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Roman Catholic martyr's bones could have links with Chester

Bishop appeals for research funding to investigate what could be St John Plessington's bones

Part of skeleton which could be martyred priest

A Roman Catholic bishop is appealing for funds for research into parts of the skeleton of a martyred priest.

St John Plessington, canonised in 1970 by Pope Paul VI as one of the 40 Martyrs of England and Wales, was taken at the home of William Massey at Puddington Hall near Burton where he was tutor to the Massey children and a Catholic priest.

Tried at Chester and convicted of high treason for the crime of being in the priesthood, he was hanged, drawn and quartered on the outskirts of the city overlooking the River Dee on July 19, 1679.

The bones were first discovered in the late 19th century hidden in a pub next to St Winefride’s Well in Flintshire which doubled as the headquarters of Jesuit missionaries working in the area.

St Winefride's Well, Holywell(Image: Ian Cooper)

They were taken to a nearby Jesuit retreat house where they were venerated in the sacristy as the relics of an ‘anonymous martyr’.

Recently they have been returned to Holywell where custodians invited a team of forensic specialists from Edinburgh University to examine them.

The scientists have concluded they are the skull and the intact right leg of priest who was hanged, drawn and quartered, probably in the late 17th century.

The spot where the priest was hanged, drawn and quartered
 

The injuries include a hole in the top of the skull inflicted from the inside when a pike was pushed through the head.

The bones were also found in a garment dating from the period of the fabricated Popish Plot of Titus Oates which also resulted in St John dying as a martyr in Chester.

His execution followed bloody Elizabethan statutes that made being a priest an offence of high treason. These were enforced during the hysteria incited by Titus Oates.

St John studied for the priesthood in Spain and returned to England in 1663 basing himself largely at Puddington Hall where he laboured without harassment for more than decade. He was buried in the churchyard of St Nicholas’s, Burton after Puddington locals would not allow his quarters to be displayed.

Attempts to locate and exhume his body as recently as 1962 were unsuccessful but vestments associated with him are kept at St Winefride’s in Neston.

Shrewsbury Diocese believes the circumstantial evidence pointing to the likelihood that the bones are those of St John is ‘overwhelming’ but DNA from the remains needs to be matched to DNA from other relics of the saint to prove that they are his.

Bishop Mark Davies is now inviting donors to come forward to help to pay for the work which will require a sum of at least four figures because it would have to be undertaken by a research unit specialising in ancient DNA.

The bishop told the autumn 2015 edition of the Shrewsbury Catholic Voice magazine: “By his faithfulness to the point of death, St John Plessington stands out as the great witness to the priestly life and mission in Shrewsbury Diocese. As one of England’s 40 martyrs he points to the long continuity of our Catholic faith and our unswerving loyalty to the See of Peter.

“If funds could be found to identify and authenticate his relics it would allow our connection to his heroic ministry and martyrdom to become visible and tangible in a new way for generations to come.”

Anyone who might be able to help to pay towards the research should contact pauline.mcculloch@dioceseofshrewsbury.org.

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