Saint of the week

St John Plessington, 19th July

St John Plessington is one of two Shrewsbury saints to be canonised among the 40 martyrs of England and Wales in 1970, the other being St Margaret Ward. He is also one of six of the 40 martyred after they were accused of treason in the “Popish Plot”, which had been fabricated by Titus Oates, and which led to the deaths of more than 25 innocent Catholics in the late part of the 17th century.

Although he was born in Dimples, near Garstang, Lancashire, St John exercised his ministry in Cheshire and North Wales, and he was hanged, drawn and quartered on 19th July 1679 at Boughton Cross, overlooking the River Dee at West Chester. What is remarkable about his execution is that St John wrote his speech for the scaffold ahead of his death. It was later printed and copies still exist. According to Butler’s Lives of the Saints the speech represents “a particularly clear statement of denial in the face of death of the charges upon which he was condemned”, charges which, had they been true, would have made him a dangerous criminal rather than a martyr.

St John told the crowd that there was not a shred of evidence of treason against him and he was dying solely on account of his priesthood. With great fortitude, he added: “Bear witness, good hearers, that I profess that I undoubtedly and firmly believe all the articles of the Roman Catholic faith, and for the truth of any of them, by the assistance of God, I am willing to die; and I had rather die than doubt of any point of faith taught by our holy mother the Roman Catholic Church.”

St John, who sometimes called himself William Pleasington or John Scarisbrick, had studied for the priesthood at the English College at Valladolid, Spain. He returned to England in 1663 and based himself largely at Puddington Hall, near Burton, Wirral, where he laboured without harassment for more than decade as chaplain to the Massey family and tutor to the children.

But in 1678 the pretended revelations of a conspiracy to assassinate Charles II and replace him with his Catholic brother James created national hysteria. In December that year they claimed their first victim, Edward Coleman, and until 1st July 1681, with the martyrdom of St Oliver Plunkett, Catholics were executed in locations all over England. According to a local tradition, St John was drawn into the plot at the insistence of a Protestant landowner simply because he had forbidden a match between his son and a Catholic heiress. Three witnesses gave false evidence of seeing St John serving as a priest: he forgave each of them by name from the scaffold.

The authorities had demanded that the quartered remains of St John were to be displayed at the four corners of Puddington Hall, near Burton, where he had served as chaplain to the obstinately Catholic Massey family and tutor to their children. When the soldiers arrived with the body, they were stoned by the locals and fled. The Masseys instead laid out the remains of the priest on an oak table to the hall in preparation for his burial.

The saint’s supposed grave was opened in 1962 in an attempted exhumation ahead of his canonisation eight years later as one of the 40 martyrs of England and Wales by Pope St Paul VI, but his body wasn’t there. Oddly, the team from Liverpool University instead recovered the skeleton of a man some 15 years younger, bearing an injury to the neck which indicated he might have been hanged.

The whereabouts of the body of St John, if it even still exists, remains a mystery. There is some speculation that William Massey, a man of only about 20 years old and to whom St John had served not only as his teacher but also his guardian following the death of his father before his 16th birthday, did not bury the body but instead arranged for it, or at least some of it, to be sent to St Winefride’s Well, in North Wales, a centre of recusant Catholicism only a short distance from Burton across the River Dee.

It would have been in the hope that one day the remains of this beloved priest, to whom he must have been very close, might be venerated as the relics of a martyr and possibly a saint. This kind of thing was common in penal times; it is why the body of St John Southworth lies in Westminster Cathedral.

Such speculation has been fuelled particularly by the discovery in 1878 of a set of bones hidden in a chest in the attic of the Old Star Inn, a pub adjacent to the Holywell shrine which had doubled as a centre for Jesuit missionaries during the years of persecution. The bones were taken to St Bueno’s Jesuit retreat house at nearby Tremeirchion and kept in the sacristy where they were venerated as the remains of an “anonymous martyr” for more than a century.

The Jesuits have often asked the question of whether the bones were those of one of their own and by the mid-1990s, with advances in forensic science, they were able to call in forensic pathologists from Edinburgh University in the hope that they might be able to identify the bones as belonging to a martyr of the British Province, possibly of priests St David Lewis or St Philip Evans, who were executed in South Wales in 1679.

It was indeed confirmed that they bones included the head and the right leg (an intact quarter) of a man who had been hanged, drawn and quartered. The sacrum, the large triangular bone at the rear of the pelvis, had been chopped in half, neck vertebrae bore axe or cleaver wounds, and the skull has a gaping hole in the top inflicted from the inside when the head was impaled on to a pike.

The bones were wrapped in a child’s bodice dating from the late 17th century, the period of the Popish Plot under which Ss David and Philip – and St John Plessington – won the crown of martyrdom.

It was ruled out, however, that the bones could have belonged to either of the Jesuit priests so the Society of Jesus entrusted their custody to the Diocese of Wrexham which displayed them in a small museum at Holywell.

Further forensic tests are required to determine if the bones belong to St John or to another martyr of the region, such as St Richard Gwyn, a Welsh schoolteacher and father-of-six executed at nearby Wrexham in 1584, or Blessed William Davies, a secular priest, who was martyred in Beaumaris in Anglesey in 1593, or Blessed Charles Mahony, an Irish Franciscan hanged, drawn and quartered at Ruthin, North Wales, on August 12, 1679 – some three weeks after St John died at Chester.

Vestments associated with St John are kept at St Winefride’s in Neston (pictured above) and a small piece of blood-stained linen is treasured as a relic in St Francis’s Church in Chester.

Statues and stained-glass windows were installed in his honour in St Laurence’s, Birkenhead, and St Werburgh’s, Chester. He is commemorated in St John Plessington College, Bebington, Wirral.

A stained glass window in St Winefride’s Church, Holywell, depicts St John ministering to a kneeling woman then giving his speech on the day of his execution.