of the efforts of missionaries and their orders to provide relics, which proved fundamental objects in the establishments of new places of cult (Knight, 2010: 227), and the circulation of Japanese relics through Asia and America (Palomo, 2016: 27). As Waltham explains, the Catholic underground conveyed them to exiled elites, especially Cardinal Allen, who presented them to his superiors in the continent (Walsham, 2010b: 129). From the 1580s onwards, news relating the death of Catholics in England (in the form of reports, included in correspondence and transformed into honorific poems) and their relics flowed constantly towards continental Europe from their main source in London, to Douai-Reims and finally to Rome with tributaries towards east and west following the communication routes linking Catholics in Britain, Ireland and the exiled communities and institutions on the continent (Gregory, 1999: 288).

West facade of the El Escorial monastery / Photo by Jebulon, Wikimedia Commons

The actors behind the circulation of relics between Britain, Ireland and the continent connected exiles, missionaries, religious orders, lay Catholics, embassies and aristocrats. Spanish Monarchs used their diplomatic outposts (and their connections with local Catholics) to channel relics form the battered religious frontiers of Europe, and form anywhere else within and beyond their territories, towards the safe-haven of El Escorial monastery. In the 1560s, Phillip II received papal sanction to move relics from anywhere in the world to El Escorial, putting it to good use through his own officials and ambassadors, or accepting gifts from aristocrats, church authorities or exiles (Édouard, 2005: 306-307; Estal, 1970). In some cases, the relics of executed clergymen circulated within their own religious communities, thereby stressing and reinforcing that dimension of their identity, as in the case of the interest of Dutch Franciscans in retaining relics of their executed brothers in England (Gregory, 1999: 299).

A remarkable Spanish aristocrat must be mentioned in relation to the flow of English relics towards the continent. As Glyn Redworth explains, during the last three or four years of her life, Luisa de Carvajal organized nocturnal raids to Tyburn to dig for the bodies of Catholic priests, which were recognizable from the extra mutilations they suffered. She would clean the body parts at her house and send them to acquaintances on the continent (Redworth, 2008: 68), together with her true accounts of the martyrdom of priests in England, reminding them of the persecution of Catholics in Britain and Ireland and the need for intervention (Redworth, 2012: xxi-xxvi). The process of transformation of dead human flesh into relics implied material intervention upon objects, such as wrapping them in winding-sheets and embalming them in spices, and performative gestures, like their honorary reception at an aristocrat’s house and vigils in their company (Camm, 2004: 357).

The network through which relics circulated between Britain, Ireland and the continent overlapped and interconnected. Exiles, missionaries, diplomatic personnel, aristocrats and merchants collaborated in channeling the human remains to the safety of the continent and finding a place for them in religious institutions and secular collections or fostering intimate religiosity. The point in the process of mercantilization of relics reached in this circulation was that they mostly circulated as gifts and grace, implying that the receiving part acquired a debt with the offering part when accepting its relics. This usually meant an implicit or explicit vow to protect and support the Catholics of Britain and Ireland as well as their relics. The diverse uses and eager owners that relics found in the Spanish Monarchy meant that, in the late sixteenth and in the seventeenth centuries, English exiles could attach their hopes for protection to their prospective patrons’ demand for relics. Which were the uses given to relics and the benefits expected from them that made their recipients eager to accept the responsibility that accompanied their ownership?

Consumption in the Spanish Monarchy

Photo of the front of the Holy Thorn Reliquary / Photo by Geni, British Museum, Wikimedia Commons

The history of objects, especially of their perception and use, can be understood as translations. There is both a process of encoding a message and goals within a given cultural context, tradition and conventions that is then decoded by the users of the object within different schemas and new contexts (Hutton, 1993: 297). As Kenneth Haltman (2000: 9) has argued, objects offer evidence of conscious and unconscious attitudes and beliefs, some specific to the individuals who made or used them, others belonging to the wider cultural milieus in which those objects circulated. Thus, the study of objects aims to penetrate the patterns of belief of a culture whose mentality differs from our own (Prown, 2000: 26). Few objects from the Early Modern period are more appropriate than relics to apply this perspective. What is considered sacred and the meaning of that sacredness is constructed within a specific society and connects with its memory of the past, worldview of the present, and fears and aspirations for the future. Everyday objects or human remains acquire the status of relics through a cultural and social process. The idea of object as a cultural translation is even more appropriate for the relics as objects that were created in one context, England, but were put into use in a very different one, the Spanish Monarchy, where they combined different devotional and political uses.

