Downside Abbey, Somerset, England
Saint Oliver and the Benedictine Order
The Benedictine order holds a special place of honour in the story of St. Oliver Plunkett. While in Newgate prison in London, St. Oliver befriended an English Benedictine monk, Fr. Maurus Corker, who proved very helpful to him, becoming in effect his 'anam chara' or faith friend. Fr. Corker provided St. Oliver with Mass requisites and he also heard St. Oliver's confession before his death. Undoubtedly, the martyr's most revealing letters about himself were the ones he penned at this time from his prison cell. Amongst these were letters and notes to Fr. Corker, each of which display a deep spirituality. These are all well preserved and among the cherished possessions of the Benedictine Community at Downside Abbey. It is often said that Fr. Corker possibly enrolled St. Oliver as a Confrater of the Benedictine order. Indeed another Benedictine priest imprisoned with St. Oliver at this time, Fr. Cuthbert Wall, alias Mr Marshall, lent St. Oliver a 'shift' to wear on his way to Tyburn. This garb may well have been a form of habit or scapular to represent the Benedictine order. In any event, St. Oliver saw himself as coming under the obedience of Fr. Corker, who was President of the English Benedictines at the time. St. Oliver left all decisions in his hands, i.e. how the barber would attend to him, whether or not to have a fortifying drink on the day of execution, the drafting of his final speech and finally he left his clothes, possessions and his body to be at Fr. Corker's 'will and pleasure'.
After his martyrdom at Tyburn, St. Oliver's remains, minus the head and forearms were buried in a London churchyard. Fr. Corker had the remains exhumed some two years later in 1683, whereupon they were smuggled to Lamspringe in Lower Saxony, Germany and interred with great ceremony in the crypt of the local Benedictine monastery. The new Abbey Church was almost completed by this time and Fr. Corker became abbot of this monastery some seven years later. It is believed that it was via Lamspringe that Fr. Corker would have brought the Relic of the Head of St. Oliver to Rome; giving it to Oliver's old Dominican friend and correspondent, the Cardinal of Norfolk, formerly Fr. Philip Howard who had hidden Archbishop Oliver in St. James's Palace in London some fifteen years earlier.
For several centuries, Oliver Plunkett, Archbishop and Martyr, was almost completely forgotten about in these islands as a result of the harsh penal laws and the difficult famine times. Lamspringe and the Benedictines order never forgot however, and along with Siena Convent, Drogheda and the Irish College in Rome, St. Oliver's memory has been faithfully venerated in these locations right down to the present day.
Exactly two hundred years after receiving St. Oliver's remains at Lamspringe it was finally thought opportune and safe to bring them to the Benedictine Abbey at Downside, Somerset, England in 1881. This community continue to faithfully venerate the martyr saint in a major shrine dedicated in his honour. Around the time of the St. Oliver's canonisation in 1975, Downside Abbey generously gave gifts of major relics to the Shrine in Drogheda, Oldcastle Parish Church, Dromore Cathedral and some other locations also benefited with gifts of relics at this time.
A great debt of gratitude is certainly owed to the Benedictine community and to the people of Lamspringe in Germany for the faithful way they venerated and kept alive the memory of St. Oliver down through the centuries. Centuries, which were very difficult ones for the Irish people as they continued to struggle and scrape for bare survival, in both body and in soul.
The annual Mass and ceremony in honour of St. Oliver is held in Downside Abbey on the Feast of St. Oliver, 1st July each year.
Trial and Execution - Tyburn, London
Archbishop Oliver who had secretly visited his cousin and tutor of old, Bishop Patrick Plunkett before his death in Dublin, was arrested on 6th December, 1679 and jailed in Dublin Castle. He was accused, on false evidence, of plotting against the King of England and planning to bring a French force into Carlingford harbour. Archbishop Oliver was brought to Dundalk for trial on 23rd July and although not allowed any defence counsel, he raised no objection to the all-Protestant jury, knowing that he himself was well known and respected there. Lord Shaftesbury and others in London, then decided to bring Archbishop Plunkett to London to face trial, knowing that there was probably not a jury in Ireland which would convict him, irrespective of its makeup. They also knew that as a result of the hysteria and wild reports of Catholic plots in England, a rigged jury in London would not be overly concerned with the true character of any of those involved.
