Ink drawing of a box with clear lid and front. There are two skulls in the box and various bones. There is fabric pinned to the back of the box

The Holywell bones, drawn by John Morris

Finally, a detective story.

In 1878 a discovery was made in an attic of the Jesuit priest’s house in Holywell. A wooden box containing two skulls, and a variety of other bones wrapped in an ancient linen jacket. One of the skulls had a large hole in the cranium. Some of the bones showed evident signs of having been cut with a sharp knife. This indicated that these bones related to two individuals who had been hanged, drawn and quartered, and whose bones had been hidden for safety, possibly for two centuries.

Fr Morris was invited to investigate and made this drawing. He speculated that they were martyrs because of the age of the bone and the fact that they had been hidden in a Jesuit house, but made no suggestion as to their identities.

So whose bones were they? And why were they kept together?

An engraving of a building set behind railings. Between the railings and the building is   rectangular pool. To its left is a church-like building obscured by trees. There is a group of three figures by a body of water at the bottom of the picture, two are seated while one stands and looks up to the main building

St Winefride's Well, Holywell

Let’s start with where the bones were found. Holywell. An extraordinary place still open today, St Winefride's Well in Holywell has been a place of pilgrimage and healing, inspiration for literature for over thirteen centuries. It is mentioned by name in the medieval poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. It is the only shrine in Britain with a continuous history of public pilgrimage for over one thousand years, continuing unbroken through the Reformation and the penal times for Catholics, who flocked to the well seeking physical and spiritual healing.

A square of material embroidered with floral motifs. In the centre, inside a circular wreath, is a seated white appearing woman gazing at Christ on the cross

Chalice veil dedicated to St Winefride, embroidered c 1650

According to tradition Winefride was the 7th century daughter of a Welsh chieftain. Her mother was Wenlo, a sister of St. Beuno and a member of a family closely connected with the kings of South Wales. Winefride’s hand was sought in marriage but her suitor, Caradog, was enraged when she refused him as she had decided to become a nun. In revenge, it is said that he attempted to rape her and then cut off her head. On the spot where the head hit the ground a miraculous spring appeared. Winefride's head was subsequently rejoined to her body by Saint Beuno, and she was restored to life. She became abbess at Gwytherin in Denbighshire and lived a saintly life until her death around 660 AD.

Photograph of turquoise water in star shaped stone well. Four vases of red flowers have been placed around the edge

St Winefride’s Well

St Winefride’s Well was built to contain the waters from this miraculous spring.  Records of cures claimed after bathing at the Well date back to the 12th century and continue to the present day; the shrine possesses a fine collection of wooden crutches discarded by the cured in former times. Kings Richard I, Henry V   and Edward IV all visited (the latter placed a pinch of earth taken from the Well upon his coronation crown). In 1490 Margaret Beaufort, the mother of Henry VII built the beautiful cloisters and the star shaped pool into which the water still gushes. The well also bears the arms of her daughter in law Katherine of Aragon who visited the shrine during her ill-fated marriage to Henry VIII. In 1686 James II and Queen Mary Beatrice came on pilgrimage to the Well, to pray for an heir, donating the shift in which Mary Queen of Scots was executed as an offering. The birth of the infant Prince of Wales, James, was regarded as being the result of this pilgrimage.

After the reformation it continued to thrive as a shrine, with pilgrimages openly held, and the Well’s statues and decorations left largely unmolested. Some of this is doubtless due to the considerable income the town received from a constant stream of pilgrims. Mostly the authorities turned a blind eye, and the Catholic priests who worked there were careful to keep a low profile.

There were two separate Catholic missions in Holywell. The secular priests based themselves at the Cross Keys Inn, while the Jesuits resided at the Star Inn. It may seem odd that groups of priests lived in public houses, but it was a successful example of hiding in plain sight. The Star Inn was built in 1640 by the Catholic George Petre as a pilgrim hostel. Frequented by numerous pilgrims, the constant stream of visitors made it easy to disguise the comings and goings of illicit Catholic priests. Protected by the commercial activities of the successful inn, the Jesuits were able to maintain a stable and successful mission in North Wales and Herefordshire for over one hundred and fifty years.

Relics are recorded to have passed through the hands of the Holywell Jesuits, notably the medieval bones of St Thomas of Hereford rescued from Hereford Cathedral, kept at Holywell in the 17th century and still held by the British Jesuit Province today. We have already heard about the relic of St Robert Southwell which were kept for a long time at Holywell, possibly from the 17th century. All the evidence indicates that Holywell was a safe hiding place for precious relics, including highly incriminating Catholic martyrs’ bones of the 16th and 17th centuries.