The consumption of relics (including their viewing, the pilgrimage to see them or their purchase), entailed a very important part of the vast Early Modern penitential society, composed of many activities, such as prayers, memorial masses, the burning of candles, and the foundation and participation in confraternities. (Obanion, 2012: 126) Relics were central in the Spanish Monarchy for two main reasons: First, relics provided cohesion to a shared cultural landscape, language and beliefs, as they had in the Middle Ages. Second, Spanish monarchs accorded relics great political importance, as a tool to provide legitimization, unity and coherence to their authority and policy. Thus, any removal of relics and change on their worship reconfigured both the sacred and the political order. Shifting discourses and practices around holy bodies, offered the English a way of entering the necropolitics of the Spanish Monarchy. Achile Mbembe (2003) created the term encompassing wider political phenomena, but in this study it is limited to the political place of the slain human body.

In the Spanish Monarchy during the Early Modern period, relics, maintained a function they had acquired in the Middle Ages: to connect every level of society, even the humblest, to the miraculous. Among the elites, whether urban patricians, church authorities, aristocrats, or members of the royal family itself, relics acted as prestige items, extremely valuable to foster their authority and legitimate a specific political agenda. The context of religious diversity in Medieval Iberia led to an interpretation of its conflicts in martyrological terms. On the other hand, the strengthening of medieval monarchies in the Iberian Peninsula brought a sacralizing trend, expressed most notably in their quest for prestigious relics connected with their claims of sacrality and political supremacy over towns and church authorities (Torra, 1994; Baydal Sala, 2010).

If anything, the age of the Counterreformation and the Baroque stimulated the acquisition and consumption of relics in the Spanish Monarchy at every level of society, adding new nuances because of the changing cultural, political and religious landscape. At popular level, they remained used as a talisman and central focus of piety and sacramental life, despite increasing efforts of the clerical authorities to control and regulate what were considered as excesses or too crude superstitions. The artistic representations not only multiplied, but also evolved to incorporate new doctrinal orthodoxy, anatomical advances and the new esthetics of heroism, beauty and spiritual triumph in the case of men (Peña Velasco, 2012) and individualization, surprise and modernization of clothing for women (Vicent-Cassy, 2016). Collections in Cathedrals and monasteries dating from the Middle Ages were revamped and had their plastic presentation profoundly transformed in order to continue in use while adapting to the needs of the Counter-reformation era (Ramallo Asensio, 2005), and visual cycles about recent martyrdom created anew (Carlos Varona, 2010). Bishops, archbishops and other ecclesiastical authorities acted as impresarios on behalf of their collections, making efforts not only to produce or acquire new relics, but to guide civic piety, as Harris has demonstrated for the cult of St. Mauro’s relics in Valencia (Harris, 2014). In the Early Modern Hispanic world, possession of relics played a key role in the identity, authority and prestige of urban republics, as it had in the Middle Ages (Freeman, 2011). Within the framework of the counter-reformation and the baroque, towns felt the particular urge to create or reinforce the link to Christian antiquity (through the discovery or acquisition of ancient relics related to the local process of Christianization in Roman times), often taking the lead over ecclesiastical authorities in the quest.

Crypt of Saint Leocadia, Oviedo / Photo by Sitomon, Wikimedia Commons

As in the Middle Ages, the acquisition and distribution of relics served as a means of communication and negotiation with the crown. Habsburg rulers used relics to develop good relations with urban elites and also fostered and directed popular devotion to relics by participating in public ceremonies and reception of relics, such as the arrival of Santa Leocadia in Toledo during the reign of Philip II and Doña Sancha Alonso during that of his successor (Haliczer, 2002: 21-22, 36-37). The ceremonies of reception of relics worked both at the level of official legitimizing discourse and of popular devotion (Édouard, 2005: 314-315). Even in the exceptional highly politically charged context of the incorporation of Amiens to the Spanish Monarchy in the 1590s, relics could play a key role. In this case, as Ruiz Ibañez and Sabatini have shown, the cranium of Saint Fermin took a place of honor in the ceremonial and symbolic explanation of the political transformation. Fermin was allegedly of Hispanic origin and had worked in the evangelization of the region. In addition, his death as a martyr had liberated its inhabitants to the faith. The emphasis on his cult implied that the suffering brought by war could be a way to obtain salvation (Ruiz Ibáñez and Sabatini, 2009). Similarly, the prestige and antiquity of local martyr saints such as Justa and Rufina in Seville served the cities to counterbalance royal authority and its centralizing impulses (Vicent-Cassy, 2003).

