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Swedish mother-daughter saint skulls are ringers, say boffins

Nuns' holy-deer-of-God virgin relic fails DNA testing

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The skulls of a mother-and-daughter pair of female Swedish saints, treasured as holy relics for centuries at the abbey of their order, have been exposed as fakes by genetics boffins.

The two skulls were supposed to be those of Saint Bridget (Birgitta) of Sweden and her daughter Saint Catherine (Katarina), noted heavyweight holy ladies of the 14th century.

Saint Bridget was, according to the Catholic Encyclopaedia, "the most celebrated saint of the Northern kingdoms", famous for having visions of Jesus and writing down stuff he had told her. Born in 1303, she moved to Rome in 1349 and stayed there (barring pilgrimages to the Holy Land and so on) until her death in 1373. She got the thumbs-up for saint status from Pope Boniface IX just 18 years later, an impressive performance - especially when one considers that the intervening period had seen a massive row as to just who was the real Pope.

Bridget's daughter Catherine, meanwhile, married a German nobleman but managed to persuade him to join her in a vow of mutual chastity and the pair lived as virgins until she joined her mother on the journey to Rome. Her husband, left behind in Sweden, died soon after they got there, and she refused to marry again despite having apparently received many offers. Catholic tradition holds that a magic holy deer of god would turn up and protect her when "unchaste youths sought to ensnare her". Less hotly fancied in the sainthood stakes than her mother, it took Catherine over a century after her death in 1381 to get canonised.

Both Bridget and Catherine's skulls were kept in Vadstena Abbey back in Sweden after their deaths, and in accordance with custom were regarded as big juju among Catholics as time went by. But it seems that in fact some hanky-panky must have taken place at some point, or alternatively the Brigittine nuns in charge of the skull room were unacceptably careless. Genetic and radiocarbon analysis carried out by top Swedish boffins from Uppsala university has revealed that the bone-domes held at the convent are, in fact, ringers.

“One skull cannot be attributed to Bridget or Catherine as it dates back to the period 1470-1670. The other skull, thought to be from Saint Bridget, is dated to 1215-1270 and is thus not likely to be from the 14th Century when Bridget lived," says Professor Göran Possnert of Uppsala.

"It cannot, however, be completely excluded that the older skull is from Bridget if she had a diet dominated by fish, which can shift the dating results. But this is unlikely,” adds the prof.

Worse still, DNA analysis of the skulls indicates that the original owners could not have been mother and daughter.

"Our DNA analyses show that we can exclude a mother and daughter relationship. This is also confirmed by the dating as a difference of at least 200 years between the skulls is seen," says Possnert's fellow prof Marie Allen.

Devotees of the two matrilineal saints may not be out of luck, however. It seems that another skull was stolen from Vadstena by bone-burgling robbers in the 17th century and has now been traced to another abbey in Holland. This third skull might perhaps be that of one of the holy ladies. ®

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