On Friday last week, a set of gold rosary beads carried by Mary Queen of Scots to her execution were stolen from Arundel Castle. Thieves smashed open a display cabinet and took the rosary plus other gold and silver items dating back to the Tudor period. This included coronation cups given by Mary to the Earl Marshal.
Mary had a tragic life. She became Queen of Scotland as a baby and spent her childhood in France while others ruled on her behalf. Once an adult, Mary returned to Scotland but her Catholic faith brought her into conflict with the rising Protestant faith and its leading Scottish firebrand, John Knox.
Her personal life was stormy to put it mildly. She married her first cousin, Lord Darnley, in what seems to have been a passionate liaison. But it turned sour and Darnley died after a very suspicious explosion at a house where he was staying and was found dead in the grounds, most likely smothered to death.
Mary had a legitimate claim to the throne of England – which naturally concerned Elizabeth the First – who just happened to be the Queen of England! These two women, who never actually met, were set on a collision course. For English Protestants, Elizabeth was the defender of their faith while Mary was a French-raised Catholic who had to be crushed.
And crushed she was. Firstly by her own Scottish aristocracy who turned on Mary. Then she was abducted and imprisoned for nearly two decades by cousin Elizabeth. Initially, Mary thought Elizabeth might help her regain the Scottish throne. But when it became clear that was not going to happen, Mary took to plotting against Elizabeth.
A course of action that led with grim inevitability to the executioner’s block. The beheading was the subject of lurid tales from those present on that tragic day. Apparently it took more than one blow of the axe to take off her head. Then the executioner held up her head by the hair only to discover it was a wig – and her head fell to the wooden stage and rolled along.
And then a claim that for up to quarter of an hour, Mary’s lips continued to move. Plus a small dog emerged from under her skirts after the execution. So – quite a scene.
Tudor treasure – the gold rosary beads of Mary Queen of Scots
Very sad that the rosary beads she clutched on the way to her death should have been stolen by some total low life. The metal value is very low according to Arundel Castle. Let’s hope then that they haven’t been melted down. I will confess this kind of crime boils my blood. The thieves are lucky we don’t inflict Tudor-style punishments today for these kind of offences.
I recently came across a Saxon infant saint called Rumwold of Buckingham who only lived for three days. But before this poor baby died, he was able to display what can only be described as magical powers. Rumwold asked to be baptised and immediately after, preached a sermon on the doctrine of the Holy Trinity.
Apparently, the very precocious baby was able to reference heavy theological sources such as the Athanasian Creed. Not bad for somebody who hadn’t been alive for a week yet. The sermon concluded with Rumwold predicting his own death and outlining the funeral arrangements. His short life took place in the village of King’s Sutton in what is now the English county of Northamptonshire. And the chatty baby was the scion of a noble Saxon family with both pagan and Christian relatives. He died in the year 662.
There are plenty of infant saints aside from Rumwold but one that I find morbidly fascinating is Sicarius of Bethlehem. This infant saint was one of the Holy Innocents killed by King Herod, as recounted in the Nativity story. Now – I hear you ask – how could any of the Holy Innocents have died a Christian when Christ himself had only just been born? Put another way – there was no Christianity when Herod gave his notorious order so how does a baby at that time become a Christian saint?
Well, details, details. None of these inconvenient points stopped early medieval France getting very enthusiastic about his cult. From the time of Charlemagne, Sicarius was worshipped fervently and his remains were kept at an abbey in the Dordogne. How were they discovered? You ask too many questions!
Though not a saint, Ellen Organ (1903-1908) was an Irish child whose apparent holiness was so overwhelming that Pope Pius X lowered the age for first Holy Communion from 12 to 7 years of age. “Little Nellie of Holy God” was another infant who rather implausibly was able to recite big chunks of scripture despite being obviously very young. The sickly child died of a variety of dreadful diseases from TB to whooping cough.
She was exhumed by the nuns looking after her a year following death and – of course – showed no signs of corruption. In 2015, there was some controversy over a call from a local bishop to exhume her yet again and move the body to a place where she could be venerated more easily by the faithful.
