Colour photograph of a tall ornate golden framed glass vial lying on its side. A piece of fabric with names in red stitching can be seen inside it. The top of the phial has a fancy ornate golden cap.

Corporal used by priests to say clandestine masses in the Tower of London

A corporal is a square of linen fabric placed on the altar during mass - it has been in use since the earliest days of the Christian church. Its purpose may be discovered from its name - corporal - from the Latin word for ‘body’. The use of linen was a reminder of the linen shroud which wrapped Christ’s body after his crucifixion.

In Campion’s day the consecration of the host from bread into the body of Christ took place directly on this piece of fabric, which gave the cloth a deep significance. After mass, the corporal was carefully folded so as to preserve any fragments of the consecrated host, which were then consumed by the priest.

This particular corporal has additional layers of meaning. It was used in the Tower of London by a number of Catholic priests to say clandestine masses. It may seem surprising, but many priests and Catholics imprisoned in the Tower, and other prisons, had a degree of freedom allowed to them by their gaolers, who were either sympathetic, or open to bribery, and some imprisoned Catholics were able to gather for quiet celebrations of mass. Indeed, it was said at the time, that  Catholics had more freedom of worship in the Tower of London than in their own homes.

Colour photograph showing close up the names in red stitching with each name surrounded by a red stitched box. The names are: Robertus Ionsonius, Alexander Brianus, Ioannes Shirtus and Thomas Cottamus.

Detail of the corporal relic

This corporal commemorates the names of five men who were executed for the crime of being a Catholic priest. It was obtained by a young English priest called Arthur Pitts, who arrived in England as a missionary in April 1581, was arrested in February 1582, and imprisoned in the Tower. Here he would have been able to say mass, using perhaps this very corporal. Four of the five priests whose names were later embroidered on the corporal were also held in the Tower at the time Pitts was imprisoned there.

Picture of a young bearded man, right hand raised, left hand holding a palm. Above his head, which has a yellow glow around it, an angel holds a plaque with IHS on it. Inscription: Thomas Cottamus.

Thomas Cottam SJ

They would undoubtedly have been known to each other, and Pitts was still in the Tower in May 1582 when Luke Kirby, Robert Johnson, John Shert and Thomas Cottam were hanged, drawn and quartered. He learned from these priests that the corporal had also been used by Alexander Briant, who had been executed on December 1st 1581 along with Edmund Campion.

Picture of a man being cut down from the hanging scaffold. Another man is having his intestines cut out. A man is cutting up a body. There are crowds of soldiers and some onlookers in the background.

The execution of some of the five martyrs

Pitts was fortunate enough to escape execution and was banished from England in 1585: he managed to smuggle the corporal out of the Tower with him and brought it to the English College in Rome, at that point under Jesuit management. There the corporal was recognised as a deeply significant relic of at least five martyred priests, whose names were embroidered as a memorial of the fact that they had celebrated mass on this very piece of fabric.

Page of handwritten notes with a sketch of the corporal laid flat and sketches of each of the four names as they appear on it.

John Morris' notes on the corporal

John Morris, the examiner of the cause of the martyrs, mentioned a tradition that this embroidery was commissioned by Pitts. A small label in red ink on the back of the corporal may be in the hand of Robert Southwell, who was Prefect of Studies at the English College in 1585. In 1586 Southwell left Rome for England and was martyred in 1595.