Two skulls and several pieces of bone laid out on a table

Skull and other bone relics

Let’s look at what the bones themselves can tell us. From the discolouration on the skulls it is evident that they have at one time been buried. They are stained by soil and are quite clean of any skin or tissue which suggests that they may have been under the ground for some time.

One of the skulls has a jagged hole in the top of the cranium. Examining the hole it is clear that this piercing has been effected from the inside of the skull using some force. This would be in keeping with the impalement of a severed head on a spike, as was common for those convicted of treason in the 16th and 17th centuries. Only men were treated in this way; the fate for women convicted of treason was burning alive. So, we know that at least one skull was that of a man.

The skull has been sheared off just below the eye sockets and the remainder of the cranium and the jawbone are missing. The conclusion of violent treatment of the severed head after death is inescapable.

Two skulls on a white background. One of the skulls has a hole in the top

The skull on the left shows signs of damage associated with impalement

The second skull is almost intact and has suffered no impalement. It appears to be the contemporary of the impaled skull, as the discolouration of the two is identical. The conclusion that they were buried together is inescapable.

The fact that these bones were preserved and hidden is strong evidence that they were important to the repressed Catholic minority. We have already seen instances where bones and other body parts were collected after execution, despite the considerable risks run by the Catholics who obtained and hid these relics. The conclusion is that these two, presumably both men, perhaps both martyrs, perhaps both priests, were connected in life and in death, and the relationship between the two was significant enough for their skulls and bones to be treated with equal respect is inescapable. Let’s look at the other bones to see if they bear out this thesis of ritual execution of the kind suffered by Catholic priests in the 17th century.

Two complete leg bones and two fragments of leg bones on a white background

Leg bones and evidence of cutting associated with dismemberment

The Holywell box contained three leg bones. Two form a complete leg from hip to ankle, and one has been cut with a knife just above the knee. It is not certain at this point whether they belonged to one individual or two. But the evidence of knife cutting indicates that the body, or bodies, was dismembered after death. This fits with the theory that the bones belonged to individuals who suffered the ritual form of execution known as hanging, drawing and quartering, the last stage of which was the literal quartering of the body, which cut the decapitated corpse into four parts.

There are plenty of examples which show that this quartering was sometimes taken further, and that the corpse was cut into smaller pieces. These leg bones also show evidence of burial in soil, and it is safe to assume that they came from the same individuals whose skulls were preserved along with them.

A close-up view of a coccyx bone

Coccyx relic with evidence of cutting

This violent dismembering is also evident in another bone from the Holywell relics. This is a coccyx, the bone at the base of the spine. It has been sheared through with a sharp blade, consistent with the quartering of the body after death.

A woman’s bodice with long sleeves. There are diamond-shaped cut-outs along the sleeves and scalloped edging to the cuffs, hem, and opening of the bodice
The back of a woman’s bodice with long sleeves. There is scalloped edging around the top of the sleeves, the cuffs, and the hem

Linen garment found wrapped around the bones

Morris records that the leg bones were found wrapped in a linen garment. It was described at the time as a child’s jacket. Recent research with costume historians indicates that it is, in fact a woman’s bodice. It is made from linen, not costly silk and has no expensively embroidered detail, or sequins or buttons, which indicates that it belonged to someone from a working background, rather than gentry or nobility. The linen is of good quality, and the scalloped edging marks it out as a festive, Sunday-wear piece of clothing. The diamond shaped hemmed gaps along the sleeves were designed so that the coloured sleeves of an underlying dress could be pulled through the gaps and puffed up as a decorative feature. Expert opinion indicates that it probably belonged to a woman from a well-to-do farming or shop-keeping background, or an upper servant.

The bodice dates to 1640 or thereabouts. 1640 was the year that the Star Inn was built as a pilgrim hotel and a behind-the-scenes secret Jesuit mission centre. It is feasible to speculate the bodice belonged to a trusted Catholic woman working front- of-house at the inn while doubling up as a secret housekeeper for the small number of Jesuits who occupied the upper rooms at the Star and kept themselves out of the public view.

There is no evidence of staining on the bodice from the bones, which indicates that the bones were already clean and dry by the time they were wrapped. It is reasonable to assume that the bones were buried secretly by Catholics shortly after execution, and then, some years later, when it was safe to do so, were moved to a secure Jesuit house. The risks involved in possession and moving such bones would suggest that they were not moved a great distance. On their clandestine arrival at the Star Inn, the bones were wrapped in an unused white linen bodice and then hidden away in a safe place in the attics. The choice of this garment suggests a degree of care and respect. White linen was the fabric used for centuries as shrouds for wrapping the dead. It was the cloth donated by Joseph of Arimathea to cover the body of the dead Christ. It would have been seen as an entirely appropriate covering for the bones of two men who were regarded as martyrs.