The Chaigley Skull

Since I first learnt about the possible connection of my Holden family branches, with a skull which was said to belong to a Holden Martyr, I have attempted to find out more and if at all possible, to prove the genealogical link. A cousin (Note1), first mentioned the story as being one passed down through the generations of our family, she eventually found documentary reference to it in the form of a paper written by J.E. Bamber (Note 2). My cousin's mother (Note 3), maintained the story was authentic, even although the paper given by Bamber attempted to disprove the traditional facts, allegedly handed down through the generations. He did so by very detailed scientific and medical investigations, together with ecclesiastical facts which he had examined closely.

The story held by the family is that the skull belonged to that of Father Philip Holden, but Bamber disputed this theory in his paper. However, the family view is that the skull, whether it be of a priest or not, one so martyred or not, is unlikely to have been kept for 360 years, secretly for almost 200 years, within family closets, without there being some special religious or other sentimental significance to that family. Families invariably keep trivia and junk over the years and sometimes hand it down from family to family, but to do so with someone's skull must be very unusual, even bordering on the macabre, without there being some exceptional reason. My cousin and I think the exceptional reason is that the skull was that of a Holden priest or of a related priest, who, at the time of the persecution of Roman Catholics, dared to hold Mass, one August morning in 1648, cocking a snoot at Cromwell's nearby army, but was caught and beheaded for doing so.

To understand the background to this Holden Martyr story, we need to reflect on the religious and political situation of the early 1600s, when the established church of the land was Presbyterian and Roman Catholics were being persecuted for their "recusant" religious views and activities. Those Catholics who held prominent positions as landowners, were tolerated but labelled as registered recusants, under the monarchies of James I and his son Charles I. To ensure that these recusants did not become too powerful across the country, especially in that part of Lancashire in which we are interested, there were twice yearly "Visitations" made by the archdeacons to parishes in their jurisdictions, to update the recusant registers and to account for the miscreants who had not regularly attended church services of the established church. So thorough was the policing of church wrong doers, that fines were at one time imposed on those who did not attend and it can only be assumed that this caused great resentment amongst Roman Catholic believers.

Oliver Cromwell came on the scene in 1628, when he was elected to Parliament in the reign of Charles I. In 1642 he took sides with the divided Parliament, when the king failed to reconcile the rift he had Oliver Cromwell created by his autocratic methods of rule. The issues at stake were mainly centred on Cromwell's self proclaimed divine right, but he also had leanings towards Catholicism. To combat the Royalist movement, Cromwell raised and recruited an army of men with similar puritanical religious views to himself and began purging the country of the King's followers and many others who had opposing religious sympathies. It was on one of these moves across the country, from York in the East to Preston in the West, at a time when Charles I was practically left without an organised army, that, not far from Cromwell's camp at Hodder Bridge in 1648, and on lands that were owned by John Holden of Chaigley Manor, that our story really begins. It is an intriguing story to come across in a family history study and a very compelling one to follow to some conclusion.

However, to reconstruct history of 350 years ago and to find what happened when Cromwell's soldiers came across Holden families and friends saying mass in a private chapel at Chapel House Farm near Chaigley, is a daunting task and I quickly realised that I would need to start with the present day and work backwards in time; going from the known to the unknown, if I wanted to get as near to the truth as possible.

So my quest became twofold, first to reinforce the family conviction that the skull belonged to a member of the Holden family and secondly, to piece together whatever facts I could find to trace the movement of the skull from the site of the massacre in 1648 to its known present resting place.

Bamber's paper stated that the skull was preserved in the Catholic church of St. Robert's at Catforth (Note 4) and that a Reverend Father Philip Holden was allegedly beheaded at Chapel House Farm near Chaigley in August 1648. What better way to start my research than to go and see the skull at St. Roberts and to find Chapel House Farm where the beheading had allegedly taken place. With the kind help of friends who lived in the region, I went to see and photograph the skull in St. Roberts and found it preserved in a small shrine, together with other articles of the mass table, including, the sacred Vestments of the priest. To actually see the skull like that, gave me sufficient encouragement to delve deeper. My cousin gave me lots of additional encouragement and she, being a strong practising Catholic, would dearly like to see a positive outcome of my research. I am an Anglican and would have to rely on her and Roman Catholic friends, to correct and guide me in matters peculiar to that faith. It was a challenge and I could put to good use, my ardent interest in family history.