The acquisition, exchange, prestige and medicinal or talismanic use of and devotion to the relics of recently deceased saintly people were common among the aristocracy of the Spanish Monarchy (Haliczer, 2002: 277-278). The import of the remains of martyrs crossing the frontiers of the Spanish Monarchy, would merely feed an already strong existing demand and consumption. In her early years, Luisa de Carvajal y Mendoza was deeply interested in the stories and missionaries connected with England that arrived at the court in Madrid, and became especially attached, both metaphorical and physically, to Joseph Creswell’s Life and Martyrdom of Henry Walpole (Redworth, 2012: xiv). Before she took the extraordinary step of travelling to England and produced the relics by herself, her interest in new relics from the frontiers of the Spanish Monarchy was nothing beyond the ordinary. Maria Guadalupe de Lencastre, the duchess of Aveiro, acquired and redistributed an impressive collection of relics, especially connected with Japan (Baena Gallé, 2014; Palomo, 2016). Her relic collection has to be as part of a wider collection of sacramental objects among which the books in her library also played a key role (Maillard Álvarez, 2011).[1]

Aristocrats who served as ambassadors in London acted as privileged distributors among colleagues, friends and relatives of texts and images of the new English martyrs and, of course, their relics, feeding a well-established aristocratic demand and consumption of relics. Diego Sarmiento de Acuña, the count of Gondomar, is the best-known example of a circulator of any kind of material (Oyarbide Magaña, 2014: 35-37). His books preserved in the Biblioteca del Palacio Real and at his age considered a very impressive collection, also reveal a keen interest in new martyrs, and not only those of the British Islands (Redworth, 2004). He also provided his native and beloved Gondomar with the relics of Thomas Maxfield and John Almond, both executed in London during his embassy (Camm, 2004: 357).

Offering relics to aristocratic donors was a good way for religious missionary orders to gain goodwill and support from wealthy donors through the Early Modern era. The prodigious and temporally-sustained generosity of the early 18th-century Marquis de Villa Puente towards the missionary efforts of the Society of Jesus in China, Africa, India, the Philippines, Syria, Caracas and Havana was kept warm in exchange for news of the advancement of the missions he sustained and being present in the Jesuits’ prayers. Of course, he experienced great pleasure receiving gifts and relics from the missions (Clossey, 2008: 187-188). From a broader perspective, new relics were used, together with images and texts, to make present the realities of the outer frontiers of the Iberian empires to donors and supporters of the missionary activity, as shown by the works of Federico Palomo on Antonio Cardim (Palomo, 2015, 2016).

Spanish silver reliquary on carving / Creative Commons

The prestige that relics held among the upper hierarchies, was shared by all social strata within the limits of their means, and fed a traditional use of relics for devotional, thaumaturgyc and talismanic properties. Less well-to-do subjects of the Spanish Monarchy also gathered “new” relics, such as the boils, nails and other human parts collected by the physicians of patients who were believed to be touched by sanctity, which the doctors kept for themselves or circulated privately, or apothecaries used as remedies. People in all walks of life took the advantage of taking physical remains, personal belongings or objects associated with people in their close circles, such as female mystics who died in odor of sanctity, to which curative powers were ascribed (Haliczer, 2002: 14-15, 81-82, 99, 186, 190). In the town of Arjona in Jaen during the 1630s, when the local search for ancient Christian relics was in full swing, ashes believed to have been the result of the martyrdom of saints where used for baking buns eloquently named panecicos de los mártires, according to Olds (2012: 136-137).

