Detective work by students has shed fresh light on the mystery behind a religious relic - and how it came to be kept at a historic York site.

The research involves Saint Margaret Clitherow, also known as the Pearl of York, and the mystery behind how the Bar Convent, the UK's oldest living convent, in Blossom Street, became custodian of her relic, said to be her hand. 

Using unseen documents from the Bar Convent’s archives, students from York St John University have been investigating unsolved questions into how did the relic come into possession of the convent, when was it brought there and why.

This research will be shared in a new exhibition alongside archive material that has never been on display before.

It will offer a new interpretation on the significance of Saint Margaret Clitherow to York, Catholicism and women’s history, to mark the anniversary of her death on March 25, 1586 and International Women’s Day on Wednesday (March 8).

York Press: Jessica Diamond, Benjamin Stringer and Mia Skinner of York St John UniversityJessica Diamond, Benjamin Stringer and Mia Skinner of York St John University (Image: The Bar Convent)

In 1586, Margaret Clitherow paid the ultimate price for harbouring Roman Catholic priests in a secret room at her home on Shambles.

She was taken to the toll booth on Ouse Bridge and 'pressed to death'. It is said that her body was placed on a sharp rock and a door from her own house was placed on top of her then loaded with heavy stones until she was crushed.

Special collections manager at the Bar Convent, Dr Hannah Thomas, said: “Saint Margaret Clitherow, also known as The Pearl of York, is one of the most significant martyrs, particularly in terms of the nature of her execution.

"Her death was seen as so brutal by her contemporaries that Queen Elizabeth I is said to have written to the city officials to condemn their actions - and a sentence of this nature was never passed again as punishment for Catholics in this country.

“We receive many questions from visitors about why Saint Margaret Clitherow’s relic is housed at the convent and how it came to be here.

“York St John University students Jessica Diamond, Benjamin Stringer and Mia Skinner, who are second year history students, were given access to our archives and have carried out research into these questions for the first time.

“They have been working with material that has never been made public before, including a pocket-sized engraving depicting her execution, several books about martyrs compiled by the English Catholic community and probably read by the earliest members of the Bar Convent community - and a very rare handwritten biography of Margaret Clitherow.

York Press: The rare handwritten biography of Margaret ClitherowThe rare handwritten biography of Margaret Clitherow (Image: The Bar Convent)

"All were made in the 17th century and designed for covert circulation amongst the hidden Catholic community in York. They will go on public display for the first time in the Bar Convent exhibition.”

New interpretation will also explore Saint Margaret Clitherow’s fellow women of the Catholic underground and other influential women who have contributed to the Bar Convent.

Relics are physical objects which have a direct association with the saints or with Christ. The word comes from the Latin terms for remains and to leave behind. Catholic scripture teaches that God acts through relics.

This temporary display is within the Bar Convent’s permanent exhibition with new interpretation also in the Chapel alongside the relic.