What’s in the Box? Oliver Plunkett’s Head

The head of blessed Oliver Plunkett can be found enshrined in St. Peter’s Church, Drogheda, Ireland. Like so many of these posts, I was introduced to the late Sir Oliver through some unhinged internet searches and a strange postcard in a junk shop.

The cheerful postcard of Sir Oliver’s head is signed only with the words ‘Wednesday, 14th August, 63’. I’d presume that this was the date of the original owner’s visit to the shrine, either that or a particularly terrifying upcoming dentist’s appointment.

The front of the card reads:

The Head of Blessed Oliver Plunket, enshrined in St. Peter’s Church Drogheda.

Blessed Oliver died a martyr for the Catholic faith 11th July. 1681.

Beatified 23rd May. 1920.

Blessed Oliver pray for us.

So who was Oliver Plunket, why was his head preserved and why on earth was it printed on a postcard in 1963?

Firstly, Plunkett is generally spelled with two ‘t’s, so we’re already on the bad side of the postcard. And, to bring Sir Oliver up to date, he was canonised in 1975, bringing him up a tier in the world of Catholic veneration. This also made him the first new Irish saint in nearly 700 years.

Oliver Plunkett was born on 1st November 1625 in County Meath, Ireland. Raised in a relatively affluent family, his education was at the hands of his cousin Patrick Plunkett, the Abbot of St Mary’s in Dublin. Wars of faith have troubled Ireland for centuries, and from 1641-1643, the Irish Confederate Wars (also called the Eleven Years War) were raging throughout the country. The conflict itself was fuelled by a complex mixture of political, cultural and ethnic issues, with the main cause of unrest being whether Irish Catholics or British Protestants held the greater power. The war would go on to be the most bloody conflict in Irish history with death tolls estimated at between 200,000-600,000. Several members of Plunkett’s family were involved in the Catholic ‘Confederation of Ireland’ movement at this time.

Unsurprisingly for his family background, Oliver aspired to make the priesthood and left for Rome in 1647 where he was admitted into the Irish College. He was ordained in 1654 and thrived, becoming an Irish representative in Rome. While Oliver was away, the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland (1649-53) had quashed the Catholic cause, making all Catholic practice illegal and executing Catholic clergy. In short, Oliver could not return home.

Oliver remained in Rome for several years, becoming a professor of theology and continuing to fight for the Irish Catholic cause. Eventually he became Archbishop of Armagh in 1669 and returned to Ireland with great purpose. He tackled issues with drunk clergymen and founded an integrated Catholic and Protestant Jesuit College. His ministry was a roaring success and went on to confirm around 48,000 Catholics in just 4 years. After the brutality of the wars and Cromwell’s armies, he made enormous leaps in encouraging Catholicism in Ireland once again. But Plunkett’s triumphs were not to last.

The government in Dublin had been far more tolerant to Catholic practise than their forbears, but this ended in the mid 1670s with the advent of the infamous Popish Plot.

The ‘Test Act’ was introduced in 1673 – a collection of penal laws designed to extend civil liberties to followers of the Church of England alone. Many of these laws were at odds with Catholic doctrine and Plunkett, among many others, refused to adhere to them. To escape persecution, Plunkett went into hiding, only travelling when necessary and under a heavy disguise. When the Dublin government weren’t under direct pressure from the English government, they didn’t directly hunt down Catholic bishops, but these quieter times would only last until 1678.

The Popish Plot, like so many of these religious and political events, is hard to summarise. It was a brutal period of Catholic persecution, led by lies and hysteria based on fiction and personal grievances. It led to the execution of 22 men, including Plunkett.

The Popish Plot was a completely fictitious conspiracy originated by English Priest Titus Oates. He claimed that there was a wide-reaching Catholic plot to assassinate King James II, which led to anti-Catholic hysteria across the Kingdoms of England and Scotland.

Archbishop Peter Talbot of Dublin was arrested first. Then, the Privvy Council of England was falsely told that Plunkett was planning a French invasion. This rumour was fed to the government by the Earl of Essex, Arthur Capell, who hoped to regain a higher position in office as a result of his claims. He would later plead for mercy, citing that he never wanted Plunkett to die.

Plunkett had a bounty on his head, but he still would not leave the country, or leave his parishioners. He took refuge in a small Drogheda church but was arrested on 6th December 1679 and imprisoned in Dublin Castle.

Westminster Hall, where Plunkett was tried.

His trial was at Dundalk where he was accused of conspiring to bring 20,000 French soldiers into the country and supporting 70,000 local men (via levying a clergy tax) to aid his rebellion. While there was no evidence for these claims, the fear of an Irish uprising was very real, Plunkett had been promoting the Catholic faith and may have had dealings with the French. He had never made threats to the King’s life, but that hardly mattered. He was a dead man.

Archbishop Oliver Plunkett was found guilty of high treason in 1681, and even when met with his guilty verdict, Plunkett stood strong in his faith, saying ‘Deo Gratias’ – Thanks be to God.

Despite many pleas for his release, Charles II thought it to be too great a political statement. The originator of the lie – the Earl of Essex, Arthur Capell – similarly begged for his release, but the King stood fast, angrily turning to him and saying “his blood be on your head – you could have saved him but would not, I would save him and dare not.”

On 1st July 1681, Oliver Plunkett, aged 55, was hung, drawn and quartered at Tyburn. He would be the last Catholic martyr to die in England.

While the plot-induced fear lasted between 1678 and 1681, Oates’ lies were eventually exposed – aided by the protestations of innocence by the persecuted men – and he was eventually arrested and convicted of perjury.

image via Atlas Obscura/David Ilff

But what of Plunkett’s body? Owing to his method of execution, he was buried in two tin boxes in the courtyard of St Giles in the Fields church. In 1683, he was disinterred and his body taken to Lamspringe, near Hildesheim in Germany. His head then began its journey and was taken to Rome before returning to Armagh in Ireland and then to Drogheda where it has remained since June 1921.

Image of the shrine via Trounce at Atlas Obscura

While a few small parts remained in Germany, the rest of his body was taken to Downside Abbey in England where much of it remains today. In 1975, when he was finally canonised, his casket was re-opened once more and parts of his body gifted to St Peter’s Church in Drogheda.

So celebrated were the Irish martyrs that the second miracle necessary for canonisation was waived.  17 other Irish martyrs followed suit a few decades later in 1992 when Pope John Paul II beatified the remainder of the group.

I’d love to close this post with a tourist image of me next to Plunkett’s head, but it is not to be (yet). However, I don’t think any visit, however profound, could match up with the spectacle hosted in south London on a very special anniversary in 1981. The 300th anniversary of Plunkett’s martyrdom was commemorated with a parade and a mass at Clapham Common. Sounds like a quiet affair? Not quite. Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich and several abbots and bishops had built a stage for the event, which was grand enough for visiting pilgrims, but a special guest was to draw more from their homes. Arriving at the common in a helicopter with Ó Fiaich was Oliver Plunkett’s head in all its enshrined glory. Unsurprisingly, thousands of pilgrims swarmed the park to catch a glimpse of the saint. Or, at least a bit of him.

Plunkett’s head remains a popular draw and site for pilgrimage to this day, aided by his appointment as a patron saint for peace and reconciliation in 1997. While I can’t say that a head in a box isn’t weird, or that references to the film Seven aren’t wholly inappropriate, beliefs aside, it’s one of the more unusual and profound pilgrimage sites I’ve ever seen. And you can bet he’s on my ‘to-visit’ list, in all his many segments.

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