If relics held such a high value, no wonder, then, that the royal family made the greatest effort to obtain and redistribute them. The Spanish Habsburgs’ acquisition, display and consumption of relics is consonant with that of other branches of the dynasty for the sacralization, unification and legitimisation of power (Lazure, 2007: 61-62). Female members of the family also developed their own personal collections, such as the regent Mariana of Austria, who amassed an important collection of relics specialized in the “new” saints of the Spanish counter-reformation, which she pursued in the mid-17th century together with the patronage for the canonization of new Spanish saints (Haliczer, 2002: 37).

Other rules of the age of confessional struggle followed similar strategies regarding relics, most notably William V of Bavaria, who amassed an extraordinary collection of relics, first of all from the areas in Germany where the Reformation had destroyed them or put them in danger, together with the areas outside Europe where the Catholic missionaries developed their activity. (Clossey, 2008: 222-223; Johnson, 1996) However, none other than Phillip II dedicated such resources and energy in order to concentrate and display in an single space, the monastery of El Escorial, “a gigantic dynastic reliquary” in Lazure’s words, putting them to work in fostering the rhetoric of a providentialist imperialism (Lazure, 2007: 61-62). The Spanish Monarchs developed strong necropolitics, providing constant funding for the acquisition of prestigious holy remains connected with the Christian history of Spain, and in cases distributed on behalf of the crown, in order to foster loyalty, prestige and a shared identity (Lazure, 2007: 68).

The necropolitics of the Spanish Habsburgs aimed to emphasize the idea of a chosen people for the territories under their rule and sacralized authority for them. Therefore, the unbroken line of divine favor carried on to the present was as important as the link with Christian antiquity. Thus, enormous resources were put in the canonization processes of holy persons connected with the Hispanic world. On the other hand, the preservation of the relics, both ancient and new, from the frontiers of the Spanish Monarchy where Catholicism was at risk of profanation by heretics, conveyed a powerful political message, both of royal piety and divine favor, since relics were considered worthy trophies in the war against heretics (Lazure, 2007: 72, 74). Thus, the activity of the crown in order to savage relics increased at the times and frontiers when they were most at risk, such as France in the 1560s (Édouard, 2005: 304). The arrival of the ring belonging to Mary Stuart at the Escorial is a good example of the intermingling of royal prestige, religious and political programs. Sigüenza tells, firsthand, the handling of the ring at El Escorial:

“y porque quiso el Rey hazer antes que de aqui partiesse las honras de la Reyna de Escocia, a quien auia mandado degollar su hermana la Reyna de Inglaterra, teniendola mucho tiempo pressa y harto apretada en vna fortaleza, poniendole vna acusacion falsa de que se auia conjurado contra ella. Y la verdad era ser esta Reyna piisima y Catolica, que era la mayor conjuracion para ella. Ya. otros han escrito desto mas largo. Nuestro Rey con justo sentimiento quiso hazer aqui sus honras, aunque tenia grande Fe, que estaua como glorioso Martyr gozando de Dios en el cielo. Testimonio harto bastante desto fue que, auiendole presentado vn anillo desta Reyna, engastado en vn diamante tabla, simbolo de la pureza y la firmeza de la fe de tan santa Reyna, me lo dio a mi para que le pusiesse en las reliquias, y ansi lo hice. Las obsequias se hizieron a quinze de Abril, y con la misma solennidad que las que aqui se hazen de todas las personas Reales.” (Sigüenza, 1909, vol. 2: 472):

A portrait of Luisa Carvajal y Mendoza printed by Juan de Courbes / Wikimedia Commons

The participation in necropolitics was also open to individuals. From 1608 onwards, Luisa de Carvajal pushed the count of Caracena, at the time viceroy of Valencia, and his wife to carry out a thorough expulsion of the Moriscos (Redworth, 2008: 182). Caracena had previously served as governor of Galicia, where he had both advocated for a strong opposition against Elizabethan rule and taken a deep concern for the situation of the wave of Irish refugees arriving to the Galician shore the first years of the 17thcentury (Recio Morales, 2002; O’Scea, 2010). In order to oblige his relatives even further against the Moriscos, ease their ethical discomfort and legitimate the campaign of expulsion, Carvajal sent them remains of English martyrs (Redworth, 2008: 182). The consumption of relics in the Spanish Monarchy allowed English Catholics to find a niche within its necropolitics (Pérez Tostado, 2014). The circulation of relics, moreover, allowed English Catholics to reconfigure themselves as a necrocommunity, forging a new identity, both as a persecuted religious minority in Britain and an exiled community within continental Europe.


