In 1578, the patron saint of dieters, cardinals and bishops; Charles Borromeo came to Turin to pray at a shroud which was believed to have the image of Jesus’ crucified body imprinted on its fibres. There is a possibility that two Welshmen were with him, possibly the first from these shores to witness close up the Turin Shroud.
The Turin Shroud is considered to be one of the most famous Holy relics surviving today. It is a piece of linen cloth which has the image of the body of a bearded man on its surface. The figure displays injuries which could correspond with crucifixion wounds. A carbon test in 1988 on the linen dated the cloth to between1260 and 1390.
The Shroud began to be displayed publicly from c.1355 at Lirey church. By 1464 it was in the hands of the Duke of Savoy. In 1502 the Shroud was located at Sainte Chappelle at Chambéry. Chambéry ‘s Alpine position was not in a secure location , too close to the Duke’s enemies but he could not afford to upset the town by locating it elsewhere without good reason. The perfect opportunity came in 1578.
Milan had suffered a terrible plague in from 1576 to 1578. The Archbishop of Milan, Carlo Borromeo had decided to walk from Milan with twelve companions to the Shroud at Chambéry to give thanks for the release of Milan from the plague. Borromeo, forty at the time, had suffered from ill health and this gave Duke Emmanuel Philibert of Savoy an excellent reason for re-locating the Shroud to the secure city of Turin. It would take Borromeo and his companions four days to walk the route. The exposition of the cloth was an impressive occasion. The original plan was to construct a wooden platform within the cathedral but as people flocked to Turin it became clear that a much larger space was required. As a result a wooden stage was built in the Piazza Castello enabling the huge crowds, estimated to be around 40 000, to witness the unveiling of the Shroud from its cedar casket.
Borromeo is a fascinating figure. He was once asked what he would do if he had only fifteen minutes to live and replied, ‘keep playing billiards’. He was well liked and respected by the majority of Milanese. He inherited great wealth and became a Cardinal through the influence of his uncle Cardinal de Medici (who became Pope Pius IV). Borromeo sold off his art collection and used his money to serve the poor. During the Milanese plague—named in history as Peste San Carlo, the Plague of Saint Charles—he used his finances to try and feed sixty to seventy thousand people daily and organised care for the sick and the dying.
He attempted to reform the religious orders but some resisted these changes and an attempt was made on his life. One order in particular—the Humiliati resented these reforms. There were four main conspirators: Gorlamo Donato Farina, Girolamo Legnano,Lorenzo Campagna and Clemente Mirisio who plotted to assassinate Borromeo. All of them were priests. On October 26th 1569, during morning prayers; Farina dressed as a layman, entered St Barnabas church and shot Borromeo in the back as he prayed at the altar. Borromeo refused assistance until he had completed the prayer. The bullet-holed cassock remains in Milan to this day. Despite Borromeo’s appeals for leniency the convicted perpetrators were handed to the civil authorities; they were tortured and sentenced to death. In July 1570, two were beheaded and Farina with a co-conspirator was hanged. Only one of the plotters was spared: Nassino who was imprisoned for five years.
Borromeo was well aware of the religious turmoil in England and Wales during Elizabeth I‘s reign. In 1559 The Act of Supremacy which declared the Queen as Supreme Governor of the church was passed. In the same year an Act of Conformity became law which stated a revised edition of Edward IV‘s second book of prayer would be the official order of worship. Priests had to swear an oath acknowledging the Supremacy of the Sovereign over the church or lose their positions. For many Catholic priests it was too much for their consciences to accept. Many priests and seminarians fled to Europe to study at places such as Rheims, Douai and Rome. Their ambition was to return and convert the country to Catholicism by three main methods. Firstly, by smuggling priests back to the mainland to preach and convert. Secondly, by political means: supporting plotters and conspirators and finally and crucially by the deployment of the printed word. Many books were published in both English and Welsh by printers in Europe and smuggled into the country in an attempt to appeal to the hearts and minds of the literate.
Borromeo welcomed English and Welsh priests to Milan. In 1580 Edmund Campion and Ralph Sherwin visited Borromeo on their way to England. He appointed an Englishman Thomas Goldwell as his Vicar General. Amongst his key personnel were two Welshmen: Gruffudd Roberts and Owen Lewis.
Gruffudd Roberts was born on the Llŷn peninsula, possibly Llanddeiniolen in North West Wales and educated at Christ Church College Oxford. He became Archdeacon of Anglesey in 1559, at the very moment when religious change was being implemented. He fled to Rome and met another Welshman Morys Clynog there.
Morys Clynog was in contact with William Cecil, Lord Burleigh who was Secretary of State at the time. Clynog wrote a letter in 1567 in Welsh to him from Rome and structured the correspondence in the form of parables to evade Elizabeth’s spies deciphering its contents warning him that Elizabeth was about to be excommunicated. Clynog became rector of the newly established English College in Rome in 1578. He did not remain rector for long as he was accused of favouring Welsh students over English students—even though there were thirty-three English to only seven Welsh students. By 1579 he had been replaced.
