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18th-century ship held saint’s relics

29 June 2012

by Nicholas Cranfield

THE Ashmolean Museum, in Oxford, is hosting an exhibition that tells the story of an 18th-century merchant ship, the Westmorland, and part of its cargo: a saint's relics, which had been hidden on board.

The Westmorland sailed from the Italian port of Leghorn to England, but was captured and taken to Málaga in 1779. The cargo, which included souvenirs from travellers on the Grand Tour, was sold to King Carlos III.

Unknown to the ship's captain, however, relics of St Clement had also been brought on board. They were destined for the chapel at Wardour Castle, near Tisbury, in Wiltshire.

It was not until 1789, however, that the relics were released by the Spaniards, and sent to England in a "diplomatic bag".

The exhibition is the result of a research project begun in the late 1990s by the then director of the National Archaelogical Museum in Spain, Professor José María Luzón Nogué, with gaps in the story filled by discoveries made in recent years.

A retired teacher, Barry Williamson, found that a crate labelled "holy body" in the cargo of the Westmorland contained the relics that are today in the chapel at Wardour.

The original inventories of the ship's crates, which survive in the archives in Madrid, have allowed the identification of many items that were on the Westmorland when it was captured, and it is now possible to link the objects and works of art to the individuals who were sending them home to Britain.

"The English Prize: The Capture of the Westmorland, an Episode of the Grand Tour", runs at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, until 27 August; and at the Yale Center for British Art, Newhaven, US, from 4 October to 13 January 2013.


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