Brought over to Newgate prison in October, Archbishop Oliver was placed in strict solitary confinement to spend a second harsh winter in jail. Despite his pain, as he suffered from several ailments, he spoke to no one except his jailors and they became impressed by his fasting, constant prayer and inherent good humour.
On the day of the trial, Oliver who was again not allowed any defence counsel, disputed the right of the court to try him in England and he also drew attention to the criminal past of the witnesses. The Lord Chief Justice replied: "Look you Mr. Plunkett, do not waste your time by talking about these things…The bottom of your treason, which is treason of the highest order, was the setting up of your false religion and there is nothing more displeasing to God than it". The jury retired to consider the charge of high treason and returned within fifteen minutes with a guilty verdict. Archbishop Oliver, knowing the horrible punishment for treason, was to be hung, drawn and quartered and realising that he was to be martyred for his faith, simply replied to the court: "Deo Gratias" or God be thanked. The Lord Chief Justice pronounced sentence: "You shall be drawn through the City of London to Tyburn, there you shall be hanged by the neck but cut down before you are dead, your bowels shall be taken out and burnt before your face, your head shall be cut off and your body be divided into four quarters." Oliver addressed the court and said that he could easily have gained his freedom, as he had already been offered it, if he would confess his guilt and condemn others, adding that he would rather die ten thousand deaths than wrongfully take a farthing of any man's goods, one day of his freedom or a minute of his life.
On the 1st July 1681, he was dragged on a sledge from Newgate prison, before a noisy crowd, a distance of three kilometers to Tyburn. The keeper of Newgate when asked how the prisoner was, replied that he had slept soundly and that he was as unconcerned as if he was going to a wedding. From the three cornered gallows at Tyburn, Archbishop Oliver in a prepared speech, refuted his accusers point by point and forgave all of them, including the judges, and those who had given evidence against him at the trial: "I beg of my Saviour to grant them true repentance, I do forgive them with all my heart."
Oliver's theme of reconciliation continued, by his asking forgiveness of all those whom he had ever offended by thought, word or deed. He prayed: "I beseech your Divine Majesty by the merits of Christ and the intercession of his Blessed Mother and all the holy angels and saints to forgive me my sins and to grant my soul eternal rest."
Kneeling he recited an act of contrition, the Miserere psalm and he repeated before his death, the prayer of Jesus on the cross: "Into Thy hands, O Lord, I commend my Spirit". St. Oliver worked tirelessly as Archbishop for ten years, paying the ultimate price of martyrdom without seeing the fruits of his labours, and his crowning glory was the manner of his death, humble, heroic and holy. Several priests were close by and they blessed and absolved him at the point of his death. He may have been already dead when he was taken down and the further mutilation began. A fire had been prepared to consume his remains, his head was thrown into it, but it was quickly recovered and scorch marks may still be discerned on the left cheek. His demeanour and his speech from the scaffold were well received and it was patently obvious to many that he was innocent, as the plot had already shown signs of crumbling.
In the previous few years many blameless individuals had been hanged at Tyburn, mostly priests and none had tried to gain their freedom by pleading guilty or condemning others and this had exposed a weakness in the plot. Oliver's trial, conviction and his eventual martyrdom on 1st. July 1681, was such an outrageous episode, that it greatly discredited those who brought it about and the credibility of the plot and of its advocates, collapsed completely thereafter. Lord Shaftesbury the principal promoter of the plot was arrested and imprisoned on the following day and Titus Oates would soon be imprisoned on a charge of perjury. As a result, St. Oliver became the very last of the one hundred and five Catholic martyrs of Tyburn who had given their lives over the previous one hundred and fifty years.
Westminster Cathedral and the Archives of the Archdiocese possess Relics, Letters and other memorabilia of St. Oliver Plunkett. The Cathedral has a Bone Relic in its treasury which is contained in a glass phial. St. Oliver has been adopted as Patron for Peace and Reconciliation in Ireland and Catholics in England must also have acknowledged this role as the containing reliquary in the Cathedral is inscribed: ‘From Irish English clients of Blessed Oliver in the year of Truce 1921.’ The large mosaic of St. Oliver is mounted on the wall outside St. Patrick’s Chapel. Beautifully crafted, it is by Boris Anrap and dates from 1924, barely four years after Oliver Plunkett’s beatification.