In the summer of 2019, I visited Fatima in Portugal. This was the place where, in the year 1917, three peasant children claimed to have seen the Virgin Mary. One of many apparitions over the centuries that have turned innocuous places into globally revered pilgrimage sites. Millions still make a beeline to Fatima, Lourdes and Guadalupe in the hope of getting closer to God or finding a cure for a disease.
Marian apparitions have always tended to dominate – that’s the Virgin Mary paying a visit to planet Earth. And her visitations have often coincided with a tough period for the church where its popularity was waning or it was under attack. Nothing like an apparition to galvanise the faithful!
It’s also a way in which the Roman Catholic church cements its position among new converts. So at Guadalupe, it was an Aztec convert who saw the Virgin Mary. His name was Juan Diego (or assumed name after baptism) and the V.M. obligingly left an imprint of herself on his cloak. This convinced an initially sceptical church that he had indeed experienced the Marian apparition. As I saw for myself in 2014, Guadalupe is still a hugely popular pilgrimage site.
The church has often been ambivalent about apparitions of the Virgin Mary, Jesus, apostles and saints. I suspect one of the reasons is the Catholic church’s desire for ultimate control. Apparitions are a moment when the faithful have the whip hand. It also begs the questions why the V.M. would choose a lay person instead of a priest of bishop to relay important heavenly messages. But the church tends to embrace the apparition once further proof is offered. Not that this proof would satisfy a scientific test of course.
Below are scenes from Fatima that I filmed on my smartphone in 2019. In front of the basilica is an airport size piazza, like a gigantic runway. And along its length, pilgrims move on their knees. You can see similar scenes at Lourdes in France and Knock in Ireland.
Whether this self-abasement actually has a positive effect has been a discussion point among psychologists and doctors for years. It would be fascinating to know what impact it has on death-related anxiety and depression. One report I read recently expressed concern about the sharp rise in the number of over-60s going on pilgrimage to places like Santiago de Compostela in Spain – where you have to do a very long walk to get there. Far from curing those involved, the whole experience exacerbated cardiac conditions among some elderly people.
You wouldn’t normally think the Devil would want to go anywhere near a church – but apparently in the medieval period, he’d often pop in. With disastrous consequences!
I grew up in the county of Essex in England, not far from London. It’s full of medieval churches and abbeys – some still standing and others in ruins. And it’s well documented from the Middle Ages, that on occasion Satan was known to wander in. For whatever reason.
In the 1992 book, Secret Essex by Glyn Morgan, there are several instances noted of the devil coming to mass. In one case, in the year 1402, he came disguised as a grey friar – that is a member of the Franciscan order. This resulted in a huge storm that severely damaged the building.
He subsequently sneaked back to steal one of the bells, which was eventually retrieved in a nearby field. But nobody would dare ring it for years afterwards. This theft isn’t entirely surprising as apparently Satan can’t stand the sound of church bells. It distracts him as he tries to seize the souls of the recently departed!
According to Glyn Morgan, churches often used to have “devil doorways” on the north side of the nave. These are usually bricked up now. But the idea was that they encouraged Satan to vacate the premises during events like christenings where his presence really wasn’t appreciated at all. Nobody wanted a possessed baby!
At one church in the village of Runwell, a new priest took mass one Sunday and he was well known for his inappropriate interest in the occult. While he was delivering a sermon, the devil appeared out of his mouth. Recovering quickly, he dashed to the main door of the church and slammed it shut.
The devil in turn, crashed into the door and began trying to claw his way out. And you can still see Satan’s frantic scratches on the woodwork today.
According to local media in the county, there are lots of examples of the devil in church in Essex. In the town of Broomfield, there is an ancient tomb in the churchyard and if you walk round it seven times – guess who shows up?!!
If you have any stories about Satan coming to your place of worship – do share!
For centuries the debate has raged – is The Shroud of Turin the real burial cloth in which the crucified body of Jesus was wrapped or is it a forgery?
What is the Turin Shroud?
In the cathedral church of Saint John the Baptist in the Italian city of Turin, you’ll find a long linen cloth with the imprint of a dead man. His hands and feet bear signs of having been nailed to a cross and there are blood stains along the folds of the cloth. The body has a ghostly appearance with a mournful bearded face that any Christian would identify as Jesus. This is the Turin Shroud.