Acording to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, artifacts stabilize our sense of who we are, through demonstrating the owner’s place in the social hierarchy, the continuity of the self through time, by providing foci of involvement in the present, mementos and souvenirs of the past and signposts to future goals, providing, as symbols of valued relationships, concrete evidence of one’s place in a social network (Csikszentmihalyi, 1993: 23). Relics, more than any other element, became an essential part of the formation of an English Catholic imagined community at home and abroad. The cult of British and Irish relics in the continent and the arrival of continental relics to the islands, served to foster this united imagined community while the actual exchange of relics strengthened ties of patronage and service among English Catholics and with continental protectors and supporters.

The relics had the capacity of uniting symbolic their places of origin and with those where they stood (Clossey, 2008: 220-221). This process, in the case of the exiles from Britain and Ireland, worked in two ways. On the one hand, it allowed the exiles to be visible, recognized and present on the continent where they sought refuge and support. On the other hand, bringing relics to the islands was a way to make the Irish and British Catholics feel part of a shared global imagined community of believers. Thus, the relics as both sacred and mobile, served in many ways to keep a global imagined community symbolically united, while doing their job of protecting the believers, saving their souls and allowing the coexistence of a diversity of beliefs and practices both in England and the Continent within that general framework (Oates, 2006). The centrality of the relics within this framework indicates that the English Catholics in England and the continent may have functioned as a necrocommunity, most visible in the continental colleges abroad and in the lay custody of relics on the island.

The front view of the English College in Valladolid / Wikimedia Commons

It was common on the Iberian Peninsula for the distribution of pieces of property of the deceased in odor of sanctity, which supporters ascribed curative and protective powers, helped spread a new cult and win new supporters for it (Haliczer, 2002: 290). Thus the Catholic exiles from Britain and Ireland could deploy this same mechanism to obtain supporters in their host society through the distribution of the relics being produced on the islands. The fact that the executed missionaries in England were regarded automatically as martyrs on the continent augmented the symbolic capital of those exiles connected to them and protecting their relics, as was the case of the colleges. The description (made by an English Catholic renegade, Lewis Owen of the English College in Valladolid, is telling of this emphasis:

“Besides, how many English Martyrs have been of their Order, or Societie, are to bee seen painted out very curiously in this [college of Valladolid] and other their Colledges, and Churches only of purpose to move the beholders to pitie, and compassionate their poor estate, who are banished (as they say) their Country for the Catholike Religion; so that some of these, out of their blind Devotion will cast their almes into their boxes, which are in every corner of their Church; Yea, all those Priests and Ieusites, that were executed in England for high Treason, are painted in their Churches, over their Altars, like Martyrs, with greene Palmes in their hands, and Crownes of glory on their heads, with the Title of Beati: for they are all beatified, although not as yet sanctified or canonized Saints;” (Owen, 1626: 53-54)

To mark special occasions, the iconography of English martyrs that decorated the English colleges would be temporarily increased. This was the case of the English college of San Jorge in Madrid during the visit of prince Charles Stuart to the court in 1623 when, if we trust contemporary accounts, more than one hundred paintings of martyrs, each one with the martyrdom they received, decorated the institution, together with the portraits of kings and queens of England (Murphy, 2012: 115-116).

As it has been mentioned before, the Spanish king created or reinforced bonds of favor and gratitude with those from whom he received relics or to whom he donated them (Lazure, 2007: 80). This nexus of patronage, clientelism, influence and protection worked well with the English exile community in Spanish territories, and the exiles themselves were very keen to use royal visits or the monarch’s donation of relics a defining element of their own identity. The English exiles not only offered English relics to their patrons and protectors in the Spanish Monarchy, but they also received them from Spanish royals. The most important example is the donation by Phillip II of a relic of St. Alban to its eponymous English college in Valladolid. The cult of St. Alban formed one of the nodes of the identity and center of spiritual life of the English college in Valladolid, serving to connect the Island’s ancient Christianity with its present persecution, the role of laity in the protection of missionaries and the overall survival of the faith. Enhanced by a richly ornamented reliquary, it also became one of the major visitors’ attractions of the college (Highley, 2008: 170).

