Catholic colonists skirted English law in Protestant Jamestown

Secret Catholics in Protestant Jamestown

Nearly 50 years of increasingly harsh persecution by Elizabeth I made life in late-1500s England difficult for Catholics, who could face fines, imprisonment, confiscation of property and even torture if they refused to acknowledge the supremacy of the Protestant queen and the Church of England.

Conditions only grew worse under the rule of James I, whose 1605 act to "prevent and avoid dangers which may grow by Popish recusants" took away trial and inheritance rights in addition to forbidding Catholics from practicing law or medicine or working in a pharmacy, the military or civil service.

But with the 2013 discovery of a silver Catholic reliquary placed on the coffin of prominent Jamestown settler Capt. Gabriel Archer, archaeologists have turned up the most provocative of many clues suggesting that English America's first permanent settlement may have bristled with secret practitioners of the forbidden faith.

Earlier finds include fragments of crucifixes, Catholic pilgrimage emblems and rosary beads, all of which had been abolished by the 1571 "Act of Treason" as "vaine and superstitious things" — and whose combined presence indicates that Archer, who served as council member and colony secretary, was far from the only settler skirting the laws regarding religion.

"When you finally figure out what's inside, it's absolutely phenomenal," says archaeologist Dave Givens, who, along with conservator Michael Lavin, spent months tracking down research labs with the advanced micro computed tomography equipment needed to determine the box's contents.

"It's two lead ampuls of the kind used to contain holy water or the blood of a saint — and six or seven bone fragments — exactly what you would expect to find in a Catholic reliquary before the English Reformation.

"But not what you should be finding at Protestant Jamestown."

Erickson can be reached at 757-247-4783.

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