But is it Christ? Science and faith have been at loggerheads over this in recent years.
Just when you think the Turin Shroud has been carbon dated and definitely proven to be a medieval fake, along comes another scientist or expert of some description to claim it could still be the real deal. Though I must say at this point that the overwhelming majority of scientists would be on the fake side of the argument – but not 100% of them.
Let’s start by taking a good look at the Turin Shroud – and by all means pull up the many images you can Google to see it in more detail. Remember, the view of those who believe is that this imprint was somehow made on the linen after Jesus had died on the cross.
A 3D image of Jesus as he may have looked like has even been produced using the Turin Shroud as this YouTube video shows. We’ll look at the evidence further below.
The Catholic church has always sat on the fence a bit when it comes to the shroud. You may have got the impression that the Vatican is totally on board with its authenticity as a literal representation of Jesus. But you’d be wrong. Read the small print. The church has authorised it as a devotional item – but not a bona fide relic of Jesus Christ.
The historian Charles Freeman thinks the Catholic church has boxed itself in over a piece of cloth that nobody believed was truly the shroud of Jesus when it was most likely created in the 14th century – a thousand years after the crucifixion. Freeman thinks the Turin Shroud was used as a theatrical prop in religious plays put on for simple folk at Easter time.
Intriguingly, some images of the Turin Shroud from five hundred years ago shows that the cloth had a lot more blood and gore on it. There was apparently quite a fashion for blood-splattered religious relics from the 14th century onwards. Pilgrims liked to see the Messiah had suffered – I dare say Mel Gibson would approve having watched his horrific depiction of Christ’s death.
Scientists testing small samples from the cloth have dated it to the 14th century. However, there was one high-profile dissenting voice from one of the scientific investigations conducted in the 1970s. Barrie Schwortz was the official photographer on the Shroud of Turin Research Project (STURP) in 1978. In his own words, even though he is Jewish – he’s convinced to this day that the shroud he photographed is the genuine article.
A fascinating Bloodstain Pattern Analysis was conducted on the shroud by two scientists in 2018 – Matteo Borrini and Luigi Garlaschelli – concluding that the flow of blood on the front of the body didn’t match the flow of blood on the back. More bluntly, the rivulets of blood on the front of the arms suggested a crucifixion at an angle of 80 to 100 degrees – so arms raised very high. While on the back it pointed to a 45 degree angle. In other words, the front and back of the shroud don’t agree with each other.
Another scientist is more optimistic about the veracity of the shroud. Stephen Mattingly at the University of Texas thinks the image was caused by decaying bacteria from the body of a man who had died very slowly. Or how about the theory that a kind of thermo-nuclear flash caused by the Resurrection of Jesus burnt his image into the shroud.
Others trying to prove its authenticity have argued that the weave of the material corresponds to cloth from the biblical period while pollen on the Turin Shroud has been traced to the Middle East.
Then we go to the really far out theories. I’ve heard it claimed that the Turin Shroud is actually the face of Jacques de Molay – the last Grand Master of the Knights Templar. Or a more popular assertion is that Leonardo da Vinci had a hand in its creation. Possible he used primitive photographic techniques to capture a human image.
I’ve been visiting the shrines of some weird saints over the summer.
The stories, legends and myths attaching to these holy people can often be rather weird. Strange tales of how they were martyred in a gruesome fashion. At the shrines, you can find their entire body or a bone or a piece of cloth. Let’s look at some of the weird saints I encountered!
Saint Cassian is the oddest account of a martyrdom. A Christian in the Roman Empire who was teaching pagan children. This was during the reign of Julian the Apostate – who tried to turn the empire back to paganism after three decades of emperors who had converted to Christianity.
Cassian refused to sacrifice to the Roman gods and his punishment was to be turned over to his own pupils who were told to kill him with their pens and clay tablets. This took a while by all accounts – but Cassian urged them on desiring to die for his faith!
Saint Apollonia is said to have been martyred during a riot in Alexandria under the reign of the Roman emperor Philip. Before her death, it’s said she had her teeth pulled out. And so rather ghoulishly, she is depicted holding a pair of pliers with a tooth in its grip. Yuck!