The other biggest attraction of the college was ‘Our Lady Vulnerata’, simultaneously a piece of art and a relic, and also arrived to the college through a donation that bound the exiled English to their Hispanic benefactors (Ortiz, 1600, 2nd part). This statue of the virgin with a child was badly damaged during the English raid on the city of Cadiz in 1597. The image had previously belonged to the Cofradía del Rosario, which was popularly known as the morenos in Cadiz. After the English left the city, the devotion of the local population to the image increased, since it was believed that the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child themselves had been offended by the sacrilege. The image seems to have been rescued by the English Catholics from nearby San Lucar. Queen Margaret of Austria heard the story and seems to have given impulse to the cult. The English College at Saint Alban was interested in acquiring the image, so that its Englishmen might redeem the sins of their fellow countrymen against the sacred figure. In 1600 they obtained the image, which was named ‘Vulnerata’. It was then hosted in the school, where in 1679 a new chapel was built in which the image occupies the central place, while specially commissioned pictures tell in images the story of the Madonna, the Vulnerata’s arrival in Valladolid and its cult (Burrieza Sánchez, 2000: 29-33). Religious cults such as the Vulnerata created strong bonds between the local religious and lay community and the English at Saint Alban college. Other artistic works of the period referring to martyrdom also stressed the bond between the local and the English religious communities, such as an image which had been kept in Saint Gregory’s college, in Seville. This depicts Saint Gregory, patron of the college, Saint Hermenegildo, patron of the City of Seville, the students of the Seminary and a figure who could be the archbishop of Seville protecting the students (Murphy, 2012).

The cult offered to relics by English in the continent was a point of polemic very loudly denounced by the Protestants that visited them and published their accounts. In his morbid description of the English Brigantine nunnery in Lisbon, Thomas Robinson (1622) not only questions the authenticity of the relics venerated by the nuns, he gets much darker, signaling that the corpses of the “poor innocent bastards” of the nuns and friars were hidden in a wall (Highley, 2008: 188-189). On the continent such critics could be rebutted by a dominant counterreformation culture that had embraced the cult to relics with renewed enthusiasm at all levels of society. On the British Islands, however, the environment in which a Catholic necrocommunity developed was not only more hostile, but also much more complex.

The reliquary of St. Maurus / Creative Commons

The divide between medieval and modern, and Protestant and Catholic regarding the cult or skepticism about relics, is not as clear-cut as it might seem. Both in England and elsewhere in Europe, there had been strong confrontations in the late middle Ages regarding the authenticity of some relics and their miraculous powers. These did not develop only in what were considered heretical confrontations, such as with the Lollards, but also within the Catholic Church, most notably pitting religious orders like the Dominicans against the Franciscans. They also took place at popular level among the defenders and detractors of some very famous relics (Shagan, 2002: 166-168). At the beginning of the Reformation, the attack on the alleged gullibility and innocence of the believers had been one of the keystrokes of the reformers in England (Walsham, 2008: 507-507). After, despite the Protestant critique of the veracity and especially on the divine power held by relics, practices related to their use (as mementos and talismans) survived, even if ambiguously (O’Donnell, 2009). Finally, in some Protestant circles, the cult to martyrs as providential witnesses of truth created an inclusive sense of heroism based on the proof of God’s support for the faithful which put them beyond the control of church and state (Knott, 1993: 1-10).

On the other hand, although the Council of Trent set to eradicate superstitious practices surrounding relics through a much stricter control of both the physical objects and the uses to which they were put, relics and the belief in their miraculous powers were a fundamental tool of evangelization and controversy of the missionary priests in England (Walsham, 2003: 785-786). English Catholics of the Early Modern period resorted to relics as a key element of their religiosity in a very complex context. On the one hand, they had to defend their doctrines and practices from Protestant critiques and law enforcement, but within a society that still felt connected to the dead and gave some power to their remains. On the other, they belonged to a global church determined to purify their cult from superstitions, but without the necessary resources to set a strict control and supervision of relics (Ditchfield, 1993). The strength of the English Catholicism and the centrality of relics within it lied, as Lucy Wooding argues, not in its traditionalism but in its adaptability to these new circumstances (Wooding, 2003: 267-270).

