Embroidered chest sitting on a wooden floor with a glass panel on the side revealing a bone

Elaborately embroidered reliquary containing a relic of one of the Durham Martyrs

A further group of martyrs was beatified in 1987.

This elaborately beaded box was probably made around 1590. The silk on the outside has faded from its original dark pink, but the floral decoration, made from variously shaped glass beads, is as bright as when new. The flowers - pansies, white roses, honeysuckle and lilies - are symbols of purity and martyrdom which provides a clue as to the purpose of the box, and its contents. The front of the box contains a sheet of thin glass, and above it is embroidered a Latin quote from Psalm 34 verse 20, which translates as ‘The Lord keeps all of their bones, not one of them is broken’. The beaded inscription also refers to the 21st verse of Psalm 33, which says ‘in him our hearts rejoice for we trust in his holy name.’ This is a coded reference to the Jesuit order, for whom the holy name of Jesus was the foundation of their spirituality.

Embroidered chest with a glass panel on the side revealing a human shoulder blade and upper arm bone

The glass frontage of the reliquary reveals a shoulder blade and upper arm

The glass frontage reveals a grisly sight. A human shoulder blade and upper arm still with shreds of tissue and dried skin attached, and a single vertebra, or backbone. Before the Reformation, reliquaries were usually made from precious metals set with jewels, with their contents concealed from view. They were often made in the shape of the bones they contained, such as a golden arm, or gem studded head. The council of the Catholic Church which met at Trent in the mid to late 16th century to clarify and confirm church teaching emphasised the crucial need for accuracy and honesty in recording the provenance and validity of relics, so as to avoid fraud and scandal enacted upon the faithful. One of the recommendations was that relics should be clearly visible, hence the glass front on this box.

The interior of a chest lined with pink fabric. There is a human shoulder blade attached to an upper arm bone inside

The bone sits on a pink quilted lining

The lid opens to reveal a pink lining quilted with black spangles and blue beads. The lining has been stained, indicating that the bone was probably placed in the box soon after execution, before it had dried out.

Usually reliquaries were closed with wax, embossed with the seal of a bishop or cardinal, to verify their authenticity. In Elizabethan England such things were not possible, as relics had to be gathered in secret, and smuggled away to safety, often overseas, where evidence was gathered after the execution, and names of those involved in the chain of possession of relics were recorded to provide as much proof as possible that it was a genuine relic.

This beaded box was first officially recorded at St Omers Jesuit college in a document signed in 1666 by Fr Thomas Cary, the Jesuit in charge of the college sodality. The sodality was a voluntary group of pupils who met regularly for prayer and devotion. Their avowed aim was to return their native land to Catholicism, and for this reason relics of recent martyrs were particularly honoured and displayed prominently in the sodality chapel.

On June 4th 1666 Father Thomas Cary recorded the presence of the beaded box in the St Omers sodality.  Drawing on contemporary statements, he identified the martyrs’ bones contained as belonging to one of four young men who had been executed in Durham in 1590.

‘we have some sacred relics which we keep as decently as we can in the sacristy of our sodality where there is also fixed a catalogue of them…Mr Edmund Duke who suffered at Durham there were put to death with him three others viz Mr Richard Halliday, Mr John Hogg and Mr Richard Hill and of one of these four we have an arm which we keep as a most precious treasure, yet we know not to which of them it belongeth, after their execution their quarters being mingled and confounded together…. Many yet at Durham and thereabouts remember the martyrdome of these and to this day speak of them with great feeling…the quarters of all four were promiscuously thrown into a cart brought through the city of Durham and hung up on the several gates of the same and upon the bridges and castles so it could not be distinguished which were which, yet divers of these relics were stolen away by Catholicks by which this relic came to the hands of that devout family from which I had it.’

Cary identified the Catholic who received the relic as ‘Sir Robert Hudson who married Fr John Foster’s sister whence I had it’, thus providing as authentic a chain of provenance as was possible in the circumstances.

We know little about the four young men listed by Fr Cary.

Richard Halliday, John Hogg and Richard Hill were all Yorkshiremen who were ordained at Douai in France in September 1589. Edmund Duke came from Kent and studied at the seminary at Rheims- he was around 25 at the time, and it is likely that the other three were of similar age or a little younger. They met in March 1590 and set off for England as undercover missionary priests. There are differing accounts of their arrest- either they were seized on landing on the north east coast, or shortly afterwards. These four recently arrived young men, one of them with a southern accent, must have stood out prominently. They were taken to Durham Gaol and tried. With extraordinary speed they were condemned to death. On May 27th 1590, less than three months after their arrival in England,  all four were hanged drawn and quartered. Their bodies, unusually, were given the decency of a named burial place, which can still be seen, at St Oswalds in Durham.