The next step along the road to the canonisation of the Forty Martyrs took place in 1895. The story involves one of the most renowned of the British Jesuit Province’s relics, known as the Holy Thorn, often called Mary Queen of Scots’ Thorn. It consists of a single spine from the Crown of Thorns, believed to be that of Christ. The thorn is entwined with freshwater pearls within a gold and enamelled reliquary from the late Elizabethan period, contained in a modern silver gilt and crystal cylinder.
The Crown of Thorns and many other relics of Christ’s crucifixion, were reputed to have been discovered by St Helena in fourth century Jerusalem. They were brought to Constantinople, where Helena’s son, Emperor Constantine, had converted to Christianity. The relics remained in Constantinople until The Fourth Crusade sacked the city in 1204. The renowned Byzantine Imperial collection of Passion Relics, the most valued in Christendom, was dispersed. In 1238 the Crown of Thorns was sold to Louis IX, King of France. It arrived in Paris in August 1242 to national rejoicing, and the exquisite Sainte Chapelle was built at enormous cost as a fitting outer reliquary for the treasures within.
Illumination from a prayer book owned by the French royal family
This beautiful illuminated page comes from a prayer book owned by a member of the French royal family from around 1500. The book celebrates the Crown of Thorns, as you can see in this image. The Crown of Thorns had remained in the hands of the French monarchy since the time of King Louis IX, who had bought it in 1238. Through the centuries the French royal family were much given to handing out thorns to valued political partners, or to seal important dynastic marriages.
Mary Queen of Scots
A gift of a one of these precious thorns was made to Mary, Queen of Scots on or after the occasion of her marriage to Francois, the oldest son of the King of France, in 1558. Mary’s later misfortunes after Francois’ death, on her return to Scotland as an eighteen year-old widow, are well known. In 1568, following armed rebellion from her government and defeat in battle, she fled Scotland seeking refuge in England and was taken to Carlisle Castle. She was described as a guest but was in fact a prisoner.
Learning of her arrival in Carlisle, Thomas Percy, the Catholic Earl of Northumberland gained entrance to the castle and demanded, unsuccessfully, that the Catholic Queen of Scots be handed into his custody. During the following twelve months, Percy was active in raising opposition to Elizabeth, with the intention of freeing Mary, placing her at the head of an army, and, ultimately, on Elizabeth’s throne. It seems reasonable to assume that Mary passed this most precious relic of the Passion to Percy at Carlisle, or in the months afterwards, as a pledge of her trust in him.
A piece of the linen shirt worn by Thomas Percy to his execution
Thomas Percy was born in 1528. When Thomas was eight years old his father was executed on the orders of Henry VIII for having taken a leading part in the Pilgrimage of Grace - a rebellion against the suppression of the monasteries and Henry VIII’s changes to traditional Catholic worship. Thomas and his younger brother Henry were removed from their mother's keeping until they came of age.
In the reign of the Catholic Queen, Mary Tudor, he regained his ancestral title and lands. When her half-sister Elizabeth became queen, he maintained his loyalty to the Crown while holding fast to his faith but the systematic persecution of Catholics made his position increasingly impossible. In the autumn of 1569, the Catholic gentry in the North, stirred up by rumours of the approaching excommunication of Elizabeth, plotted to liberate the imprisoned Mary, Queen of Scots, place her on Elizabeth’s throne and thereby obtain liberty of worship. Thomas Percy along with the Earl of Westmoreland wrote to the pope asking for advice, but before their letter reached Rome circumstances hurried them into action much against their better judgment.
After a brief initial success the rising failed, and Thomas fled to Scotland. There he was captured and, after three years in prison, sold to the English Government. In 1572 he was conducted to York and beheaded, having repeatedly refusing to save his life by abandoning his religion. This image shows a piece of the linen shirt he wore to his execution, and a tiny fragment of bone.
In 1895 Thomas Percy was beatified as a martyr.
But what happened to the thorn relic which Mary Queen of Scots had bestowed on him? After Thomas Percy’s execution it passed to his oldest daughter, Elizabeth, and how did it end up with the Jesuits?
Jesuit priest John Gerard pretended to have lost his hawk to avoid detection
The link between Elizabeth Percy, the thorn relic and the Jesuits, was John Gerard. He was a resourceful, fearless and quick-witted underground Jesuit missionary, who seemed to relish the challenge facing Catholic priests in the 16th and 17th centuries, living as hunted fugitives. Here he describes one of the ways he managed to move about unfamiliar parts of the country,
‘I had gone only a short distance when I saw some country folk coming towards me. Walking up to them I asked if they knew anything about a stray hawk; perhaps they had heard its bell tinkling as it was flying around. I wanted them to believe that I had lost my bird and was wandering about the countryside in search of it. This is what falconers do. And they would not be surprised because I was a stranger here and unfamiliar with the lanes and countryside; they would merely think that I had wandered here in my search.’
He was pursued relentlessly, and there was an enormous price on his head. On numerous occasions he was forced into ingeniously designed hiding holes built into wall panelling, below staircases and even in the drainage channels below the privies, or lavatories. He was eventually captured, imprisoned in the Tower of London where he endured repeated torture sessions on the rack. The description of his use of invisible ink and final thrilling escape from the Tower – one of the very few who have achieved this - makes for compelling reading. He survived in England for nearly eighteen years, finally escaping in the aftermath of the failed Gunpowder Plot.
On reaching sanctuary in Europe, his superiors instructed him to write his experiences down, for the benefit of future missionaries. And thus, he left for posterity a unique account of his extraordinary time in England. In this memoir, he also described how the thorn came into his hands in 1594.
‘At this time I was given some very remarkable relics, and my friends had them finely set for me. They included a complete thorn of the holy crown of Our Lord which Mary, Queen of Scots, had brought with her from France (where the whole crown is kept) and had given to the Earl of Northumberland, who was later martyred. While he lived, the Earl used to carry it round his neck in a golden cross, and when he came to be executed he gave it to his daughter, who gave it to me. It was enclosed in a gold case set with pearls.’
Mary Queen of Scots' thorn
On the base of the Elizabethan reliquary of the thorn is a Latin inscription which is translated as,
This thorn from the Crown of our Blessed Lord first owned by Mary, Queen of Scots, Martyr, and given by her to the Earl of Northumberland, Martyr, who in death gave it to his daughter, Elizabeth, who gave it to the Society; this gold reliquary was given by Jane Wiseman.
Thomas Percy’s daughter, Elizabeth, received the thorn in 1572 after her father was executed. John Gerard described her as a ‘pillar of the afflicted church’ and paid tribute to her untiring work supporting priests and the local Catholic population, many of whom were poor.
Jane Wiseman, also mentioned on the reliquary was another staunch protector of the Jesuits, and of Gerard in particular, who she housed between 1591 and 1594. She fasted for four days while Gerard was hiding from priest hunters in her house, to share his discomfort and test how long he could live without food.
Gerard’s memoir states that Jane Wiseman had a gold case set with pearls made for the thorn relic, and this can be seen here inside the outer glass case. There are no maker’s marks on the reliquary, but the likelihood is that it was made in London around 1590 by a trusted goldsmith, possibly of French or Flemish origin. It would have been a very dangerous commission indeed for an English goldsmith given the thorns’ significance not only as Catholic relics, but its association with two executed traitors, Mary Stuart in 1586 and Thomas Percy in 1572.