A separate visit was made to the region of Chapel House Farm, near Chaigley and there, in 1991, I met a Mr Berry who told me that the trunk which held the skull and vestments, had been hidden in his bedroom at one time and that he had learnt about it, when the publicity of Bamber's research had brought fame to the area. He pointed out the small field in which the wooden barn, the temporary chapel, once stood and where the alleged beheading took place. Nothing remained of the barn structure and no plaque there to commemorate the Cromwellian deed.

Bamber stated that it took 160 years for the Holden family to reveal that the skull had been secretly preserved, they did this via a disclosure by Richard Holden of Kirkham to a Fr. John Fairclough SJ at Stonyhurst College near Chaigley. In 1887 a Mr C.A. Newdigate, as he then was, attempted to set down the known facts, together with those that he could glean from local people and Richard Holden1 of Kirkham. It could be said that, some 110 years later, I started doing the same thing. The only difference being, that I am a Holden and probably have a more vested interest.

Richard Holden disclosed the skull story in 1887 when he was aged 87 and he revealed that he was present at the first disclosure in 1812, whilst still a youth of 14. My researches showed that this Richard died on 23May 1888 at Ribby Villas near Kirkham. Thus he was living in the vicinity where the skull had last been kept by members of the Holden family at Hill House Farm near Woodplumpton. He left a comparatively large estate when he died, his will shows that he divided the sum of 6163 between members of his family and that he was a "good" Roman Catholic because he directed that on the eventual death of two of his children, Richard and Mary, that a total sum of 500 be donated to the then R.C. Bishop of Liverpool. His son Richard, shown in the above photo, became the Rev. Richard Holden of St Agnes Church, Liverpool.

Since Richard made no mention of the skull in his will, (one might have expected him to do so, if he had had it in his possession ) and it being of such special importance to his family, one has to accept that either of his children or a near relative to have been the last keepers at the time of his death in 1888. According to his will, he had three sons living, Richard, James and Thomas, and two daughters, Mary Wilkinson and Margaret Hodson. As already mentioned, Richard became the Rev. Richard of St. Agnes, Liverpool and because the skull appeared to remain in the area of his home near Kirkham, it has to be assumed that there was no intention by the son Richard , to remove the skull to his Liverpool church, so, it has to be presumed that the next eldest son would be the "keeper". This would have been James.

To find more about this last "keeper", it was necessary to go to Higher Hill House farm at Woodplumpton and question the then present occupiers, a Mr and Mrs. Roades. Their knowledge was scant, but they knew of a Mr. Eric Morton , of Scorton , who knew more. Eric Morton proved to be most helpful, after he was eventually tracked down. Despite his 85 years of age2 he still went out doing odd jobs for local farmers "on top of fell". He remembered that, as a youth of 17, working the adjoining farm to Hill House, with his parents, a Thomas Holden and his unmarried sister, lived there. Although he never saw the skull, he knew of its existence at the farm and gave me an old photo of the farm house where it was kept in a trunk, together with the altar table relics.

He described the two Holdens as the kindest and most gentle of neighbours. So much so, that when they retired from farming land at Hill House, the sister, whose name he could not remember, gave him a Willow pattern mug as a memento of their neighbourliness and friendship. When I met Eric, he still possessed the mug and stated that it had been handed down through at least three generations of Holdens before it was handed to him. I was most intrigued with it and a few years later, on one of my frequent visits to see him he handed it to me, saying that the brother and sister that he knew so well at Hill House Farm, would have wanted another Holden to be its keeper. Eric died in March 1998, but, during the few years that I knew him, the acquaintance yielded valuable clues about the Holden family to whom the skull belonged.

Another visit was arranged to Higher Hill House where Mrs Roades produced a cardboard deed box of the house and farm, containing 120 years of documents showing ownership and tenancy of the farm during that time. Several Holden names were noted but it would have needed more time to assimilate the numerous transactions that had taken place over the years. That second visit prompted a third visit nearly a year later (26Jun92) when Mrs Roades kindly allowed me to take the deed box away for detailed viewing and photocopying of various papers and documents.

This was a most rewarding exercise, but it still took me many months to understand the transactions that had taken place with Hill House. Perhaps if I had enlisted the help of a solicitor, I might have understood the events more clearly, but, as well as the legal complexities, there were the numerous Holden names to fit into family groups. Bearing in mind that the sole purpose of my investigations was to determine who might have handled the skull, as it passed from family to family, I laboriously noted or copied pages and pages of legal documents.

