Spanish dig closes in on burial site of Irish lord Red Hugh O'Donnell

Valladolid archaeologists find human skull in chapel where Christopher Columbus was also buried

Somewhere beneath a street in north-west Spain – probably between a bank branch and a budget clothes shop – lies the ruined chapel where an eight-toed rebel Irish lord was buried after his final, fatal mission 418 years ago.

Red Hugh O’Donnell, who escaped captivity and led a rebellion that almost expelled the Tudor English forces from Ireland, fled to Spain after the Battle of Kinsale in 1602 when the rebels tried to team up with a beleaguered Spanish expeditionary force.

He came to the country to lobby for a fresh Spanish invasion but died of a suspected tapeworm infection near the city of Valladolid aged 29.

Four centuries after O’Donnell’s death, investigators and archaeologists in the city are hunting for the chapel where he was buried – and which also held the body of Christopher Columbus before the explorer’s remains began a long intercontinental voyage of their own. Three years after he was buried in the Valladolid monastery, Columbus’s remains were moved to Seville and later sent to the Caribbean. After a sojourn on the island of Hispaniola – present-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic – they went to Cuba before returning to Seville in 1898.

En la capilla de las Maravillas, en el lugar exacto donde se cree que se enterró a Red Hugh O’Donnell así como en su día a Cristobal Colón, han aparecido algunos restos y dos ataúdes.

— Oscar Puente (@oscar_puente_) May 26, 2020

Efforts to locate the Chapel of Wonders, which was part of Valladolid’s huge St Francis monastery, began last year after an Irish visitor asked the local authorities if anyone knew where O’Donnell lay.

Óscar Burón, an architect for the city council, was one of those consulted. A year on, Burón, his fellow investigator Juan Carlos Urueña and a team of archaeologists are into their second week of excavations and believe they are closing in on the chapel.

“The monastery, which had been built at the end of the 13th century, was the most significant in the city in terms of both size and importance,” said Burón.

By the time O’Donnell died in the nearby village of Simancas, he added, Valladolid was serving as the seat of the court of Philip III and the monastery would have been “at the height of its splendour”. But the site was sold and destroyed in 1836 during a wave of monastic expropriations.

Using records, digital technology and the only surviving plan of the monastery, which dates from 1835, the team set about looking for the chapel.

“We’ve been piecing together the plans and looking for the trail over the past 200 or 300 years to find out where certain walls and lines are now,” said Burón.

“Now it’s just a question of putting that together – and praying a lot. On Monday morning, the archaeologists said they’d come across another of the walls we were expecting to find, which means we’re getting very close.”

The dig in the centre of Valladolid, Spain
The dig in the centre of Valladolid, Spain. Photograph: Jesús Guerra

The project has turned up hundreds of bone fragments and on Wednesday found six more-or-less intact skeletons, leading the team to suspect they are already in or around the Chapel of Wonders.

The dig has attracted considerable interest from Ireland, where O’Donnell remains a romantic – and romanticised – figure, and a symbol of defiance on a par with Scotland’s William Wallace. O’Donnell was born in 1572 in what is today County Donegal, a north-west corner of Ireland that had held on to its Gaelic identity and independence against English encroachment.

He clashed with local rivals, raided cattle and pillaged much of Galway but Irish schoolchildren tend to focus on 1592, when he escaped imprisonment in Dublin Castle and lost two toes to frostbite while fleeing over the Wicklow mountains.

With his father-in-law, Hugh O’Neill, he led a nine-year campaign that scored notable victories against Queen Elizabeth I’s forces before defeat at Kinsale. From there, he struck out for Spain.

“He was a formidable operator – powerful and probably quite charismatic,” said Jane Ohlmeyer, a professor of modern history at Trinity College Dublin and author of Making Ireland English: the Irish Aristocracy in the Seventeenth Century.

“He was a very significant regional powerbroker and periodically a thorn in the side of the English crown. Taking him out would have been a priority for Queen Elizabeth and her officials in Ireland.”

Were they to be found, his remains could yield DNA that would confirm or scotch a theory that he was poisoned, said Ohlmeyer. “You can tell a lot from people’s bones. They could tell us not only how he died but how he lived.”

Burón, however, is adamant that no one should be holding their breath. The monastery was used as a burial site for hundreds of years and the bones it held were churned and mixed up when it was destroyed in 1836. And besides, he added, real-life archaeological quests seldom end as neatly as they do in Indiana Jones films.

“People in Ireland are hoping that a skeleton missing two toes will turn up and that it’ll be poor old Red Hugh,” said the architect. “But it would be impossible to do a DNA test on each of the 300 or 400 bone fragments we’ve found – unless a Bill Gates type wants to come along and spend their millions on it.”

For him and the rest of the team, the project is about much more than bones, no matter how illustrious. “What we’re doing is trying to locate the chapel where Columbus and O’Donnell were so that the site can get the respect it deserves,” said Burón.

“It’s important for the people of Valladolid and important for the people of Ireland. This monastery was one of the biggest in Spain at the time and it’s very sad that a place with so much heritage and history was lost overnight. It’s so valuable and yet it’s been forgotten.”


Sam Jones in Madrid and Rory Carroll in Dublin

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