Bryn Hall, in Ashton-in-Makerfield, is well-known for the legend of the Holy Hand which was kept here for decades, reverently wrapped in a white silk bag. This hand was a relic of martyred priest Father Arrowsmith, who was killed in 1628 because he was of the Catholic faith.
Edmund Arrowsmith,whose given name was Bryan, was born in Haydock in 1585. He assumed his new name when he was confirmed; Edmund was the name of a favourite uncle. He trained as a Catholic priest on the continent before returning to England to fulfil his mission, settling in Brindle. The Blue Anchor pub in Brindle was the centre of his network for the landlord was a sympathiser and those requiring Father Arrowsmith’s services could call for him there.
All was well until Father Arrowsmith discovered that the landlord’s son had married a first cousin and, compounding the heresy, the marriage had been performed by a Protestant. Incensed, Father Arrowsmith told the boy that the marriage must not be consummated until Rome had pronounced the union valid in the eyes of God. This was enough for the boy to betray Father Arrowsmith‘s Roman Catholic faith to the authorities, who sent soldiers to arrest him. Warned of his impending capture, Father Arrowsmith rode quickly through Brindle but was captured when his horse refused to jump a ditch on Brindle Moss.
Father Arrowsmith was imprisoned in Lancaster Castle and condemned to death. He was executed in August, 1628. In time, he would be beatified and after his death, many relics of the Saint made their way to churches for preservation. It is said that just before his death he begged the attending clergy to preserve his right hand, promising that it would have the power to effect miraculous cures.
The ‘Holy Hand’ was first preserved by Father Arrowsmith’s family, who cared for it for many years at Bryn Hall and later at Garswood. Pilgrims who came secretly to touch the hand claimed it had miraculous powers of healing and as this legend spread, the fame of the Holy Hand grew. People claimed relief from all kinds of maladies and even impending death and it was one of these cases which, in 1736, became the Holy Hand’s first accepted miracle. Young Thomas Hawarden had a persistent fever and had gradually lost the use of his limbs, being unable to walk or even stand. His mother drew the Holy Hand up and down Thomas’ back, reciting a prayer all the time, until at last Thomas declared that he thought he could stand up – and he promptly did so.
Another miracle cure is in the records; that of Mary Fletcher, who was cured of convulsions in 1768. She had suffered dreadfully and was confined to bed, her Doctor saying there was nothing more to be done for her. The Holy Hand was brought to her bedside by her brother and Mary prayed to it sincerely whilst it was applied to her body. The very next day, Mary was up and about again, helping her siblings with the housework and the baking.
These cures were formally witnessed by gentry and by priests. One priest, who had witnessed Mary Fletcher’s cure, had need of the Holy Hand himself when he had a life-threatening disease of his throat. He was cured with a single touch of the miraculous relic. As late as 1872, miraculous cures were still being reported. A destitute woman from Wigan called Catherine Collins, who had been forced to enter the workhouse because she was too sick to make her own way in the world, was cured of paralysis by the Holy Hand. This cure was reported in the Daily News.
However, there are also stories which illustrate how irritated the servants at Bryn Hall must have been by the constant stream of hopeful sickly pilgrims, because they fashioned a large wooden hand, with which to beat those they judged unworthy of the real thing!
The miracles attributed to the Holy Hand led to Father Arrowsmith being ratified as a saint in 1929. His Holy Hand is still renowned for its powers of healing.
It is also said of Father Arrowsmith that he cursed one of the sheriffs who attended his execution, a member of the Kenyon family, because he would not grant a small favour before he was killed. Father Arrowsmith promised that although the Kenyon family would have heirs, they would all be crippled and infirm. According to the story, this was indeed the fate of the Kenyons…