One of the indentures in the Hill House deed box revealed that on 14Jul 1870 the farm was being transferred to Ralph Holden1 and the Very Rev. Richard Holden of Huyton, Liverpool. In reality, they were buying it from the executors of James Webster who had died in 1863. This James had inherited Hill House from his father George Webster in November 1850. At the time of transfer in 1870 a Thomas and Elizabeth Holden were in occupation of the house and farm. These were the brother and unmarried sister referred to by Eric Morton. It was then necessary to establish the relationship between Ralph, Rev. Richard, John, Thomas and Elizabeth. In another Indenture of Conveyance, John Holden was said to be a farmer from Chipping when one of the mortgages was being set up and the house and farm being transferred between him and the Rev. Richard Holden on 20 Jul 1895. A witness to John's signature was James Holden, also from Chipping and it would seem that they were from the same family, living at Cold Coates, near Chipping, as revealed when I examined the 1891 census for Chipping, also living with their father James and mother Margaret. James senior was born at Bilsborrow and Margaret was from Claughton. It seemed to me that these five aforementioned Holdens, were from the same or immediate families.

By searching through many Holden wills in Somerset House, London, one pertaining to the Richard Holden2 of Ribby Villas, Kirkham, who died 23May1888, was found to contain reference to Rev. Richard Holden of St. Agnes Church, Huyton, Liverpool, this was the same person referred to in the Hill House transfer of 14Jul1870. As well as the Rev. Richard (the eldest son), other children of the family were Mary, Margaret James and Thomas . James and Thomas were made Tenants in Common of their father's property. Thomas was from Brockside near Garstang. Although there appeared to be some link here, nothing proved definite until an accumulation of records from gravestones, census records and other wills, established that the family of a Henry (1780 - 1862) and Ann Holden (nee Parker) contained the names of the Holdens in the family tree which I was gradually grouping together, helped and corrected by several other Holdens, who had knowledge of, or were equally intrigued with the skull story.

The 1891 census for Hill House showed Elizabeth Sen. In residence with children Thomas, Annie and Elizabeth. Thomas and Elizabeth being the brother and sister that I have previously mentioned and it can therefore be ascertained that this brother and sister, their father Ralph and grandfather Henry were the last family keepers of the skull before it was placed in Catforth Church .Other research showed that Henry was born at Bailey in 1780, i.e. in the area known as Aighton, Bailey and Chaigley. He also lived and in all probability, owned, Catforth Hall near Woodplumpton. Ralph bought Hill House on 14Jul 1870 for 1550 and it was probably after 1885 when he died, that the farm was split and became known as Higher Hill House and Lower Hill House farms. One half was sold to one called John Hargreaves. It would appear that Thomas and Elizabeth continued to farm Higher Hill House farm until 1895. It was at this time that John Holden the farmer from Chipping and The Very Rev. Richard Holden of Huyton, Liverpool, transferred the house and land to John Brown, formerly of Lytham and then of Aintree, Liverpool. There was a further Indenture to support this dated 28Feb1901. By this time Thomas and Elizabeth were probably tenants of the land and in all probability living in the farm cottage rather than Higher Hill House. In 1992, the then owners were still in what appeared to be the old cottage and a new house was gradually being built where the main house stood. Thus we now have the connection between the Rev. Henry Holden who was born at Alston in 1862 and who became the Rector of Claughton Mission after serving as an assistant priest under Fr. Gradwell (later conferred Monseignior Gradwell by Pope Leo XIII) and the Very Rev. Richard Holden (shown here on left) of St. Agnes, Huyton, Liverpool, the son of Ralph Holden of Eaves Quarter, Woodplumpton.

It is a matter of conjecture that the Henry Holden ( 1818 - 1885), the Grandfather of Rev. Henry (1862 - 1884) of Claughton, was the one most likely to have seen to the movement of the skull across from Chaigley, probably via Holden families at Crawshaw and Chipping. John Holden's signature on the Indenture for Hill House in 1870 was witnessed by the James Holden also of Chipping, almost suggesting the careful "in house " movement to avoid too much publicity. The fact that the skull did attract publicity was borne out by detail given by Eric Morton of Scorton who remembers charabanc loads of people turning up to see it at Higher Hill House when he and his father farmed the adjoining farm.