There’s many horrible ways to die but being grilled is probably the worst. Saint Lawrence is often depicted holding what looks like an iron bed mattress but it’s actually the metal grid to which he was tied and cooked.
Here’s the body of Saint Justina – a virgin woman from Padua in Italy. She converted to Christianity at a time when the Roman Empire was still pagan. The emperor Maximian himself tried to make her reject Christ but she refused. So she was martyred with a sword – which she holds close to her breast. Somehow, her body made it from Italy to Portugal and here it is…
And then there’s Bartholomew the apostle of Christ. He is said to have journeyed to India to convert people to Christianity but then came to grief in Armenia. There, he was executed by being skinned alive. Sometimes he’s also being crucified upside down at the same time. The depictions of him and his skin can be rather odd.
Exorcism has a long history in human society. The casting out of evil spirits. Rituals to remove demons that were destroying crops or bringing illness into communities. Even Jesus is reported to have done some exorcism in the bible.
Only recently I was reading of the terribly sad story of three children sacrificed by the Inca around the year 1500 to please their Gods. The community was worried about their harvest. So two girls and one boy were imprisoned in a cave and starved. We only know about this because their mummified bodies survived.
There is a reviving belief in exorcism in the US and Europe. The casting out of devils is coming back into vogue. It’s something our ancestors would have understood. Evil spirits were all around them waiting to make them sick, mad or even kill them.
HISTORY OF EXORCISM: Violent demons were expelled angels
Violent demons were believed to be extremely dangerous and their power was derived from the fact that they were originally angels – living in heaven. They rebelled against God and were cast out. They became ugly and hideous.
But they did not lose their power. Even when they fell from heaven, the power of their fall created the pit of hell. And forever, they are trying to escape from hell. Beneath the earth these demons are trying to grab at your soul while up above, angels are trying to guide you to God.
HISTORY OF EXORCISM: How demons entered your body
It was once believed that demons could enter your body as a vapour through any opening. That might be your open mouth for example. Chester girl Anne Millner was possessed in this way in the 16th century when she found herself surrounded by a white cloud. She had no doubt it was a physical entity and it entered in to her.
People in the Middle Ages truly believed that demons could turn in to everyday objects like food – there are accounts of people inadvertently admitting a demon by consuming an apple or even a lettuce leaf.
Bad case of food poisoning? Maybe. Very probably. But the resulting fevers and lack of medicine to help meant these sick folk appeared to be possessed.
HISTORY OF EXORCISM: How to get rid of a pesky demon?
So how to get rid of a demon? How to treat a ‘demoniac’? Well, an exorcism of course.
In 1585, Sarah Williams was subjected to an exorcism. Sarah truly believed herself to be possessed. She could not cross herself. She behaved strangely. Her verbal outpourings were taken to be the demon talking.
So, like a scene out of the Hollywood movie The Exorcist, she had holy water chucked at her and Sarah called her tormentors all sorts of unpleasant and profane words.
As there was no sign of improvement – the treatment became more intense. A cauldron stew of powdered root that smelt disgusting was held under nose and the smoke turned Sarah’s face black. Sure sign of possession!
The next step was to cram the bones of a dead saint in to Sarah’s mouth! And she was touched over and over again with a crucifix – particularly the extremities like the feet. And the rite of baptism and other prayers were chanted over her. After several months, Sarah was ‘cured’.
HISTORY OF EXORCISM: Some people rather liked demons
Not everybody wanted to get rid of demons – some people wanted to harness their power through necromancy…the conjuring up of spirits through spells. A crime punishable by death. Eleanor, Duchess of Gloucester (1400-1452), was an infamous necromancer.
She consulted two astrologers who predicted that King Henry VI of England would suffer a life threatening illness. For this she was forced to do penance while one of the astrologers was hung, drawn and quartered.
The Munich Handbook was hugely popular in the Middle Ages and gave detailed instructions on just how to summon up the spirits. One spell described how to turn a beautiful maiden in to a love slave.
This involved finding a white dove, bite in to it near its heart, draw with the blood using a quill from an eagle on a parchment made from a female dog on heat….no, I’m not making this up! The dove, by the way, was seen as being the symbol of Venus while the dog was the symbol of lust.
