As the Memorial of Our Lady of the Rosary draws near (Oct. 7), some famous rosaries may come to mind. For example, there is the childhood rosary that belonged to President John F. Kennedy. It was donated to the Sinsinawa Dominican Sisters in Wisconsin, back when they had a rosary museum at Sinsinawa Mound. The collection was later dispersed, but the JFK rosary had been given to the sisters by the late president’s own mother, Rose Kennedy. (See bit.ly/3EVtF6e for more on the JFK rosary.)
Then there is the world’s most expensive rosary, which sold in 2016, for the amazing amount of $842,500. It had belonged to the Saxon Royal Family and, yes, it contains 70 emeralds, as well as gold links and diamonds.
Also noteworthy is King Henry VIII’s rosary, now at Chatsworth House in Chesterfield, England, which is owned by the Duke of Devonshire. The rosary is elaborately carved from boxwood and bears the initials of Henry and his first wife, Katherine of Aragon.
In May of this past year, the rosary of Henry’s great-niece, Mary Stuart, better known as Mary, Queen of Scots, was also in the news. It was stolen.
Mary Stuart was the granddaughter of Henry’s sister, Margaret Tudor. Like all Tudors to that point, Margaret was Catholic, as were her children and grandchildren. When Henry broke with the Catholic Church in 1534 to form his own Church of England, Catholics naturally objected. (One of them was Sir Thomas More, who was executed by Henry in 1535.)
After Henry died, his children, starting with King Edward VI, succeeded him. Edward died young and was followed by his sister, Queen Mary I, who was the daughter of Henry’s first marriage. Mary was Catholic. But she died without an heir, except for her sister, Elizabeth, daughter of Henry and Anne Boleyn, his second wife, which, by Catholic Church standards, was not legal.
When she came to the throne of England, Elizabeth I retained Henry’s self-awarded title of “head of the church in England,” so Catholics did not accept her as Queen of England. They felt that the legitimate heir to the crown was Mary Stuart. Elizabeth did not agree and, after many years of political maneuvering and imprisonment for Mary, sentenced her cousin to death as a traitor.
When Mary was executed, on Feb. 8, 1587, at Fotheringhay Castle, one of the few things left in her possession was a gold rosary. It is said that she had it with her as she went to the scaffold. While Mary left behind a son, who eventually became King James I of England (and, at the same time, James VI of Scotland), the rosary did not go to him. Instead, it was left to Anne Howard, the Countess of Arundel, a cousin of Mary Stuart. The countess eventually converted to Catholicism. From her, the rosary passed down through the family to the present Duke of Norfolk, Henry Miles Fitzalan-Howard, also the Earl of Arundel. He is Catholic.
Until this year, Mary Stuart’s rosary was kept in a display case in Arundel Castle in West Sussex. For four centuries, Arundel Castle has served as the seat of the Duke of Norfolk, historically regarded as England’s premier lay Catholic peer.
On May 21, 2021, Arundel castle was broken into by thieves. Many gold and silver items were taken, in total nearly 2 million dollars’ worth of treasure. Also taken was Mary’s rosary. To date, it has not been recovered.
The gold-beaded rosary, with remnants of black and white enamel on the medallion and crucifix, is not of great monetary value. However, it is priceless in the history of the Catholic Church in England.
“The rosary is of little intrinsic value as metal, but as [a] piece of the Howard family history and the nation’s heritage it is irreplaceable,” said Sussex police in the statement after the theft.
Jan Graffius, curator of the Stonyhurst Collection, told the Catholic News Agency, “This is a very tragic loss for history, and specifically for Catholic history. I heartily wish that the stolen artifacts are speedily reunited with their rightful owner, whose family has faithfully cared for them over so many centuries.” The Stonyhurst Collection also has Mary Stuart’s prayer book in its archives. The queen took this prayer book, a Book of Hours, to her death as well.
Sources: Stewartsociety.org; Catholic News Service; Smithsonianmagazine.com; cathnews.com (the Australian Catholic bishops conference); cath.org; aleteia.org; refinery29.com; townandcountrymagazine.com; reuters.com; rosarycollector.wordpress.com; metmuseum.org; Heritage Auctions at ha.com; liveauctioneers.com and irishcatholic.com.