1620s crucifix unearthed in Newfoundland

An archaeological team excavating the Newfoundland colony of Avalon, founded in 1620 by George Calvert, First Baron Baltimore, has discovered a small copper crucifix dating to the early days of the settlement. It’s just 2.8 centimeters (1.1 inches) wide at the arms and has the traditional image of Christ on the cross on the front. On the back is the Virgin Mary cradling the Christ child. The features of the relief are worn almost smooth, indicating that the devotional object was rubbed constantly. Coupled with its small size and broken top, it suggests the crucifix was once part of a rosary.

The crucifix was amongst a collection of ceramics, bones, nails and building debris associated with the construction of a large stone dwelling built for Sir George Calvert, the first Lord Baltimore, in Ferryland, Newfoundland. The dwelling was started sometime after 1623 and completed before the arrival of Calvert, most of his family and about 40 additional settlers in 1628. The cultural deposit containing the crucifix was sealed sometime in the second half of the 1620s, thus providing a securely datable context for the artifacts and a window into the lives of those who worked at Calvert’s colony of Avalon during this early period.

This is the first unambiguously Catholic object found from the time of Calvert’s founding of the colony, and as such it is of singular importance. George Calvert served as King James I’s Secretary of State for six years before resigning and officially converting to Catholicism in 1625. There’s some question as to whether that was the result of a revelation in the moment or the public confirmation of a long-held but hidden faith. His father Leonard was Catholic and in the fraught environment of the Elizabethan religious reforms, suffered constant harassment from the authorities for such crimes as employing Catholics and not going to Church of England services. Little George became a pawn in this game, being forced at age 12 to change tutors to an approved Protestant who would eschew the “popish primer” his previous tutor had employed.

In order to graduate from Oxford and carve out a career for himself as a diplomat and politician at the court of King James, George Calvert certainly professed Protestantism. His wife was Protestant and he raised his children Protestant. By all accounts he was an honest, decent man so there’s no reason to assume he was being deceptive about his religious faith, but either way his experience with religious persecution played an integral role in his plans for Avalon.

He first bought property on Newfoundland from Sir William Vaughan and named it Avalon after the island from Arthurian legend where Christianity was introduced to Britain. Colonists arrived in 1621 led by Captain Edward Wynne who wrote glowingly (and inaccurately) to Calvert describing Newfoundland as a bountiful land with a mild climate. Calvert thought fishing was the key to making the colony self-sustaining, maybe even profitable. In 1623 Calvert secured a royal charter extending his lands to the whole southeast peninsula, officially naming it the Province of Avalon “in imitation of Old Avalon in Somersetshire wherein Glassenbury stands, the first fruits of Christianity in Britain as the other was in that party of America.”

George Calvert’s 1623 charter for the province enshrined freedom of conscience by not requiring that colonists take the oath of supremacy accepting the sovereign as the head of the Church of England. That principle was underscored when Calvert took his first trip to Avalon in the summer of 1627. He brought two priests with him — Father Anthony Smith and Father Thomas Longville (later that year Longville returned to England and was replaced by a Father Hackett) — who according to the colony’s disapproving Puritan clergyman Rev. Erasmus Stourton “said mass every Sunday at Feiryland and used all other ceremonies of the church of Rome in the ample manner as it is used in Spain.” Very much against Stourton’s inclination, Avalon was the first North American colony to practice religious tolerance.

It’s possible that the recently discovered crucifix belonged to one of the three priests, one of the 100 colonists who were established at Ferryland by 1627, or maybe even Calvert himself. Given the early dating, it’s probably more likely to have been lost one of the home’s builders or by Sir Arthur Aston, the governor of Avalon from 1625 to late 1626, or by one of the Catholic colonists he brought with him.

Calvert went back to England before he could experience the joys of a Newfoundland winter, but returned in 1628 with his wife and most of his children. That’s when he found out that Wynne’s letters had been more fiction than fact. A frigid, long winter and fishing ships bedeviled by French privateer the Marquis de la Rade, made life very hard, nigh on unbearable for the good Baron. He and his family left Avalon in 1629 for more hospitable climes in the Virginia territory. Two years later, he received another royal charter granting him property north of the Potomac on both side of the Chesapeake Bay. He died five weeks before the charter for Maryland was issued. His son Cecilius took over where his father left off, enshrining the same principle of religious freedom in Maryland as his father had instituted in Avalon.

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Comment by Sandy
2014-07-13 05:47:45

This is a great entry, Liv!

I knew about Maryland, but I didn’t know about Newfoundland. What I find really interesting is that he responded to religious strictures by becoming MORE tolerant, when the usual response is to become punitive, if one has gained sufficient power.

It’s also interesting that, even though his son was raised in a religion that vilified his father’s, that son was raised to be as equitable as Dad…even after Dad died. Cecilius must have grown up in an atmosphere of reason and moderation.

This is one of the things I like best about The History Blog. It isn’t just the “doomed to repeat it” thingy…it’s the peek we get into the inner lives of people long dead.

It’s the idea that if they, some of them, could get it right, maybe we can, too.

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Comment by livius drusus
2014-07-13 10:57:58

I think Calvert had something of a split identity, thanks to his upbringing. He was also a genuinely loyal subject of the king, and certainly political considerations would have made persecuting Protestants a very bad idea. Calvert actually allowed Protestants and Catholics to hold services in his own home at the same time, just in different parts of it.

He did tell Stourton to take his negativity elsewhere, however. Stourton took it to the Privy Council, reporting the shocking mass-having practices of Calvert’s Newfoundland colony. The Privy Council didn’t care.

Comment by Alex
2014-07-13 07:44:49

One might wonder what LESS tolerance than having ‘popish thugs’ being hanged, but taken down alive, having them emasculated and their entrails removed and burnt in front of their eyes, in order to finally have their tarred quartered body parts mounted onto good old english city walls, would have looked like.

Beginning to sense a bit of disgust about myself, I now decided to rather stop wondering.

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Comment by dearieme
2014-07-13 10:15:06

Many religious groups, I suspect, support toleration when they are in a minority, but eschew it when they form a majority. Puritans, Roman Catholics, Muslims … no doubt it recurs throughout history.

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Comment by livius drusus
2014-07-13 11:53:15

This is true, although both Calvert colonies weren’t actually majority Catholic. The population was just about evenly split.

Comment by Byron Johnstad
2014-07-13 11:40:48

livius drusus Sir…. “…Newfoundland winter, but returned in 1928 with his wife and most of his children”….! I do not think that he waited 300 years until 1928 to return…it should be 1628!

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Comment by livius drusus
2014-07-13 11:54:22

Oh man, date typos are the worst! Thank you for catching it. :thanks:

Comment by Jeremy A. Ingle
2014-07-23 14:30:43

As a relative of the Maryland Pirate Capt. Richard Ingle, I find this story fascinating. I knew “Grandpa” terrorized up and down the East Coast, but I didn’t know he’d been this far north, or that Baltimore & Calvert had a colony there.

I do know that Capt. Richard would be aghast that his descendant (me) is Catholic. Ha!

I suspect this little Crucifix was not lost, but intentionally buried because it was broken. It is a practice in the Church that sacramental items which have been blessed should be buried or burned if they get broken.

If this Crucifix suffered damage, the owner would have buried both parts, but not together. The top part is likely also buried somewhere nearby, but not in the same location.

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