The changing circumstances, during the second half of the sixteenth century, as Lisa McClain (2004: 106-107) has persuasively argued, signified that the English Catholic community lost regular access to priests and sacraments of the Catholic church and had to come with alternative religious practices. This did not imply a radical departure from continental Catholicism, but a different emphasis and conceptualization of doctrines and practices. Objects, relics being the most precious among them, conformed a rich sacramental universe trafficked and put into use by the Catholics of England. It is important also to bear in mind that the English Catholics found themselves forced to find new, generally unorthodox, religious spaces to carry out their faith, or to conceal them within their own bodies (Highley, 2010: 56-57; Walsham, 2011). When John Harrison of Shropshire was arrested in London in 1596, he was found in possession of an indulgence, pictures of the pope and various saints, relics of bone and rosary beads (McClain, 2004: 36). By the 17th century, the possession at home or the wearing of relics became an identifier for English Catholic laypeople (Walsham, 2010b: 131).

The Catholic embassies in London, most ostensibly the Spanish one when it was open, but also those of the Flemish, Venetian and French, provided a safe channel for the importation of religious objects. Diplomatic immunities ensured that artifacts such as books, papal bulls, indulgences, images and relics could reach London embassies, either under the direct authority or the ambassador or the blurred jurisdiction of his household, practically undisturbed and distributed among English Catholics, in spite of the virulent attacks of Protestant polemicists against “new” relics and the fact that their possession by Catholic subjects was prohibited (Shell, 2007: 48-54; McClain, 2004: 164). The increased supply of relics available to English Catholics with the arrival of new relics from the continent served to excite piety and boost devotion among them and also to foster an imagined community in which the beleaguered Catholics of the British Islands were just one more member of the Catholic Church. The pictures in broadsheet of the martyrs and other pious texts also played an important role of cult, memory and symbolic protection. Practices surrounding printed images are quite parallel to the reverence offered by Protestants to religious texts as talismans and holders of divine potency (Walsham, 2008: 513). Although of inexpensive fabrication, they were decorated, protected, embellished and transferred among generations as a talisman (Walsham, 2010b: 129-130).

Jesuit John Gerard / Creative Commons

Not all the relics which were revered by the English Catholics of the 16th and 17th centuries were new or of foreign origin. Contrary to regions of continental Europe brought back under the rule of Catholic princes after having their ancient relics destroyed or the proselytizing efforts of missionaries outside Europe, the Catholics of Britain and Ireland did not depend exclusively on imports from continental Europe. In the case of Ireland, the campaign of the late 1530s to destroy all pilgrimage sites and popular images, despite the successful removal of some renowned relics, proved relatively ineffective. On the one hand, many relics had been hidden. On the other, traditional places of popular devotion continued to attract pilgrims and visitors (Connolly, 2007: 98). On the case of England, even if the Henrician destruction of relics was much more effective, the fragments of the abundant stock of medieval relics that survived and reached Catholic hands were highly regarded. Their circulation and the cult’s reactivation was often surrounded by miraculous or at least edifying stories. In his memoirs, the Jesuit John Gerard, tells this story about the recovery of Saint Vita’s arm:

“The relic came to me in this way. The parson of the place where the whole body (or at least a great part of it) was preserved and venerated in the old days found that he was always restive at night and could get no sleep. This went on for a long time. Then one day the thought truck him that this trouble came from his not paying proper and due respect to the bones which he had in his keeping.” (Gerard, 2012: 61)

This story provides a good example of what Peter Marshall regards as the paradoxical treatment of the dead in post-reformation England. The dead act as a marker of the confessional divide. However, it also makes visible the difficulty of Protestant orthodoxy to break down the emotional claims of ancestry and of popular religious culture which believed in the presence of the dead in the activities of the living and the effect of the actions of the living in the wellbeing of the deceased (Marshall, 2002). Similarly, the distinction between the devotion to and worship of an image or an object imbued with sacred power, was too fine and frequently crossed over by Protestants and Catholics of Europe and the peoples they tried to incorporate into the Christian church beyond the continent (Redden, 2008: 104-105; Louthan, 2010: 181-183). Anyhow, the giving away of Saint Vita’s relic served the parson “to sleep well ever afterward”, or at least that was the story that “a good priest” told to John Gerard. He also gave the Jesuit “a large bone, which a devout Catholic is keeping of behalf of the Society” (Gerard, 2012: 61; Myers, 2007).

