CNA Staff, Apr 8, 2021 / 04:00 am America/Denver (CNA).
It’s a mystery that has puzzled researchers for almost 150 years. In 1878, a wooden box was discovered in an attic in the Welsh town of Holywell. It contained two skulls and a cluster of other bones, wrapped in a linen jacket.
Jan Graffius is the curator of the Stonyhurst Collections, an eye-popping assembly of Catholic martyrs’ relics at Stonyhurst College in Lancashire, northwest England. She believes that she has finally solved the conundrum.
“The starting point is you look at the evidence in front of you,” she told CNA in an interview. “So you have two skulls. One has a hole in the cranium, and many of the bones that are associated with the two skulls show evidence of having been cut with a sharp knife.”
“The immediate premise that you draw from that is that at least one of these two was dismembered after death and that one of the heads was stuck on a spike.”
Acknowledging that the details were “quite graphic,” she continued: “I examined the skull to see whether the hole in the top had been inflicted from the outside in or from the inside out. And the way the bone had been damaged indicated that the force had come from within the skull, within the cranium itself. It had also been pierced by something from inside, like a spike.”
“The clinching argument was that the coccyx [pictured above] — the bone at the base of the spine — had been severed very cleanly. And when you’re hanging, drawing, and quartering, the quartering is literal: you cut the body into pieces. And that indicates to me where you would normally expect the cuts to come from severing the legs from the body.”
A second identifying factor, Graffius said, was where the bones were found. They were uncovered in a house connected to the Jesuit order, where relics of English martyrs were previously discovered.
“So there was an association with an English martyr, or a Welsh martyr, and somebody with a Jesuit association,” she explained.
(Holywell is, in addition, home to St Winefride’s Well, the oldest continually visited pilgrimage site in Britain.)
Graffius said that another clue was that the two skulls were found together, suggesting that the two figures were closely associated.
She consulted Maurice Whitehead and Hannah Thomas, academic experts on the Welsh martyrs of the 16th and 17th centuries. That led to the breakthrough.
Philip Evans was playing tennis on July 21, 1679, when he heard that he would be executed the following day. He reportedly received the news in good spirits and asked permission to finish the game in the grounds of the prison where he was being held.
Evans was born around 34 years earlier in Monmouthshire, southeast Wales. He studied at the English Jesuit College at St Omer in Flanders, entering the Jesuits at the age of 20. In 1675, he returned to his homeland to serve as a missionary: a perilous enterprise following the Welsh Reformation.
Priest hunters tracked Evans down on Dec. 2, 1678. After weeks of solitary confinement at Cardiff Gaol, he was allowed to share a cell with another condemned man, John Lloyd.
Lloyd was older than Evans. Born in Brecon, mid-Wales, he trained for the Catholic priesthood in Valladolid, Spain. He came back to Wales in 1654, knowing that he risked his life by doing so.
Evans and Lloyd were condemned to death at the Spring Assizes in 1679. A jailer allowed them considerable freedom in their final months, with Evans playing the harp as well as engaging in racket sports.
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