Eight years ago I was at the Holy Sepulchre church in Jerusalem and queued to see the site where Jesus was crucified. This huge medieval place of worship encompasses both Calvary and the tomb of Jesus. Or so it’s been claimed since the time of the Emperor Constantine in the fourth century after Christ.
The Holy Sepulchre is divided between different Christian faiths – Catholic, Orthodox, Syriac, Ethiopians, etc. And they’re not beyond fighting each other in turf wars within the church walls. Anyway, back to the place where Christ was crucified. As I queued in 2012, some Russian nuns in front of me where in quite an ecstatic state as my video shows. Apologies for the quality of digital cameras in those days!
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.
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.