Gruesome body of a saint on display!

The Catholic church has always enjoyed displaying the body of this and that saint – or parts of their body – for the reverence of pilgrims. Walking around London the other day – before the Coronavirus lockdown – I found one saint I’d not encountered before. His 17th century body is in pieces – for a grim reason!

Body of a 17th century saint on display in London

In the Catholic cathedral of Westminster in London I chanced upon the weirdest saint’s relic I’ve seen in a while. It’s the dismembered body of a 17th century saint who was executed in a very gruesome way then stitched back together again!

John Southworth (pictured above) was born in 1592 to what was described as a “recusant” Catholic family. That means a family paying fines in order to keep practising their Catholic faith, which was now no longer the religion of England.

Under the Tudor monarchs from Henry VIII to Elizabeth I, England had transformed from being a Roman Catholic country to adopting the new Protestant faith.

It had been a stormy period of change. The English monarchs had made themselves head of the church and overthrown the authority of the pope. Anybody still obeying Rome could face a traitor’s death.

Being a Catholic priest resulted in being branded or even executed. Undeterred, Southworth decided to become a priest and trained in France before returning to England.

The body of this saint ends up in four parts!

He faced spells of imprisonment over the years. Eventually, under the rule of Oliver Cromwell, Southworth was sentenced to death. This took the form of being hanged, drawn and quartered. To be more precise, his body was dragged through the streets. Then he was hanged but brought down while still alive.

Then his manhood was cut off, his intestines pulled out, his heart brought forth and finally, Southworth was chopped into four bits. The idea was that these dismembered body parts would be displayed in different places to warn others not to commit the same crime.

Spain acquires the body of this English saint

The Spanish Ambassador to London, a Catholic, bought the whole body – dismembered – for the princely sum of 40 guineas. He then had it embalmed and sewn back together. It ended up in a lead coffin at the English College in Douai, France where Southworth had trained to be a priest.

FIND OUT MORE: A story of heresy and murder in Spain

In the 1920s, as the college faced having to move because of a new housing development, it was decided to send the bones to the Catholic Cathedral at Westminster in London. This isn’t Westminster Abbey by the way.

That was originally a Catholic monastery in the Middle Ages but had become a Protestant abbey after the Tudors and the Reformation. The Catholic Cathedral was build in the 19th century and you can visit it near Victoria tube station.

If you do visit the cathedral, you’ll see the rather ghoulish spectacle of John Southworth’s dismembered body in a priest’s garment, gloves, shoes and a mask. Underneath all this is presumably a broken skeleton by now.

Princes in the Tower – Richard III the killer?

In the summer of 1483, two princes of the English royal family disappeared off the face of the earth. The boys had been put in the Tower of London for their safekeeping. But it turned into a jail and their unmarked grave for centuries.

That was until 1674 when workers dug up a wooden box with two smaller than average skeletons. Academics have requested DNA testing to be done on the bones but the Church of England has refused. Its curious argument is that if one set of bones are tested then this will lead to multiple royal exhumations where there are surrounding historical mysteries!

If the Princes in the Tower were murdered – why?

If indeed they were murdered, of course. Though the evidence seems pretty damning. And the culprit is assumed by most people to be Richard III.

As any lawyer will tell you – getting somebody convicted or alternatively off the hook is as much about the power of story telling as it is about the facts. Portray the accused as a monster and you’re on the way to getting them banged up.

In the court of public opinion, Richard III has always been suspected of killing the Princes in the Tower – who were his own young nephews. Richard’s brother – King Edward IV – had died in 1483. The crown should have gone to his 12-year-old son – also called Edward.

But England had just been ripped apart in the preceding years by a civil war. The House of York (emblem a white rose) and the House of Lancaster (emblem a red rose) had struggled to take the throne of England. The bloody civil war that wiped out a good part of the English aristocracy was termed The War of the Roses.

The Lancastrians had been overthrown by the Yorkists. The last Lancastrian king, Henry VI, had died in rather mysterious circumstances. Official the cause of ‘melancholy’. Unofficially, he was murdered. Henry had come to the throne as a child and never really grown into the role. So the idea of another child monarch wasn’t attractive.

But uncle Richard also wanted the throne for himself – pure and simple. In the way was 12-year-old Edward and his 9-year-old brother, also called Richard. And one also has to note their resourceful and ambitious mother, Elizabeth Woodville.

Now she was an interesting character. Not royal or even very aristocratic. The late king had married her in secret and his choice of wife had gone down like a lead balloon with the court. It didn’t help that her family were all Lancastrians. But she was also bereft of titles – not even a Countess or a Duchess. Just plain Elizabeth Woodville. That would never do!

However, she enjoyed a long marriage to King Edward and gave him many children including the two Princes. When Edward IV died, most like of typhus, aged 41 – the 12-year-old son Edward journeyed to London expecting to be crowned king.

But the future Richard III, his uncle, rushed down from the north of England and intercepted the boy’s royal procession towards London. He imprisoned a couple of key protectors of the prince and escorted the 12-year-old to the Tower of London…..for his ‘protection’.

Elizabeth Woodville knew what Richard’s game was – and rushed to Westminster Abbey with all her servants, treasury and the younger son, 9-year-old Richard. His uncle couldn’t let that state of affairs continue for long and now he made a beeline for the abbey. Elizabeth was forced to surrender her son to join Edward in the Tower of London also….for his ‘protection’.

And the uncle Richard delivered his coup-de-grace. He went to parliament and had the Princes in the Tower declared illegitimate. That argument was that the secret marriage to Elizabeth Woodville had never been legal in the eyes of the state or church. So now, the path was clear for uncle Richard to become King – and he was duly crowned.

As for the Princes in the Tower – they were seen playing in the precincts of the castle for a while before very suddenly vanishing. A contemporary account from an Italian diplomat is pretty damning, pointing the finger at king Richard III.

But Elizabeth Woodville would have the last laugh. One of her daughters married the future Henry VII – first of the Tudor dynasty. And it was Henry’s forces that defeated Richard III in battle at Bosworth and killed him.

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Under the Tudors, Richard III was completely vilified for his role as a child killer. Sir Thomas More, the famous chancellor to King Henry VIII, characterised Richard III as an evil character, both physically and morally deformed. This caricature was then taken up by William Shakespeare in his famous play.

It suited the Tudors – who had usurped the English throne – to portray Richard as a degenerate and murderer. And he does have supporters today – termed ‘Ricardians’ – who argue that he didn’t murder the Princes in the Tower. They feel this is Tudor propaganda designed solely to destroy his reputation.

Interesting, I have a history book from the 1920s that doesn’t mention the Princes in the Tower at all. And it portrays Richard III as a reforming king who passed many ‘beneficial laws’. But in all honesty – I find the case against him overwhelming.

Here I am perusing the book and an image of Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485 – where he died and his naked body was displayed slung across a mule.