In the Closet in Early America

July 29, 2015 2:48 p.m.

Yesterday we posted this fascinating story about the discovery of four graves of some of the top leaders of the Jamestown settlement – the first major and permanent English settlement in North America and the origin point of the Virginia colony and later State of Virginia. But as many have already noted, the issue of real historical, as opposed to antiquarian, significance is the discovery of a small Catholic reliquary in the grave of Captain Gabriel Archer, one of the leaders of the early settlement and a rival of the far better known Captain John Smith, who is often credited with saving the colony in its bleak first years and – less known – was later a key explorer of what became New England.

So what can we draw from this?

It is a truly fascinating discovery but also, in a way, not at all surprising. It seems almost certain that Archer was himself Catholic, although it’s always conceivable that there’s some odd and improbable alternative explanation. It also seems highly probable that whoever buried Archer with the reliquary was himself (almost certainly a him) either Catholic or a Catholic sympathizer. After all, you’re not around to bury yourself.

A well-preserved silver box believed to be a Catholic reliquary is displayed at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, Tuesday, July 28, 2015. The box was found resting on top of the coffin of Capt. Gabriel Archer at the site of the 1608 Anglican church at the historic Jamestown colony site in Virginia.

In the early 17th century, England had been non-Catholic for going on a century. It was officially and in fact rabidly Protestant, or more specifically Anglican, though just what the Church of England would mean wouldn’t fully shake out or be clear for almost a century. Henry VIII, at first, remained quite Catholic in theological terms, just cutting the ties with the Pope. That changed as he aged. England then moved in a decisively Protestant direction under his ill-fated son, Edward VI, then turned violently and briefly back to Catholicism under his half-sister, Mary I. It was only under Elizabeth’s almost half-century almost half century reign that England became clearly Protestant, though in a half-measurey, middle-ground kind of way. It was also the period in which English national identity became firmly fused with anti-Catholicism.

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The founding of the Jamestown settlement in 1607 came just after the death of Elizabeth I and under the reign of the first member of the Stuart dynasty, the Scottish King, James I. He was as anti-Catholic as Elizabeth but less sympathetic to hardline Protestants of what would come to be known as the Puritan variety. His family would become more hostile to hardline Protestants and more sympathetic to Catholicism over time. It was the accession of his Catholic grandson, James II, which sparked the Glorious Revolution and eventually led Great Britain to ditch the Stuarts entirely. But that gets a bit ahead of ourselves.

Randall Kremer, director of Public Affairs at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, stands next to an image showing the contents of a well-preserved silver box believed to be a Catholic reliquary during a news conference in Washington, Tuesday, July 28, 2015.

In the early 1600s, just what the Church of England would be remained very much up in the air. The one thing that was certain was that it would not be Roman Catholic, not be subservient in any way to the Pope. It would be anachronistic to say that England was anti-Catholic, since this wasn’t simply a matter of anti-Catholic bigotry as we might think of it today but part of a continent wide battle (something like the 20th century Cold War) between two versions of Christianity each vying for total dominance. Only a couple decades earlier, the secular leader of the Catholic forces, Philip II of Spain, had assembled a vast Armada to invade England and reintroduce Catholicism by force. For most in England it was a certainty that only God’s hand could have produced the series of calamities that ended the Spanish expedition.

So it is not too much to say that in the early 17th century, England nationalism was almost inseparable from hostility to Catholicism, Catholics and especially the Pope. And fighting Spain and Catholicism (almost indistinguishable in the minds of many English) was a key justification for planting settlements in North America.

With all this said, there were still Catholics in England. And there were many closet or crypto-Catholics – men and women living in outward obedience to the Church of England but privately and secretly Catholic, though often without priests to service their spiritual needs. Elizabeth had been somewhat open to this status, securing her rein by focusing on outward compliance to the established Church rather than launching investigations of belief.

The challenge for historians has always been that it is inherently difficult to know just how prevalent this phenomenon was at different periods. After all, people were trying to be secret. It’s somewhat analogous to the case of crypto-Jews after the expulsion of Jews from Spain and Portugal about a century earlier. Were the Jews who agreed to convert to Christianity to avoid expulsion (and their descendants) believing Christians who were simply harassed, imprisoned and sometimes killed by the Inquisition out of a mix of racism and paranoia? Or were many of them actually continuing to remain Jews and practice their Judaism secretly – precisely what the Inquisition was set on rooting out?

We know there were both. But we don’t really know how much there were of each and historians have tended to assume more or less of each depending on the era they themselves lived in. Again, when people are doing things secretly, doing everything they can to avoid creating evidence for secret police or suspicious neighbors, it creates a real challenge for historians. And the issue with crypto-Catholicism in England is broadly similar. It is not altogether unlike closeted homosexuality, with deep secrecy, mixed with some combination of dealing with people who are willing to look the other way and relationships of trust with those either willing to keep their secrets or in fact sharing them.

We should also be open to the reality that for much of the 16th century there was pervasive bet-hedging. Remember, it was widely believed on both sides of the divide that one side was on the wrong side of God and would pay for it for eternity – high stakes! Who could know which side was right. For many that’s a reason to keep options open. It’s also the case that almost certainly some people would mix and match with an indifference to literate understandings of the firm division between Catholic and Protestant belief.

I’ve seen some speculation that Archer’s butting heads with Smith might have been tied to Archer’s Catholicism. But it seems hard to figure that a man like Smith who was a prolific writer would never have used this knowledge against him. It also seems hard for me to figure that Archer was a spy, as some have suggested, or working to turn the colony over to Spain. The Virginia colony, though harshly hostile to Catholicism in an ideological sense, wasn’t in any real nature religious and would generally take whoever it could get.

There is a long history of transgressive behaviors being more accepted in European colonies than in the metropolitan centers. There’s a complex history of homosexual British men heading to colonies where there was a somewhat more tolerant environment than in Britain itself – see Cecil Rhodes for a much, much later example. My guess – and it’s purely a guess – would be that Archer’s Catholicism was likely known by more than a few of his fellow colonists but simply ignored or not spoken of in the horrific, life-or-death setting of the early Jamestown settlement. It’s a tantalizing glimpse, maybe an outlier but maybe not, of something we know very little about and quite likely will never be able to learn about fully.

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