To conclude, this last remark of John Gerard’s highlights a final important feature of the use of relics by Early Modern English Catholics. The lack of an institutional structure capable of preserving and controlling the circulation or access to relics became one the most important factors fostering lay religiosity. In many cases, as in the previous example, relics remained within a single family, in cases relatives of the martyr themselves, passing through generations, the guardianship becoming both part of religious and family identity well into the modern era (Camm, 2004: 355-381). If artifacts serve to stabilize our sense of who we are and provide a sense of continuity of self through time, it is not a surprise that the circulation of new relics, both in Britain, Ireland and beyond, tended finally towards a prolonged stabilization within an institution or a family. This phase must not be mistaken for a stagnation. On the contrary, during the very long working life of relics, after their process of circulation was complete, they could fulfill their function of providing identity and status, a sense of historical continuity and connection to a wider community.


“El lunes pasado 29 de Mayo [1651] tuvimos un insigne Martir que fue el Pedro Wright, de la Compañía de Jesus” wrote Alonso de Cárdenas, long-time Spanish ambassador in London, to his colleague in The Hague, Antonio Brun,

“a quien condenaron a ser arrastrado ahorcado y hecho cuartos y que le fuese sacado el corazon medio vivo por ser sacerdote Catt[olic]o, pena que las leyes disponen contra los que lo son como a traidores al estado, murio entre muchos ladrones con singular ejemplo de constancia y alegría”

The letter changed there to chyper, adding that, “conque admiró los herejes y edificó los católicos.” However, the ambassador finished his cyphered note with a much more personal and pessimistic reflection: “Mucho dudo que con esta victima prospere Dios sus armas.”[2]

By the mid-17th century, even if religious uniformization was still considered a worthy goal, the means of extreme violence such as those ones used against Wright were seriously questioned (Akenson, 2016: 25-78). The Popish plot and the executions derived from its craze are the main exceptions to an end to the executions of Catholics in England and thus to the creation and circulation of new relics. Despite the continuation of the Penal laws, recent historical works deny the reality of an image of English Catholics a consistently discriminated enclave isolated from Protestant society (Baker, 2008). However, the fact that historians have only begun to challenge these monolithic assumptions in the last decades might be in part due to the success of the discourses and practices regarding an imagined community that found an anchor in the circulation, possession and use of relics. Ancient and new, local and foreign, relics provided a shared memory, a sense of belonging, a status symbol a way to connect to a wide-reaching network of patronage and protection. The study of the creation, circulation and consumption of the objects that resulted from the violence that defined it, offers an angle of analysis to the deep mechanics and hidden cultural beliefs of societies. In this material universe, relics achieved the most important position. Relics were both extremely precious but paradoxically easy to replicate through subdivision and susceptible to easy forgery, fueling a sacred economy of relics that imbricated into the Spanish Monarchy, where they were put to use to connect English exiles to patronage networks and to forge and communicate an identity. Catholics of all walks of life both in England and in the Spanish Monarchy shared a passion and attachment to relics. Shared beliefs in the identify marker, power tool and divine protection emerged from both the humble little bones that Catholics disguised in their clothing and the gigantic collections built by the Spanish monarchs in El Escorial. The main difference laid in the distinct necropolitics carried out by the Spanish Habsburgs, which aimed to increase the prestige of the dynasty, the legitimacy of its rule and its authority, as the hegemonic Catholic power, to assist persecuted Catholics beyond its lands and lead, if necessary, war against infidels and heretics. Participation in the circulation of relics allowed the English Catholics to have a say in the necropolitics of the Spanish Monarchy and to obtain royal patronage, in the form of the donation of prestigious relics for their institutions and the dispatch of relics to England. The combined result was the maturation of a Catholic religiosity in England which rested to a good extent on the cult of relics as the main provider of identity, historical continuity and belonging to a wider community.



  1. I thank Natalia Maillard for pointing me to the case of the Duchess in the first place.
  2. Archives Generales du Royaume [AGR], Ambassade d’Espagne à L’Haye, L 473, f. 1r-1v.


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Originally published by Culture and History Digital Journal 6:1 (2017) under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.



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