Myth: the mummies of St Michan’s are a crusader, a thief, and a nun who died aged over 100
Reality: the ‘crusader’ is an anonymous 3-400 year-old Irishman, the thief might have been a murderer but could be neither of those, and there probably was a nun, but we don’t know which body is her – if any!
I have been meaning to write something about the mummies of St Michan’s church for years now, and this recent sad tale of head theft is a good reason to do it now, not least because of the disgustingly racist comments that have sprung up about it. Just as I was going to (word)press, the head and one of the loose skulls from the vault had been recovered, although of course the damage to the corpse where it has been torn/cut off is permanent. by the logic of the rabid internet loons, apparently the only possible culprit for the desecration of a ‘crusader’ must be a Muslim immigrant or a ‘liberal’. The BBC article does a decent job of relating the break-in and desecration of the corpse, but makes no mention of the important fact that the ‘Crusader’ is definitely not one. A crusader I mean. It’s definitely a corpse. The crypt at St Michan’s has been home to unusually well-preserved (naturally mummified) corpses for some time, with particular attention in modern times to three mummies, dubbed ‘the thief’ (the very tall body in the middle, whose right hand and both feet are missing), ‘the nun’ (currently said to be the left of the three in the middle of the vault) and yes, ‘the crusader’ (arranged transversely behind her, against the wall). Don’t ask me why the other exposed mummy on the right doesn’t have a special identity. There’s a weird tradition that visitors should touch the hand of the ‘crusader’ for good luck. I don’t believe in superstition, but I touched him anyway. After all, how often do you get actively encouraged to touch dead people?
Peter Somerville-Large pegged the ‘crusader’ as a ‘seventeenth century Dubliner’ in ‘Dublin, the Fair City’ (1996) and I am convinced that he was right. The bodies in the vault are at most 400 years old, but after only a century or so, local people thought that they must be much older. Sir Arthur Vicars had this figured this out 1888 in his ‘An account of the antiseptic vaults beneath S. Michan’s Church, Dublin, : read at the annual meeting of the Royal Archaeological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, at Leamington’ (1888, p.79-82):
‘This chamber contains altogether ten coffins, two on the left, four on the right, and four in the centre without lids. The centre one contains the body of a lady brought here about the year 1790. All these have once been covered with black velvet, some of which still hangs on the sides in strips. It is a popularly received idea that these bodies are several hundred years old, and people go even so far as to say that the body of a man with his legs crossed in the coffin nearest the wall is a crusader. The absurdity of this wild notion is obvious when we look at the coffins, which we have reasons for thinking are the original ones in which the bodies were first placed. They are of the ordinary shape of the present day, of which I believe I am correct in stating one of the earliest examples known is that of Lancelot, Bishop of Winchester, buried in 1626 in S. Saviour’s, Southwark, whose coffin was discovered in 1830 (Gent’s Mag., Aug., 1830, p. 171). Everyone knows now that the cross-legged crusader theory is long since exploded. There is not much to guide one in guessing the date of the coffins in S. Michan’s, but I should scarcely think that there are any prior in date to about the end of the seventeenth century, if indeed so early ; the greater number are much later than that. We were informed by the sexton that in another of the vaults, some years ago, he saw ” E. Rook, 1690,” marked in nails on the lid of a coffin of a child. The lock of this vault being out of order we were unable to visit it, though I have since had this statement corroborated by another ; but whether or not my informants mistook the 1790 for 1690 will, however, never be ascertained, for the coffin in question has since fallen to pieces. I don’t remember, however, having seen any dates on my previous visits. At all events, whatever their dates may be, the coffins must certainly have been here many years, and quite long enough to set people wondering how it is that time and the usual process of decay seem to have had no effect on them.’
