A Catholic Conspiracy at Jamestown?

Published:July 28, 2015 by Brendan Wolfe


It doesn’t look like much, does it? But this little silver box, now turned green with age, could change a lot of what we understand about early Jamestown.

According to the archaeologist James Horn, of the Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation, it was found next to the remains of Gabriel Archer, one of the colony’s first leaders, and has been identified as a Catholic reliquary.

The finding is a historical bombshell, unearthed in a grave on the site of what was once the first church built at Jamestown. Which means researchers may have just discovered proof of an underground community of Catholics—including Archer and perhaps the person who buried him with the relic—who pretended to be Protestants.

“The first settlers there were mostly members of the Church of England,” said James O’Toole, a history professor at Boston College who focuses on the roots of American Catholicism. “While they didn’t have the same active hostility to Catholics that the slightly later Puritan colonists in New England did, they were not particularly welcoming to Catholics. If there were Catholics in Tidewater Virginia … that would be news.”

Not particularly welcoming would be an understatement, I think. This was not purely a question of religion, after all, but of international relations. England and the Church of England were, in the figure of the monarch, one. And the great enemy of England—even if James I had tried to cool things off a bit—was Catholic Spain. The founding of Jamestown, in fact, can best be understood in the context of England’s rivalry with Spain over control of America and her riches, real and potential.

Colonists were executed in early Jamestown (a man named Kendall, for one) not for being Catholics exactly but for being Spanish spies. Although the English colonists might have found such distinctions to have been beside the point.

This, then, is why a little silver box is such a big deal.

Gabriel Archer was a major antagonist of John Smith and his leadership of the colony. (Archer was on the council when the body sentenced Smith to hang for the offense of having been caught in a deadly Indian ambush.) Could there have been more going on than merely two men who intensely disliked one another?

“Gabriel Archer was a prime character, an eminent leader in this early period,” Horn told me. “He was taking on Smith, he’s involved in bringing down the first president [of the colony], he’s really at the heart of intrigue. I think historians have always considered that his motives were primarily personal, trying to elevate his own position. But was there something more going on? Was he trying to destabilize the colony’s leadership from within?”

This idea is stunning for a couple of reasons, the most important of which is that Jamestown was fundamentally anti-Catholic. “This was a big ambition here on the part of the English,” Horn said. “Jamestown is not meant to be a fairly minor enterprise. It’s meant to be the beachhead for an English empire in America that will serve as a bulwark against Catholicism. That’s a lot of freight for this little object to carry.”

Of course, if you read further down into what is a really interesting article, you’ll get to this:

But there’s still a nagging question in all this: What if the box wasn’t a Catholic relic at all? Such symbols have histories that are, at times, “messy,” Horn acknowledged.

So don’t go rewriting your histories quite yet!

IMAGE: Silver reliquary and fragments of coffin found in the grave of Gabriel Archer (Atlantic / Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation / Preservation Virginia)