Thomas Maxfield's Relics: A Footnote
My article entitled ‘Relics, Writing and Memory in the English Counter Reformation: Thomas Maxfield and his Afterlives’ was published in British Catholic History, vol. 34 (2018), pp. 1–29. This traced the restless movements of the corporeal and contact relics of the Jacobean martyr Thomas Maxfield, who was hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn on 1 July 1616, and explored what these journeys reveal about the migration and mutation of memory in the post-Reformation era.
The essay sparked the interest of Patricia Gonzalez, who contacted me to explain that she was a friend of Mercedes and Gonzalo Condes de Gondomar, who still preserve relics of Maxfield and other English martyrs in their chapel in the family home in Galicia. Further exchanges yielded the fascinating information that during the Spanish Civil War, the relics, together with statues and other religious objects, were buried in the wood behind the house. When peace finally returned, she reported, everything that had been buried had disintegrated … except the relics! The story of their somewhat miraculous survival is strongly in keeping with the hagiographical traditions that shaped the cult of Maxfield in the early modern period itself.
Patricia kindly put me in touch with the current Countess of Gondomar, with whom I have since engaged in direct correspondence. She confirms that relics of Maxfield are indeed kept in the family’s chapel in two wooden caskets, together with those of the Franciscan friar John Forrest, confessor to Catherine of Aragon, who was burnt to death on 22 May 1538. The fire was fuelled by the statue of Derfel Gadarn, a famous Welsh ‘idol’ in an event that has been described as a double execution. The family also possesses fragments of the bones of another priest who appears in my article, John Almond, some of whose sacred remains ended up in the hands of a young scholar at the English College in Douai. The photographs she has generously sent me of the exquisite chapel of Santa Ana and its contents attest to the continuing vitality of Maxfield’s cult in this corner of Spain and to the close intertwining of his memory with that of the seventeenth-century Spanish ambassador who preserved his relics for posterity. For Gondomar’s descendants the relics of these ‘blessed ones’ are a precious part of their family patrimony.
Mercedes Condes de Gondomar tells me that the relics of these three martyrs were kept in the nearby church of Redondela for around two hundred years before being transferred to St Simon Island, a leper colony that was once part of the lands owned by the count Don Diego de Gondomar. They appear to have been transferred to the Pazo de Gondomar at the time when it housed a community of Portuguese Franciscans, prior to the expulsion of the religious orders from Spain. At that time, she says, the Pazo was known thereabouts as the ‘Convento of John Forrest’.
The story of burial of the relics during the Civil War in the 1930s and their exhumation intact, however, turns out to be a misapprehension. Only the wooden statues from the chapel were concealed in the woods behind the house, the relics themselves remaining hidden in the Pazo. Maxfield’s relics survive because the custodians of his miniature shrine in Galicia have followed in the footsteps of their illustrious ancestor. Their actions mimic those of the zealous Catholics who retrieved them from the pit in which they were interred beneath the bodies of two criminals in London in 1616 and the famous ambassador to King James I who ensured their safe passage out of Protestant England to Catholic Spain. They continue the tradition that created Maxfield’s cult in the first place.
Ironically, in my own effort to unravel the confusing movements of Maxfield’s remains, I may have been guilty of adding to the creative tangle of threads that is his legend. I may have multiplied and separated his relics in a manner that echoes the processes of holy fragmentation that I sought to analyse. In turn, this serves as a further illustration of the mutual infusion of piety and scholarship that my essay served to underline. Thanks to Patricia Gonzalez and Mercedes Condes de Gondomar, I now know a little more about Thomas Maxfield’s many material and textual afterlives.
 Anne Dillon, ‘John Forrest and Derfel Gararn: A Double Execution’, Recusant History, 28 (2006), pp. 1–21.