Six letters are kept in the nearby diocesan archives and are relics in their own right, written in St. Oliver’s own hand. All six are addressed to Captain Pulton an alias for Fr. Pulton, a member of the old chapter, a committee of priests who helped to organise the Church in England, at a time when there were no Catholic bishops. Three letters are written from just outside London, one from Chester as Archbishop Oliver travelled home to Ireland and two from Dublin. Oliver uses the alias William Browne in three of these letters. Upon his return to Ireland as Archbishop of Armagh, he travelled in disguised for some months as Captain William Browne, writing: “with my sword, my wig and my pistols.” In all probability it was Fr. Pulton, an old army man himself, who sowed the idea and provided the captain’s disguise and all its trappings for Archbishop Oliver.
St. Oliver and London
Shortly after his episcopal ordination in Ghent, while on his way home to Ireland from Rome, Archbishop Oliver arrived in London on 13th December 1669. He stayed for several weeks incognito in the Royal Palace of St. James, under the protection of Fr. Philip Howard, Grand Almoner to Queen Catherine who was a Catholic. The following day he met Queen Catherine. Fr. Howard (later Cardinal Howard) brought Oliver in his carriage to see the sights of London. Undoubtedly they witnessed the after-effects of the great fire of London, which had occurred barely three years earlier in 1666 and of the rebuilding work which was ongoing at the time. During the hysteria of the Popish Plot some nine years later, Catholics would again be accused of starting the fire. Indeed a monument was erected to commemorate the event and a plaque blaming the Catholics for the fire was placed on it in 1681, where it would remain for almost two hundred years.
Waiting for the harsh winter weather to pass which prevented Oliver’s journey home to Ireland, he went to stay near London with a family by the name of Slaughter and he reported that the walks were good and solitary. In the series of letters held in Westminster archives, he expresses his thanks to many Catholic families and priests; the Arthur’s, Slaughters, Mister’s Blunt, Warren, Lambert, Deane, Sergeant & Godden. The winter was exceedingly cold and he reported that the wine in his chalice had frozen around this time. He finally left England on 6th March 1670n.s. and would not return until 1680, when he was imprisoned on October 29th of that year under strict solitary confinement in Newgate Prison, London. There he remained in strict solitary confinement until his trial the following May. Although the prison regime was harsh, he fasted three or four days a week and always appeared in good humour to the jailors despite his various illnesses. After his conviction and sentencing he was allowed the free access of visitors for the last sixteen days of his life. The endless stream of visitors including children was so great, that it left Oliver desiring just one full day to recollect himself before death. Even some Protestants came to visit him and it is recorded that along with everyone else, they were impressed by his apparent holiness. It was no wonder that he had so many visitors, Catholic bishops were actually extinct in England and quite miraculously, here was an archbishop readily accessible, right in the heart of London, which was a Catholic free zone during the frenzied times of the ‘popish plot’. Many, who already saw him as a martyr for the faith, came on account of this to visit him and to receive a bishop and a martyr’s blessing. It was truly an amazing scene and a blessing from heaven and it is commonly believed that he confirmed at this time. Some eleven years earlier on his way home to Ireland as the newly consecrated Archbishop of Armagh, Oliver undoubtedly confirmed during the three months that he spent in England. It is highly likely then, that Archbishop Oliver’s first and last exercises as a bishop were performed in the London area. After his martyrdom at Tyburn, where he had been hung drawn and quartered, his body was buried in St. Giles in the Fields, London, but was exhumed some two years later. For further information on the Relics of St. Oliver, please refer to the section on Arundel.
The Poor Clare Convent in Arundel, West Sussex are custodians of the left upper arm relic of St. Oliver. It is believed that the relic was exhumed with St. Oliver’s Body early in 1684n.s. and may have been given into the care of Mrs. Elizabeth Sheldon, a prominent Catholic who was helpful to St. Oliver and his friend Dom Maurus Corker while they were in Newgate Prison. Upon the accession of King William of Orange, she and her husband went into exile and it is believed that the relic was left with the Monington family at this time, who lived at Sarnesfield in Herefordshire.
In 1857, the relic was given to the Franciscan Sisters then living in Taunton. This community later moved to Goodings, near Newbury before amalgamating in 1972 with the enclosed order of Poor Clare’s at Arundel. This convent is also in possession of several other St. Oliver relics, a small piece of back bone and several pieces of blood soaked cloth. The convent also received the blood stained cloths in 1857 from the Moninton family, and they were accompanied by a document which reads: “The blood of Bishop Plunkett taken, when his quarters were brought from Tyburn.” The present timber and glass reliquary was made about the time of the beatification in 1920.