Having turned the maiden one is after in to a slave, the demon that has been summoned would create a replica human in the shape of the maiden who would return to her home and pretend to be her. So you could never be sure who was a real human being and who was a demon in disguise.
Aaaah…but fairies you say. They’re nice spirits aren’t they? Cute little things with pink wings. Well, not in the Middle Ages. The medieval mind had not heard of Peter Pan or Walt Disney. To them, fairies did not have gossamer wings – a Victorian invention – and were not necessarily small – a Shakespearian invention.
Fairies were human size – possibly inherited from the Roman idea of nymphs. They were only invisible when they wanted to be.
Fairies could kill you, ruin your crop and worst of all, abduct your child and replace it with a ‘changeling’. In medieval Britain, the belief in changelings led to women advising new mothers to surround the cradle with cold iron – like shears, which should be placed near the head.
Draw a chalk circle around the cradle and recite prayers as you did it. But even this didn’t guarantee a child’s safety.
Demon changelings – when evil spirits replaced family members
If the child inherited an abnormality – a fairy had probably taken its place. A child being deaf, not moving much or throwing violent tantrums – could very well be a fairy changeling.
A parent in the Middle Ages might do something odd to test the child. They would bake bread in an eggshell to see if the baby or toddler laughed – thereby proving it was an old knowledgeable fairy in a child’s body.
So if the baby was proven to be a changeling – what then?
Well, according to contemporary sources, babies were left exposed on a dung heap or placed near a fire and the terrified fairy would fly out of the body and it would be replaced by your real baby.
Unfortunately, babies did die. And as late as 1895, a man killed his wife in England because he believed his own wife to be a fairy changeling.
So, as you can see, exorcism has a long and violent history – which I rather hope will not return!
I’ve watched some terrible historical dramas on TV of late – awful scripting, casting and plotting. So, discovering the Spanish TV six part drama La Peste(The Plague) has given me hope for the genre!
La Peste transports you back in time!
Set in 16th century Spain, the action takes place in the city of Seville. Though now resolutely Catholic, the city still reveals traces of its previous Moorish, Muslim rulers. Casting a shadow over the lives of its inhabitants is the Inquisition. Otherwise known as the Holy Office, this arm of the Catholic church sets out to identify Protestants and to eliminate them.
Our hero, Mateo, has fallen foul of the heretic hunters but is given a chance to save his life if he can find out who is behind a series of grisly killings in Seville. He is accompanied in his investigations by the illegitimate son of a dead friend he swore to protect. But this street urchin, Valerio, has grown up in the truly ghastly slums of Seville and is a ruthless, emotionally stunted individual.
Spain at the time it was colonising the world
What I loved about La Peste was the way it conveyed the filth and degradation of Seville at a time when the Spanish empire encompassed much of Latin America, Europe and even had a foothold in Asia – the Philippines. The wealth of empire trickled upwards leaving most Spaniards living in bestial conditions.
La Peste uses CGI intelligently and effectively. We see some familiar landmarks that still exist today in Seville but set among shanty towns, shabby markets and tiny dwellings. The last episode ends with an auto-da-fe – a public burning of heretics. I’ll admit it was one of the most unpleasant scenes I’ve seen on TV for a long time but, very much in keeping with the atmosphere of the series.
I recommend! The YouTube video below shows the making of the last episode of La Peste – spoiler alert and some of you may find the scenes of the Inquisition punishing heretics upsetting.
I’ve been busy filming with the History channel in the Portuguese town of Tomar for a thrilling new documentary series about the Knights Templar. It’s called Buried: Knights Templar and the Holy Grailand is presented by Mikey Kay and Garth Baldwin.
This will accompany the new Templar drama Knightfall about to grace your TV screens.
Buried follows the Templar quest for the Holy Grail and I caught up with the team in Tomar, the headquarters of the Knights Templar in Portugal.
Tomar, in central Portugal, was on the frontier between the Christian crusader kingdoms of northern Spain and Portugal and the Islamic caliphate to the south. This is when cities like Lisbon, Seville and Cordoba were ruled by emirs. But slowly, the crusaders and Templars conquered the whole Iberian peninsula.
