Jamestown was founded during the imperial conflict between Roman Catholic Spain and Protestant England. Fear of Spanish spies grew strong in the harsh and heated living conditions at James Fort. Crucifixes such as this one prove Catholics were among the settlers from the very start — and one of them became the first person executed in Virginia.
Two decades of open warfare between Catholic Spain and Protestant England were settled in a 1604 treaty. But religious tensions still simmered as the two nations maneuvered to see who would control North America. Spain’s King Philip III believed the Jamestown settlement was illegal and kept a close eye on it.
The imperial tension was matched by religious uncertainty within England. Anglicanism struggled to define itself as a religion that had fractured from Catholicism just a few decades before. Queen Elizabeth I continued rituals of the Catholic Church, such as keeping a crucifix on her altar. By the end of her reign, there were as many Englishmen converting back to Catholicism as there were converting to Protestantism. With such uncertainty in the air, settlers leaving for Virginia had to swear an oath of supremacy to James and against the Pope (though it was not required of the colonizing gentlemen, many of whom had been Catholic, and the Virginia Company of London did hire Catholic tradesmen whose skills could help Virginia succeed). Many colonists suspected that any Catholic would be a spy for Spain. In the first year of James Fort, two colonists were publicly tried on religious grounds. The first president of the governing council in Virginia, Edward Maria Wingfield, was suspected of being a Catholic sympathizer and was returned to England. Fellow councilman Captain George Kendall was also suspected of being a Catholic and was executed at Jamestown in 1608.
Crucifixes could be worn as pendants and were sometimes worn in hats as signs of pilgrimage to European shrines. But crucifixes are rare discoveries in post-Reformation English sites. This jet crucifix found in Pit 3 bears three figures: the body of Christ beneath a horizontal plaque, a praying woman (probably Mary), and what appears to be a death’s head above crossed bones. The death’s head was used on crucifixes from the 15th to the 17th centuries to represent immortality. This crucifix is strikingly similar to a copper alloy crucifix found in the excavations of St. Mary’s City, Maryland’s first capital. (The Calvert family was Catholic and set policies for the Maryland colony that allowed Christians of different denominations to worship freely there, and they welcomed Jesuits as major investors.) A crucifix made of jet was also found in the Hunt Shrine and is 34 mm long – tiny enough to disappear into the palm of a hand. Jet was used in Spain from the 16th century onward for pendants as well as for beads and was particularly popular for use in rosaries and other religious items.