Thursday, August 22, 2013

Of hands, heads and other bits and pieces

by Anna Belfrage

It is said that when Francisco Franco lay dying back in 1975, he had the desiccated hand of St Teresa right beside him on his pillow. No doubt the dying dictator was hoping Spain’s patron saint would guide him all the way to heaven – personally I have serious doubts as to whether he qualifies.

Franco was by his own reckoning a most devout person, motivated not only by power but also by a need to defend the Catholic church when he took up arms against the Spanish Republic. As an aside, the Republic did go overboard on several occasions vis-à-vis the religious organisations, but that is totally unrelated to this post – as is Franco, apart from him clutching St Teresa’s hand when he died.

This post, you see, is about the hands, the finger joints, the bits and pieces of various saints and martyrs that have travelled the world, carried from one dusty monastery to the other in the hope of bringing with them some part of the saintliness that imbued their original owner.

The reliquary containing St Teresa's hand
In the case of St Teresa, this remarkable woman was an anomaly. First of all, she was of Jewish descent. Her father was a converso and had been forced to wear the sambenito robes at every church in Toledo for seven consecutive Fridays while being pelted with refuse and verbally abused for being a doubtful Christian – and there are A LOT of churches in Toledo. Secondly, she was a woman, at a time when the religious authorities were very negatively inclined to women who attempted to study and interpret scripture or even worse, claim to have spiritual visitations from Christ. Thirdly, while Teresa was a nun, she was also a very attractive nun, a woman who didn’t think twice about utilising her feminine wiles to get what she wanted.

And still, despite these obvious drawbacks – I mean, a woman saying she was talking to God? Come on! After all, Spain had San Juan de la Cruz doing the chatting with Jesus, and the country didn’t need one more direct line to God, did it? – Teresa was recognised already in her own lifetime as being something very, very special. She levitated, she was overcome by visions, and she wrote inspired books about all these her experiences, books that were viewed with much suspicion by the Inquisition – so much, in fact, that Teresa herself was hauled before the Inquisition two years before her death.

Whatever the case, Teresa was obviously destined for great things after death, and no sooner had the poor woman expired, but people began squabbling over her remains. The nunnery where she died hastily buried the body, hoping to keep it. Down came Teresa’s confessor, ordered the grave opened, marvelled at her un-decayed flesh and… sliced off her left hand! (The one adorning Franco’s pillow, four centuries or so later)

The body was taken to Ávila, it was disinterred several times more as various parties squabbled over her final resting place, and at every such disinterment poor Teresa lost a part of her fantastically preserved remains. An arm ended up at the convent where she died, her jawbone and her right foot reside in Rome, part of her cheek is in Madrid, her heart is carefully preserved in a reliquary in Alba. There is a finger with a ring on it in Ávila, and other bodily parts now live in Brussels, México and Paris. Poor woman: come Resurrection, she will have a hard time collecting all her bits and pieces.

This is where it all becomes quite interesting. As per the Christian faith, the dead will rise again upon the Day of Resurrection; they will stand up intact from their graves and be returned to some sort of life. (Nowadays, Christian faiths don’t worry overmuch about an intact body – cremation is an accepted practise – but they definitely did back then!) I assume this only goes for the good ones, the ones deserving to live forever in Paradise, and reasonably this should include all the saints. Unfortunately, all the saints will have problems similar to St Teresa’s, namely that they won’t be able to locate all their parts – or even worse, they will locate too many parts.

Take Swithin of Winchester, for example. Now, this is a somewhat odd saint, as nothing really noteworthy was written about him until a century or so after his death, when he was chosen as patron saint of the new cathedral in Winchester. This brought about quite the Swithin revival, and suddenly this rather insignificant man was credited with miracles, with wisdom – and with saintliness. His bones were moved out of his original tomb to the new basilica, and people came from afar to pray at his tomb.

So far, Swithin had remained whole. His bodily remains were still rattling around in the same coffin, but this state of affairs was not to last. His head was sent off to Canterbury, an arm went to Peterborough, and bit by bit the poor man’s bones went on a reluctant walkabout.

Any church worth its name wanted a relic, something to entice the faithful to come and visit. In some cases, people went to great lengths to acquire such relics, like St Hugh of Lincoln, who reputedly bit off a piece of St Mary of Magdalene’s arm while visiting a convent in France. Sounds a bit too gruesome to be true, but undoubtedly this fascination with relics led to a rather brisk trade in them – and most of the finger bones, embalmed hearts, fragments of the True Cross, were forgeries.

