Was one of the Jamestown founders a secret Catholic?

This later Jamestown church sits about 100 feet from the original wood pole structure

Was one of the founders of the Church of England’s first permanent settlement in Virginia a secret Catholic? 

Earlier today archaeologists from Jamestown and the Smithsonian announced the discovery of four graves in what was the chancel of the original 1608 church at Jamestown.  In modern terms, the chancel is the area behind the altar in a church, so it's a pretty significant thing to be buried there.  As a rule, chancel burials are clergy and leadership.

There are a number of excellent write-ups on the discovery and the identification of the remains on the Jamestowne and Smithsonian websites.  I won't repeat the story here; the links below tell it better than me . . .

The Atlantic has an interesting interpretation of the findings

Smithsonian has a detailed explanation

Jamestown Rediscovery is the original source

Two of the burials are facing east, the direction clergy were traditionally buried. The other two burials face west.  One of the east-facing graves contains the remains of Robert Hunt, the first Anglican clergyman to land at Jamestown.   The second contains the remains of Gabriel Archer, one of the founders of the colony.  He was said to be Bartholomew Gosnold’s second-in-command.

Both men were buried between 1608 and 1610, just as the colony was getting established.  They are among the earliest English burials in America. At a time when most people were simply buried in the dirt, these men had elaborate caskets.  That, their burial dress, the objects they were interned with and their placement in the chancel tell us they were all men of great status in the colony.

I say "men" rather than "people" because in 1609 Jamestown was essentially a military outpost.  Women and children did not appear in significant numbers until later.  Archer wasn't married and had no children that we know of.

When Archer’s grave was uncovered, the archaeologists discovered what they believe to be a Catholic reliquary that once sat atop his casket.  The reliquary contains bone fragments and the remains of a small lead vessel.   It’s engraved with a letter M, and an arrow. 

Why was he buried in an Anglican church with a Catholic reliquary?  Was the person who put it atop his casket another Catholic? Or is there another explanation?  At this point, no one knows.  

All we can say for sure is that obedience to the Protestant Church of England was the law of the land in 1607, and Catholicism was underground throughout England during Archer's lifetime. 

Prior to this discovery historians knew Archer’s family in Essex, England was Catholic.  His parents were cited in 1583 for being Catholic recusants; failing to attend the now-mandatory Anglican services.  Until now, there was no definitiive evidence about whether Gabriel was Catholic or Anglican, though there were suggestions that he was at least a Catholic sympathizer which was fairly common in England in those days.  I'm sure this finding will lead to a re-examination of the written Archer records in England and perhaps new insights.

Archer studied the law in England and became the colony’s first Recorder.  He was wounded by natives during the original landing. Prior to his arrival at Jamestown, Gosnold and Archer sailed round and described the land we now know as Cape Cod, and they named Martha’s Vineyard for one of Gosnold’s daughters.

The Jamestown settlement was to a significant degree a business venture, but it was supported by the King in part as a way to keep the Catholic Spanish from moving north from their settlements in Florida.  There is little doubt that Robert Hunt – the Anglican clergyman who arrived with the first settlers – was charged with maintaining the Protestant purity of the colony.  How seriously he took that duty is lost to time.  Little is known of the relationship between Hunt and Archer.

Even though the Church of England was the faith of the land, a significant number of people still felt allegiance to the Catholic pope.  So it makes sense that some of the Jamestown settlers may have held such views. Over the past 20 years quite a few Catholic religious objects have been unearthed in and around Jamestown.  Until now they were mostly dismissed as trade objects, or objects without much significance. This most recent discovery casts them all in a new light.  Perhaps religious diversity came to Virginia earlier than we realized.

Maryland was settled a few decades later as a Catholic colony, but Catholicism is not really a part of the early Jamestown record.  This finding may well change that - it will be interesting to see what Catholic historians have to say.  Archer may become the earliest known Catholic burial in British America.

It’s interesting to ponder how that reliquary came to be atop the casket.  If it was placed there during the internment, was his Catholicism acknowledged?   Or was there a Protestant purpose ascribed to the object?  Some suggest that it was buried with him later, but the settlement was very small and rather densely populated. The idea that someone could secretly excavate a grave in the chancel of the church to place the reliquary later strikes me as unlikely.

My interest in this topic stems from family history.  One of my ancestors – Rowland Jones – was an Anglican priest who came to Virginia 60-some years after these men to serve in Bruton Parish, in what is now Williamsburg.  He's actually buried in the chancel of the original church there. For some time I have questioned the strictness of his Anglican views. His uncle and sister preceded him to Virginia, and they both died Quaker.  Did some of that thinking rub off on him? There are quite a few clergymen in my family tree.  While I don’t doubt their adherence to finding a good path, I do question their adherence to established religions.  In my experience, we’re a bunch of nonconformists and free thinkers.

In the records I have seen, religious dissidents like my ancestors came to America to escape persecution in England, and they promptly vanished into the interior of the new land.  The Quaker settlements, for example, were some distance from the "official colony."  Or at least that's how I've interpreted the old writings.  Maybe there was much more mixing, and Catholics, Quakers, and Anglicans lived together much as they do is present-day Virginia.

I've seen evidence of that in the historical records of Williamsburg in studying my own ancestors, but I did not know what to make of it. Today we'd say "Who cares what faith the guy who pumps my gas follows?"  Scholars say religion was a much bigger deal back then, but perhaps its importance was overstated, at least for the common person, or among people who were struggling mightily just to survive.

There is very little written about Catholics or Quakers in the history of Jamestown, but these new discoveries certain give pause for thought. 

John Elder Robison is the neurodiversity scholar in residence at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, VA.  The opinions expressed here are his own. 


Forsythia said…
I read this article in the Washington Post and am interested enough in the subject to read the article in THE ATLANTIC. Thanks for mentioning it.

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