Three crucifixes found at James Fort

While crucifixes are an explicitly Catholic artifact and were not worn publicly, crosses continued to be worn as jewelry in post-Reformation England. Along with religious medallions, beads that may have come from rosaries, and a personal reliquary recovered from a grave, these artifacts may represent a quiet Catholic presence among several of Jamestown’s settlers.

While the Act of 1571 subjected English individuals owning or selling Roman Catholic devotional items to the loss of land and possessions, imprisonment, and even death, perhaps the presence of Catholic symbolism at Protestant James Fort was not as taboo as we imagine. The English Reformation did not establish strict parameters regarding all aspects of religious life, and both Queen Elizabeth I and her successor King James I retained some of the physical and ideological trappings of Catholic tradition.

In Pre-Reformation England and other Catholic countries, crucifixes served as adornment on religious items like bibles and collection boxes. They were also sometimes worn as signs of pilgrimage, and were an integral part of a rosary. The crucifixes found at James Fort may have been owned by English recusants who continued to practice the Catholic faith despite the mounting laws against it. It is also possible that they were brought to Jamestown by travelers from other European Catholic countries, including Germany, Poland, or Spain. Or perhaps they were handed down from a Catholic family member and were carried as physical tokens of protection or spiritual belief amidst the uncertainties of a life in seventeenth century Virginia.

selected artifacts