In some cases, potential saints had their bodily parts separated from the rest of their bodies prior to death – or upon being executed. (After all, by severing someone’s head and hanging it on a pole for some years before dropping it to sink in the Thames, the authorities were symbolically ensuring that person would never make it through the Resurrection – denying the unfortunate the possibility of eternal life.)

Such a saint is St Oliver Plunkett, the last person to die as a Catholic martyr in England. Oliver Plunkett was the Archbishop of Armagh, an Irish Catholic who had the misfortune of being a contemporary with the extremely anti-Catholic fanatics that dominated English political life in the 1670’s.

England was unhappy with its Catholic queen, with its royal Catholic heir, James, Duke of York. Charles II’s brother had probably converted to Catholicism as early as 1669, but this change of faith only became public when the Test Act was introduced in 1673, whereupon any person wishing to hold office had to condemn certain practices within the Catholic Church as superstitious and idolatry. James refused, thereby making it known to all and sundry that he was no longer of the “right” faith.

To further add fuel to this infected fire, along came Titus Oates, a slimy character gifted with a very vivid imagination and a glib tongue. He “revealed” the infamous Popish plot whereby even the queen was accused of intending to murder her husband. It was all lies, but the lies were craftily constructed, and the people – Parliament especially – wanted to believe the Catholics were up to no good, and as a consequence more than twenty people lost their lives before Oates was revealed as being a perjurer.

As part of this Popish plot, Plunkett was accused of conspiring with the French, aiming to invade England. There was not a shred of evidence supporting this, but Plunkett was brought to England, placed on trial and convicted of treason – despite “everyone” knowing that he was innocent of anything but being Catholic.

He was hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn in 1681, originally buried in two (?) tin boxes, but his remains were exhumed in 1683 and his head was sent off to Rome, most of his body was buried in England while bits and pieces ended up in France, the Americas, Germany and Australia. The head has since then been returned to Ireland, and is now displayed in St Peter’s Church, Drogheda. Just like St Teresa, poor Oliver will have to do quite some globetrotting to find himself…

Nowadays, the Vatican takes a negative stance on relics – and especially on the trade in relics. For those wannabe saints that are presently living out their lives amongst us, all those who work so hard at being good, at being charitable and doing good deeds, this means that they need not worry that they will be chopped up after death.

No, modern day saints will be buried whole, they will remain in the ground whole, and whatever shrines are built in their names will instead include real time footage of miracles and speeches, no doubt available for download if you have the right app. Sadly, I think the biggest problem in this world of ours is that there are too few of us who aspire to saintliness. After all, being good to others is so “last year” in a society that more and more embraces the simplified cult of “ME”.


Anna Belfrage is the author of three published books, A Rip in the Veil , Like Chaff in the Wind and The Prodigal Son. The fourth book in The Graham Saga, A Newfound Land, will be published in the autumn of 2013. Set in seventeenth century Scotland and Virginia, the books tell the story of Matthew and Alex, two people who should never have met – not when she was born three hundred years after him. 


  1. It is one thing to have one's body parts distributed around the world, but surely even more confusing to be in several places at the same time. The church of Saint Leu and Saint Gilles in Paris claims to have the body of Saint Helena, but the cathedral of Trier claims to have her head. A monastery in Venice also claimed to have her (perfectly preserved) body, which was seen by Richard Torkington in 1517 - the last record sighting of it as far as I have been able to determine.

  2. All this talk and speculation about the whereabouts of body parts is fascinating. Of course it's big business...such a money spinner to have flocks on pilgrimage to a particular shrine. Your last comment made me think though...not about being's far too late for that....but it has prompted me to do a bit of voluntary work. Strange what reading an interesting blog post can do. Many thanks

  3. Very interesting post. In Europe I saw a lot of these kinds of relics. But it isn't just saints. There are a couple of places claiming to have Christopher Columbus's body. And when Albert Schweitzer died, his body was sent to England, but his heart was buried in Africa.

  4. dear Michele, I would argue Albert Schweitzer was very close to being a saint.
    Glad to have been an inspiration, Diana - and thanks for your kind words.
    As to St Helena, I think SHE knows which body is really hers :)

  5. Fantastic post! I enjoyed your humorous tone throughout, although it's alarming to think of all these people trading in body parts that are supposed to be relics.

    Like "dianamj", I especially appreciated your last comment. Personally I've been fortunate to encounter many inspirational and good people in my life, but I'm not sure that people growing up in today's climate are as fortunate.

  6. PS: I agree that Albert Schweitzer came close to sainthood. I think his heart being buried in Africa was by his own choice.

  7. Very funny! St. Oliver Plunkett is lucky that he wasn't buried in 5 boxes after being quartered and (presumably) beheaded.


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