Note that the ‘nun’ was, in 1888, claimed as the ‘middle’ corpse, not the one on the left. This must surely be a mistake, because the middle mummy is very clearly extremely tall and physically robust – one of two men out of the four mummies. The present building is no older than perhaps 1750, but the church itself is older. It was founded in 1095, making the crusader story plausible on the face of it, but only assuming that there were older vaults of some kind there previously such that the body could have been disinterred and reinterred in the new vaults. Which seems unlikely. Irish author Leon Ó Broin in his ‘Miss Crookshank agus Coirp Eile’ (1951) came to the conclusion that St Michan’s crypt was first opened in 1686, and that the oldest of the three corpses dated from 1780. My research suggests that interments actually started from 1641 onwards. ‘A story of Dublin: the people and events that shaped the city’ (John McCormack, 2000) mentions the repair and re-use of the vaults below the church circa the arrival of Thomas Wentworth in 1633. The earliest written accounts (there is another, also from 1822, in the New Monthly Magazine) make no mention of a ‘crusader’ or knight, so it seems that particular legend emerged at some point between 1822 and 1888:
‘Among these remnants of humanity, for instance, there is the body of a pious gentlewoman, who, while she continued above ground, shunned the eyes of men in the recesses of a convent. But the veil of death has not been respected. She stands the very first on the sexton’s list of posthumous rarities, and one of the most valuable appendages of his office. She is his buried treasure. Her sapless cheeks yield him a larger rent than some acres of arable land ; and what is worse, now that she cannot repel the imputation, he calls her to her face ” the Old Nun.” In point of fact, I understood that her age was one hundred and eleven, not
including the forty years that have elapsed since her second burial in St. Michan’s. Death, as has been often observed, is a thorough Radical, and levels all distinctions. It is so in this place. Beside the Nun there sleeps, not a venerable abbess, or timid novice, or meek and holy friar, but an athletic young felon of the 17th century, who had shed a brother’s, blood, and was sentenced for the offence to the close custody of St. Michan’s vaults. This was about one hundred and thirty years ago. The offender belonged to a family of some consideration, which accounts for his being found in such respectable society.
-(‘The Vaults of St. Michan’s’ in The New Monthly Magazine and Literary Journal Vol.5, p.395)
This account matches up very well date-wise; the oldest of the displayed bodies (whether or not the ‘felon’ is one of those still displayed) being from c.1710. If we assume that the ‘nun’ was correctly identified as either the left or right hand female body in 1822, this raises the fascinating possibility that the ‘thief’ in the middle may indeed be a criminal; but a murderer, not a thief. In any event, this story was apparently forgotten by 1888, and it’s perhaps less credible that this knowledge would have persisted after 130 years. Still, there’s potential for some consistency around the story here, if indeed the 1888 account is in error – it does seem to be at odds in this respect. The other accounts can be reconciled as the crusader being the one at the back, the criminal in the middle, and the nun next to him (most likely his left). Also mentioned in 1822 are the bodies of John and Henry Sheares, executed for their part in the 1798 Rising (only 16 years earlier than this source). These two were still being shown to visitors in 1888 and, I believe, until shortly before I visited in 2009. They now reside in a different vault, having been moved to the vault nearest the entrance in the 1850s.
The only constant in all of the accounts is the ‘nun’, the titular ‘Miss Crookshanks’ of Ó Broin’s book. Note that I haven’t actually been able to read this, because it’s in Irish, but from comments elsewhere and judiciously translated Google Books snippets, it seems that Ó Broin did in fact debunk the existence of a nun or any woman of this name. But let’s give the benefit of the doubt and see what else we can say. One might think that this woman having been interred only 40 years before the anonymous 1822 account above, that we could be sure of her identification as a 111-year-old nun called Crookshank. Wright (1825) reinforces this;
‘In one vault is shown the remains of a nun, who died at the advanced age of 111 : the body has now been 30 years in this mansion of death, and although there is scarcely a remnant of the coffin, is as completely preserved, with the exception of the hair, as if it had been embalmed. In the same vault are to be seen the bodies of two Roman Catholic clergymen, which have been 50 years deposited here, even more perfect than the nun.’
-’An historical guide to the city of Dublin’ by George Newenham Wright (p.62).