Sometime in the 1560’s Roberts had reached Milan and had become a Theological Canon at the Grand Duomo Cathedral in Milan. He quickly established himself amongst the hierarchy of the Milanese church; during the plague of 1567 he was distributing alms with Borromeo. He became a confessor to Charles Borromeo himself. Roberts remained in Milan for the remainder of his life. In 1598 he was an ecclesiastical censor and most likely had died in May 1598 . There is a tantalising reference to a Dr. Griffith who was a confessor in a convent in Milan in 1605. That is the last reference to Gruffudd.
Roberts realised the importance of the written word and in 1567 wrote Dosbarth Byrr ar y rhann gyntaf i ramadeg Gymraeg ( A short lesson on the first part of welsh Grammar). He wrote six parts to it over many years in exile. In the preface he includes a beautiful lament to Wales whilst in Italian exile . He writes about the Milanese vineyards and adds: a Welshman’s heart does not respond to them, as it would the banks of the Dee or the Vale of Clwyd, or to many places I could name from St David’s to Holyhead (Translation: M .Stephens).
There is no doubt that Gruffudd Roberts was in Milan from the 1560’s and 1584, he was a key member of Borromeo’s inner circle and to be his personal confessor indicates he was a very close companion. He was by Borromeo’s side on his death in 1584. I believe that this indicates he could well have been one of Borromeo’s companions in both 1578 and 1582 to witness the unveiling of the Shroud in its new home.
Another Welshman who became a key member of Borromeo’s administration was Owen Lewis. Owen was born in Llangadwaladar , Anglesey in 1533. He was a fellow of New College Oxford and went into exile c. 1561. He studied Law and Divinity at the University of Douai. In 1574 he was in Rome and with Morys Clynog was a key figure in establishing the English College in Rome. It was in Rome that Owen’s abilities came to the attention of Borromeo. Owen also saw the importance of the written word and in August 1579 he appealed to Cardinal Gugliemo Sirleto to request his assistance in persuading the Pope for financial support to print in Italy Welsh translations of Catholic texts. His hope was to smuggle the works into Wales. There is no record that the Pope did assist him with the venture.
Between 1580 and 1584, Owen Lewis was in Milan and was appointed a Vicar General. Owen became a member of Borromeo’s household, all dined together in a refectory and from the clergy that formed part of the household twelve became bishops and many others became Papal Nuncios. He was so trusted by Borromeo that in 1583 whilst the cardinal was in Switzerland, Owen was entrusted with all the affairs of the diocese. Owen left Milan shortly after Borromeo’s death, returning to Rome. He became bishop of Cassano and in 1592 was assisting Pope Clement’s visitations of Roman churches, ensuring that the fabric and decorations within them complied with what was deemed acceptable by the church.
When the opportunity arose to visit the Shroud in 1578, Borromeo chose twelve from his household to accompany him, Gruffudd Roberts was a prominent member of Borromeo’s inner circle and it is highly likely he would have been one of the Cardinal’s companions travelling with him to Turin; possibly an eyewitness to the private showing of the Shroud to the Milanese visitors. There is an engraving of the Shroud’s exposition dating from 1578 by Giovanni Testa. It is highly likely the engraving was made before the event in order to profit from selling a memento of the occasion. The engraving, perhaps prepared some days before the exposition, carries an inaccuracy. The Bishop of Asti, Domenico Della Rovere, was not able to attend and at the last moment Monsignor Grimaldi, Bishop of Venice, took his place but is not listed as one of the prelates in the image, which can be seen here. It shows and lists the eleven prelates present and in the background there are eleven ecclesiastics behind the prelates. It is tantalising to think that Gruffudd Roberts may well be one of the religious standing behind Charles Borromeo. An Englishman Thomas Goldwell was also part of Borromeo’s inner circle, he had been Bishop of St Asaph in 1555 and would have known Roberts. In 1578 Goldwell would have been seventy-seven and is unlikely he would have been asked to complete such an arduous journey. Roberts would have been about fifty.
When Borromeo returned to Turin once more to pray at the Shroud in 1582 we know that Roberts and also Owen Lewis were prominent members of Borromeo’s inner circle. They were close companions to Borromeo and there is the intriguing possibility that one or both may have accompanied Borromeo to witness the Shroud closely. Further research in the archives of the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan may provide further evidence. Quite possibly, they were the first eye witnesses from these shores to have inspected the cloth closely.
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Giussano, G. P. (2015) Life of Saint Charles Borromeo. London: Aeterna Press.
Gwynne Jones, E. (1953) ‘LEWIS, OWEN, or OWEN, LEWIS (1533 – 1595), bishop of Cassano, southern Italy’, The Welsh Biography Dictionary. Available at: https://bywgraffiadur.cymru/article/c1-LEWI-OWE-1533.
Stephens, M. (1987) A Book of Wales: An Anthology. London: J.M. Dent & Sons.
Williams, G. J. and Bryant-Quinn, M. P. (2019) ‘ROBERT, GRUFFYDD (c. 1527 – 1598), priest, grammarian and poet’, The Welsh Biography Dictionary. Available at: https://bywgraffiadur.cymru/article/c1-LEWI-OWE-1533.
Wilson, I. (2010) The Shroud. London: Bantam.