One Muslim army tried to storm Tomar and the cost of much blood, the Knights Templar held the city and pushed them back. One gate where a very vicious struggle took place between Knights Templar and Muslims is still called the Gate of Blood.
I’ve visited this town many times, dominated by its Templar fortress. It’s a hugely atmospheric and enigmatic place. Nowhere I’ve been to in the world captures the essence of the Templars like Tomar.
After the Knights Templar were crushed in 1307, the Portuguese simply rebranded them as the Order of Christ. And this is why we wondered in the programme whether Tomar could have been a safe haven for Templars worldwide? And could their treasure have been buried there?
Together with the team, we set out to unearth some Templar secrets and you can find out how we got on later in the autumn – or Fall for my American followers!
London has always had its interesting landmarks but none could be so ghoulish as its regular places of execution. They are not always easy to spot now but let me give you some ghoulish clues!
Up until the 19th century, there were certain places where you could be guaranteed to catch a hanging, burning or beheading – should you wish.
Unfortunately, many Londoners did wish – as it was viewed as a macabre form of entertainment. So – where would you have seen such a dreadful spectacle? Where are the places of execution in London?
Tyburn. If you were a commoner, then it was off to Tyburn to be hanged high in the air dancing at the end of a rope for a vast crowd. The location of the triple gallows that entertained so many Londoners was on what is now a traffic island at the intersection of Oxford Street and the Edgware Road. Oxford Street was called Tyburn Road up until the 1700s and the area was semi-rural, effectively the edge of London. This was probably the most popular place of execution in London.
Tower Hill. If you were an aristocrat, you could avoid the shame and humiliation of dangling at Tyburn by being beheaded on Tower Hill. Your end was swift provided the executioner was good at his job – and that wasn’t always guaranteed. But for an aristocrat, this was the place of execution for you in London – not the shame of the tree at Tyburn.
Lincoln’s Inn Fields. One of the lesser well known places of execution in London. Those conspiring against the life of the monarch might be dispatched at Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Such was the fate of Anthony Babington who plotted against Elizabeth I. Her day out was ruined however by his persistent screams of agony while being hanged, drawn and quartered. He made such a racket that the Queen decided just to behead everybody else involved in the conspiracy.
Smithfield. Now being heavily redeveloped, the meat market near Farringdon tube station once rang to the shrieks of Protestants being burned for their faith by Queen Mary Tudor aka “Bloody Mary”. The Catholic Queen was out to reverse the religious reforms of her father Henry VIII using the flames to consume those who had rejected the pope’s authority.
Execution Dock. Pirates breathed their last here – in a London location for execution deemed to suit their crime. They had lived by stealing on the waters – and so they would face their end by the river with the tide submerging their bodies. Captain Kidd was hanged at this location.
Banqueting House, Whitehall. King Charles I stepped from a first floor window and on to a wooden scaffold to lose his head. When his son Charles II became king, he hunted down those who had signed his father’s death warrant and had them executed a stone’s throw away at Charing Cross. The diarist Samuel Pepys, a bit of a royalist toady by then, wrote an inappropriately merry account of one of those hanging, drawing and quarterings.
Kennington. This was south London’s main place of execution. I’ve blogged before about two unfortunately gentlemen who were hanged for the crime of being gay. It surprises me that given the large LGBT population in the area, there is no monument to this injustice.
Stratford-le-Bow. Now I knew nothing about this London execution site until recently. But this is where Queen Mary Tudor burned another load of Protestants as part of her ongoing and ultimately unsuccessful attempts to turn Britain back to Catholicism. Thirteen men and women were burned in front of 20,000 people on 27 June 1556.
Shooters Hill Crossroads. Little bit further out of town towards Woolwich is where highwaymen were hanged. This was presumably to warn any wannabe Dick Turpins heading towards London that they would meet a grim fate.
St Thomas-a-Watering. Right next to the Thomas-a-Becket pub on the Old Kent Road, famous in the 20th century for playing host to gangsters and boxers, was the place of execution for a small group of Catholic friars in 1539. As with Marble Arch and Tyburn, you’re going to need to summon up those powers of imagination to picture the scene now.