This puts the nun/Crookshank’s approximate year of death at 1795. As to the clergymen mentioned, I have no idea whether any of the remains in the current vault might be these men, or even if that ID was correct at the time. Richard Robert Madden’s 1842 account of Miss Crookshank suggests a much older corpse, relocated twice; first from her own tomb (presumably also within the specially preservative vaults, or perhaps another sepulchre on site?) and then in what was then recent times to a different vault (possibly the current one) – shortly before Wright saw her:
‘One of these bodies, “whose antiquity is of an ancient date,” for the tenants of European sepulchres, is still existing in the same vault in which the Sheares’ remains are interred : the remains are those of a person, in former time renowned for her piety — a member of a religious community — of the name of Crookshank. Some sixty or seventy years ago, the wonder-working effects produced by this good lady’s remains, used to bring vast numbers of visitants to her tomb — till the spirit of whiskey unfortunately mingled a little too much with the spirit of veneration for the virtues of the nun, and the rudiments of a fine ” pattern” were spoiled by the intervention of the authorities. Poor Miss Crookshank’s relics, from that period till about the year 1816, when I first saw them, were visited only by curious boys and scientific gentlemen. In the month of February in the present year, after a lapse of twenty-six years, I found the remains of the nun removed from the place where they were originally deposited, as likewise those of John and Henry Sheares, and deposited in what is called the parish vault. Up to the time of the removal, which took place some five or six years ago, the remains continued, I was informed, in the same perfect state in which they have been long known to exist. But the exposure to the air, consequent to the removal of her remains, and those of the Sheares on the same occasion, had proved injurious to them, and to the latter especially.’
That’s a lot of potential for misidentification. I do think that this veneration of the unusually well-preserved nun is interesting in light of the present-day traditional of touching the finger of the ‘crusader’. I’m not aware of this kind of veneration of a corpse that wasn’t some sort of saint, priest, or nun, so I do wonder if the practice has been transferred over the years from one corpse to another. Possibly more than once, even. It’s possible that the age of the corpse before relocation got confused with its age at death. An ‘old mummy’ isn’t necessarily old in lifespan terms.
In any case, the broken jumbled corpse currently identified with the ‘nun’ was examined for the TV show ‘Mummy Roadshow’ in 200 (aired 2003) and shown to have been a female no older than 60 years old when she died, and not the over 100 years of age that both 19th century written sources and modern oral tradition hold. The findings are detailed in the book ‘Mummy Dearest’ (2005) by the same guys (Ron Beckett and Jerry Conlogue). Their theory as to why the ‘nun’ was thought to be so old is interesting, but I found it surprising that within a single generation, local people could have forgotten that this woman was actually half that age when she died. Beckett and Conlogue’s findings on the ‘nun’ were as follows;
‘She had a multitude of bumps on her arm, which sort of gave her the appearance of great age. We were not sure how her legend originated, but from what I saw inside her skull, she was not close to 122 years old. In fact, from the sutures in the skull plates, she appeared to be no older than sixty, and perhaps as young as her thirties. As for being a nun— we weren’t able to determine this. The bumps turned out to be very interesting. When we took a closer look, we noticed the nun had two elbows on her left arm, which suggested this was a mix-n-match mummy. We asked our friend, pathologist Larry Cartmell, about the bumps, and he thought they could be calcium deposits, probably a result of chronic kidney failure. He also added that the arm did not belong to the nun, because its owner would have had these awful bumps all over his or her body. You could see how this condition would have made someone believe this was an incredibly old woman, but the evidence pointed to someone much younger.’
Now, here I note that the fourth mummy, the one with no traditional backstory, turned out to also be female. The book states that they weren’t able to say any more about this one, and given that in 1888, this corpse was the nun/Miss Crookshank, I’m not sure how significant this conclusion actually is. We only know the relative positions of these three bodies, so there’s a reasonable chance that this is actually ‘her’. Interestingly, looking at the photos from 1888, recent times, and sometime in between (early 20th century I think – the poses are very similar and there is still some velvet hanging from the right hand coffin) you can see that the jumbled body on the left has been extensively messed with (broken up, in fact) and its coffin replaced between the first and second photos (and then rearranged between the second and third). This might support the idea that this body was a ‘supporting cast member’ of sorts and not the precious ‘nun’, who looks virtually identical and intact in all three images. Contradicting this however is the 1842 account suggesting that the nun was moved (not so much that she had deteriorated, as it’s fair to say that any of these may well have seen better days by 1822). The female on the right does not look as though she’s moved since her coffin broke apart – but perhaps that began when she was moved to this position, which could have been from elsewhere within this vault, or, if she was ever the ‘nun’, from the other vault mentioned. The fact is that we just don’t know which, if either of these, might originally have been the real-life Miss Crookshank, or if she even existed.
