"A born writer, especially a born story-teller. Dr. Sutherland, who is distinguished in medicine, is an amateur in the sense that he only writes when he has nothing better to do. But when he does, it could hardly be done better." G.K. Chesterton.
This is the part two of the blog post that relates to Saint John Southworth.
Again the scene and time is changed. On a wet and windy day, 14th December 1929, in an upper room of St. Edmund’s College, Ware, Hertford, a small group gathered round a wooden case sealed with the arms of Douay. By permission of the Governments of France and Britain the body of John Southworth was on its way home. There was I bishop, a vice-postulator, a sub-promoter of the Faith, a notary, two doctors, and two clerics to witness the proceedings. The bishop was Bishop Butt, and the two doctors were Mr. Ernest Ware and myself. We doctors were present because in Rome on the following day at noon John Southworth would be beatified. From that moment he would be called Blessed, and his remains would become the property of the Holy See. For that reason Rome required an accurate anatomical description of the body to be given by two doctors, each independently of the other.
The vice-postulator testified on oath as to the finding of the body, that the sealed case contained the remains of John Southworth, and that a portion of lead coffin exhibited by the bishop was part of the coffin he had seen at Douay in 1927 before its contents were sent to Lille. And then, before the seals of Douay were broken, the bishop to my astonishment passed sentence of conditional excommunication on everyone present, in these words:
“I pronounce upon all you now present, irrespective of your titles or dignities, sentence of excommunication if any one of you shall now, or at any time, remove relics from this the body of John Southworth, except by permission of the Holy See and in accordance with the Canon Law; and if any one of you shall act otherwise he shall ipso facto place himself under that extreme form of excommunication always reserved by the Holy See unto itself.”
Thus in the Middle Ages did the Holy See seek to stamp out the trade in relics. No one may sell relics, and for nil genuine relics a certificate is issued, in accordance with Canon Law. There are collectors to-day who buy stolen paintings, and there were Catholics who would buy stolen relics. There was also a trade in spurious relics.
Thereafter the bishop broke the seals of Douay and the wooden case was placed on a bier. Led by the bishop, this was carried in procession downstairs and along the ground-floor corridor. Immediately behind the bier were my colleague and I, and behind us walked the two clerical witnesses. All the clergy wore vestments and chanted Psalms in Latin. Ernest Ware had the forethought to provide suitable attire for both of us, and our white surgical gowns and caps did not destroy the harmony of colour in the procession as plain morning dress might have done. He is taller than I, and had the kindness to provide me with a shorter surgical gown than his own. Otherwise I might have tripped and fallen. Everyone in the procession carried a lighted candle. That part of the College through which we passed was locked and closed to all except ourselves, but from outside through the windows of the long corridor peered professors, teachers, theological students and schoolboys. Assuredly they were watching a unique procession such as none of them was ever likely to see again. It was a solemn moment when Ernest Ware spoke:
“Sutherland! Do you know what you look like?”
“I suppose I look like a surgeon.”
“No, you look like a chef from Simpson’s in the Strand.”
I laughed. Thus do some minds, including my own, sometimes react on solemn occasions.
In a room adjoining the chapel the lid of the wooden case was unscrewed, and my colleague and I lifted the body on to a table covered by a white linen cloth. Ernest Ware then left the room, and I knelt on a crimson cushion to answer questions from the bishop on his throne:
“What is your name?”
“What is your father’s name?” A strange question, but I was back in the Middle Ages when bastardy was a baton sinister to the holding of certain offices, although it never hindered William the Conqueror.
“What is your nationality?”
“What is your age?”
“What are your degrees?”
These were the questions asked and answered, and then I made oath to examine the body and to speak the truth.
The head had been sewn to the neck, and the pelvis and lower limbs to the trunk. The abdominal wound had also been stitched. My commentary word for word as spoken was recorded in longhand by the notary. Thus, “There is evidence that the body has been decapitated, drawn and quartered. . . . The right hand is missing. It has been severed above the wrist joint and through the lower end of the radius and ulna. The right arm measures 51 centimetres from the stump to the tip of the acromion process.”
“What of the teeth?” asked the bishop. “Do they give any indication of age at death?”
“They are the teeth of a man who was probably not less than fifty years of age.” (The incisors were blunted, the molars worn down, but I had in mind the rough fare of the seventeenth century.)
“That is the most you can say as to age?”
“That is so, my Lord.”
“Do the remains correspond exactly with those described by the Rev. Albert Purdie in his report?”
“Yes, they do.”
The proceedings were formal and untinged by any emotion. The body on the table was a silent witness to what had suffered 275 years earlier. The report I had given read aloud by the notary, and then read and signed by me. I withdrew, and Ernest Ware came in to make an Independent examination. Thereafter I was recalled and the bishop drew attention to a discrepancy between one of our measurements. This arose through our having chosen a different bony point from which the measurement was made. We were now instructed to remove some carpal and tarsal bones as relics, and Ernest Ware removed them deftly and gently—as if he were operating on a living subject. An anatomical description of the relics was recorded by the notary. Thereafter the body was clothed with vestments as for Mass, and replaced in the wooden case. The lid was screwed down, the heads of the eight screws being scaled by the bishop. In all, the proceedings had occupied three and a half hours. A sworn verbatim report in Latin would later be sent to Rome.
The wooden case was next opened in the Cathedral Hall, Westminster, on 30th April 1930, when I testified on oath that the remains were those that I had examined at St. Edmund’s. They were then transferred to a reliquary of wood and glass, which was sealed by Cardinal Bourne. On the following day the reliquary, borne on a bier by representatives of the secular clergy, Jesuits, Benedictines, Franciscans, and followed by the Hierarchy of England, was carried in the presence of thousands of people through the Cathedral grounds to its last resting-place in St. George’s Chapel. There the remains of a simple priest who worked amongst the poor of Westminster receive that homage and honour which no living man can ever know. It is interesting to speculate what, at the moment of his execution, were the mathematical odds against the body of John Southworth ever entering the then unbuilt cathedral that is now the centre of the diocese in which he worked. At all events, from what I know about the finding of John Southworth’s body, I have no reason to scorn the legend of St. Henry’s Finger.
The legend of St. Henry’s Finger? That’s next month’s story. See you then.