The Poor Clare's Reliquary

Reliquary, probably by Affabel Partridge, 1551. Lent by the Poor Clare Nuns of Much Birch, Hereford

Reliquary, probably by Affabel Partridge, 1551. Lent by the Poor Clare Nuns of Much Birch, Hereford

This is the story of a precious vessel that has recently been lent to the V&A by the Monastery of Poor Clares in Hereford. We are still unearthing its exciting history and debating its changing use over time. Scholars are divided over whether it was made as a reliquary or a salt cellar.

The marks on the vessel tell us that it was made in London in 1551, probably by the Royal Goldsmith Affabel Partridge, at a time when Catholics in England were being persecuted. He reused an earlier rock crystal cylinder and mounted it in the latest Continental style. The design is similar to the elaborate salt cellars of the period, and the decorative motifs - the masks, strapwork and shells - are secular rather than religious.

In 1737 Lady Mary and Sir Charles Browne, members of a wealthy Catholic family, gave the vessel to the Poor Clare nuns in Rouen, whose foundation had been established in 1644 for English Catholic women in exile. Some years later, the chronicles of the Poor Clares in Rouen record that 'This year 1741 [the vessel] was made into a reliquary to set upon the altar… our confessor giving us a box of relics that had been given to James the 3rd'. (By James III they meant James Stuart, the 'Old Pretender', whom Catholics regarded as the rightful king.)

Copy of the letter that accompanied the reliquary gifted to the Poor Clares, from about 1737. Reproduced by kind permission of the owners

Copy of the letter that accompanied the reliquary gifted to the Poor Clares, from about 1737. Reproduced by kind permission of the owners

In the letter reproduced here, Lady Browne stated that the vessel had been found 'in the ruins of some old monastery that had been suppressed'. There may be some truth in this romantic vision as many religious artefacts were seized during the Dissolution of the Monasteries (1536-40) and later refashioned. Sir Charles Browne's great-great-grandfather - Anthony Browne, Viscount Montague (1528-92) - was granted monastic lands during the Reformation. Suppose Anthony Browne discovered the crystal tube at this time and had it remade into a prestigious vessel that was passed down through his family.


But was it intended as a reliquary or a salt cellar? Could Affabel Partridge's secular imagery have been simply a foil for the anti-Catholic authorities? There are arguments for and against, but whether or not we discover its complete history, the vessel remains a fascinating piece of craftsmanship highlighting a turbulent part of British history.

An intriguing reliquary at the Museum of London

Reliquary, unmarked but probably late 16th century. Museum of London, currently on display in the Early Stuart Gallery. Reproduced by permission of the Board of Governors of the Museum of London

Reliquary, unmarked but probably late 16th century. Museum of London, currently on display in the Early Stuart Gallery. Reproduced by permission of the Board of Governors of the Museum of London

During our research on the reliquary on loan to the V&A, we discovered that the Museum of London has a similar vessel. Curators are trying to establish whether it is a reliquary. It is not featured in the V&A display but is pictured here.

This vessel, along with an extraordinary hoard of gems, jewels and other precious objects, was uncovered by London navvies on a building site in the City of London in 1912. Representing the hidden stock of a Stuart goldsmith, it is the largest cache of its kind in the world and one of the most remarkable finds ever recovered from British soil. Now known and celebrated as The Cheapside Hoard, it will feature in a major exhibition at the Museum of London in 2012.

One of the most intriguing aspects of the collection is the number of partially worked and incomplete items. Some of the vessels have been drilled for mounts and others have been re-fashioned and adapted for secondary use. This vessel has been assembled from numerous components and has been soldered to form two separate but inter-related containers. The general shape is that of an Elizabethan salt cellar but close examination suggests that it was initially conceived as a reliquary. Will scientific analysis of the contents and structure tell us more about its function and history? The V&A and Museum of London will work together to unravel the mystery of this piece.

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