‘Mummy Dearest’ continues on the subject of the ‘thief’:
‘As for his hand, it was definitely severed cleanly, which indicated that he probably lost it after he died. We didn’t think this was done as punishment, which was the story that had long been circulating about this person.’
Note that Vicars in 1888 thought this, the middle of the three then and now, was a female corpse, but also believed it to be a post-mortem injury.
‘Given that his feet were sawed off so that he could fit in the coffin, it is just as likely that his hand was removed and sold to a medical student.
Finally, on the ‘crusader’:
‘Because he was a large individual, we surmised he simply did not fit into the one-size-fits-all coffins of the middle ages [sic]. It was not uncommon back then for a body to be crammed into a coffin too small for it. What we did not expect to find was that the feet and legs were much smaller, proportionally, when compared to his hands. As we looked closer, we also found that he had an extra pair of knees (and no, he didn’t have four legs). When Jerry’s X-ray showed two spines, it was clear that we were dealing with two corpses here – or at least one corpse on top of another partial one. Of course, there was one big question we couldn’t help but ask: Was he (or they) really a crusader? When crusaders returned from the Middle East and died, their legs were crossed when they were buried. This mummies’ legs were crossed, which was probably how the story originated. But we noticed that his pelvis had split apart at some point, and whoever had put the pieces back together had crossed the legs. This did not preclude him from being a crusader, but it didn’t prove anything, either. The definitive answer came courtesy of a fabric sample I found in his chest cavity. I was able to remove it with the endoscope, and then sent it to be carbon-dated, along with a sample of lung tissue. The numbers that came back said he had lived two hundred years after the crusades.
Frankly, I find even this unlikely. Even a date of c.1565 (assuming we call the Sack of Alexandria the latest of the crusades) would be far older than any of the other evidence would support, and would pre-date the present vaults themselves by at least a century. I suspect that the actual C14 dates were older, given that the authors talk about ‘the middle ages’ (a fellow blogger suggests 1364, but this would be less than 100 years after the last proper crusade). Of course this body could have been reburied and might in fact be older, although I think it unlikely. In any case, the only available scientific dating definitely didn’t give a date consistent with the crusades.
The St Michan’s section of the book (I recommend getting hold of it for the many other mummy stories included) closes with the musing ‘I wonder if St. Michan’s would have let us investigate the mummies had they known the the outcome of our study.’ The authors suggest that the custodians of the vaults, relying on the income that it generates, would not change their story, but the leaflet I have from 2009 is very upfront about the age of the vaults and the reality of the crusader (‘…in reality he never lived to see the Crusades!’). Worryingly though, interviews with the clergy following the recent theft show no sign of this sceptical attitude. This enlightenment period Dubliner is back to being misidentified as an ‘800-year old crusader’.
I should note that not everyone shares my scepticism. The article ‘Bodies preserved from the days of the Crusades in St Micham’s Church, Dublin’ (L M McKinley. J Pathol May 1977 (Vol. 122, Issue 1, Pages 27-8). This focuses only on the remarkable preservation in evidence (the author’s area of expertise and interest), not on the age or history of the bodies. Oh, and the author couldn’t spell ‘Michan’. Suffice to say that he didn’t carry out his due diligence on this one.
In passing/closing, I should note that the recent theft is not the first time that a head has been stolen from the vaults. Vicars relates the story ‘many years ago’ (from his 1888 perspective) of the head of John Sheares was stolen ‘for a wager’ but was recovered and replaced. Sadly, I doubt that the same is true this time, but I also find the suggestion that it must be muslims/immigrants/liberals rather unlikely and the outrage misplaced. This poor dead person may not have been a ‘crusader’, but he was a human being deserving of some respect and dignity (and that’s coming from someone who has no real problem with the managed display or even the ritualised touching of the corpse).