Despite all that I was learning about the Holdens who were keepers of the skull, I still had no idea where my Holden line fitted or linked with them. I continued to believe that there was a link, but it was not until 1996 when I found a connection with a grave in the RC church at Newhouse near Bilsborrow and a birth record in parish documents deposited in the Lancashire Archives in Preston, that I realised my quest was nearly over. I had viewed a grave of a John Holden (1814 - 1886) and Margaret Holden (1816 - 1873), at Newhouse several times and as so often happens when a cousin marries a cousin (or two people of the same surname), the genealogical lines are not immediately evident. However, the birth record read ""2 Martii 1814 natus et die baatus fuit Joannes Holden filius Geor: et Joan: Holden (olim Richardson) conj: Pat. Thos. Holinghurst. Mat. Eliz Sharrock a me Hen: Carter"." and on careful genealogical analysis it transpired that I was a first cousin three times removed from that John Holden. The Margaret Holden whom he married was the daughter of Henry Holden and Ann Parker, who were part of the Holden lines and keepers of the skull. For me, this was an exciting find and ended my long search for the possible connections. So, although I may not be in a direct line from the beheaded priest's family (hardly likely from the Father Philip Holden himself) I can say that their is a connection with the keepers of the skull, through the marriage of a cousin three times removed from me.

In 1995, I learnt of the existence of a John Holden, who farmed at Winkley Hall Farm near Stonyhurst and I wrote to him, mainly out of curiosity, but in the fervent hope that he might know about the skull. He descended down the line from Thomas Holden and Margaret Leeming, the parents of Henry Holden who married Ann Parker, mentioned above and in 1996 he wrote telling me he knew of the skull's existence, but more importantly, he had a fragment of skull handed down to him from his father, which he kept in a small cardboard box at his home in Hurst Green. This John Holden was a first cousin three times removed from the Margaret Holden, whose grave I found at Newhouse near Bilsborrow. Thus he has the same relationship to the wife Margaret (1816 - 1873) as I have to her husband John (1814 - 1886). Having kept in contact with this John Holden of Winkley Hall , I arranged to meet him for a second time, but with the express intent that he might show me the morsel of the skull that he had inherited. Together with my wife Jill and the two friends, Bob and Eileen Fenna, who, in the first place, had helped me to find the skull in the St. Robert's church, we visited him at Winkley Hall farm on 15th. March 1999. There in a small hand stitched circular pouch, within a 3" X 3" piece of linen, was the tiny fragment of the skull. On a small piece of paper in black ink handwriting was the following script. (Note 8) "This relic has been taken from The Holy Martyr's Head, The Reverend Philip Holden who suffered at Chapel House in Chaigley (date not known) The linen in which this Holy Relic is folded Has touched the Holy Hands of Father Arrowsmith S.J. Martyred at Lancaster August 25th. 1628"

Personally, I felt extremely humbled and privileged to see and touch that piece of linen, containing the skull morsel; it convinced me more than ever that I was somehow connected with it, despite Bamber's theory that it might not be that of a Father Philip Holden but that of someone from the Miles Gerrard family to whom the Holdens are connected.1 When I first wrote these words , I stated that I was content to accept the findings of my research and to rest on them, and I would not challenge anyone who could improve on what I have learnt about the skull. I am now well aware that I am not the only Holden, along with Father Newdigate and J.E. Bamber, who have tried to do the same thing. However, in learning of where my Holden blood line connected with the Holdens who secretly kept the skull before it was placed in the shrine at St. Roberts, I learnt something equally, if not more significant which I mentioned briefly at the end of Chapter 6 and which is more properly discussed in Chapter X

1. Monica Magdisch of Bath.

2. A paper which he presented to the Oxford Conference in 1963, entitled The Secret Treasure of Chaigley.

3. My Aunt Cecily Wright, my father's eldest sister.

4. Catforth, near Woodplumpton in the Fylde of Lancashire

5. On a later visit in 2005, a Mr J. Stirk of Chapel House was able to define the area where the chapel stood and the picture above, where there is a shallow hollow in the ground, locates it more precisely.

6. Richard Holden (b.1798 d.1888) will be described in later chapters.

7. 21Jun 1991.

8. Another visit was made to see John Holden of Winkley Hall Farm, when I was accompanied with my cousin Monica, on 19July2005. The morsel of skull was brought out to show us, together with the note describing Father Arrowsmith's connection. John Holden considered that the skull was more likely to have been that of Miles Gerrard.