Gorilla’s head leads to return of church relic

A cautionary tale of “church treasures”

Simon Jenkins comments: “[l]ike many Downland chapels, Coombes [Parish Church]seems to have been too insignificant to merit a dedication. It lies on a hillside overlooking the River Adur, reached through a farm, over a style and across a field, [England’s Thousand Best Churches, (1999, Allen Lane Penguin Press) 690]. However, it is well-known for its C12th wall paintings of the Lewes Cluniac school, although less so for its C13th bronze corpus figure from a medieval crucifix manufactured in Limoges. Nevertheless, there are several web references to the ~90mm  high corpus including an image of it hanging in a window recess above the pulpit.The corpus was stolen about four or five years ago his post traces the route by which it was finally returned, and the deliberations of the consistory court, Re Coombes Parish Church [2016] ECC Chi 5, on its future safe keeping.

The Coombes corpus

The corpus is only a relic in the general historical sense [i.e. OED:  “An object surviving from an earlier time, especially one of historical interest] rather than being an object of devotional significance.  However, in its present form it is not part of  a crucifix, as suggested in some media reports. Dr Marian Campbell FSA (formerly senior curator at the V&A) informed the consistory court that it originated in Limoges in the thirteenth century, and was found in the churchyard of Coombes parish church in about 1877 [1].

“The crowned figure of Christ is made of copper, hammered, engraved and originally enamelled and gilded. It was made for attachment to an altar or processional cross … Although damaged, it retains traces of the original gilding, and tiny fragments of blue enamel on the loincloth. It dates from perhaps the first half of the 13th century. Its technique and style indicate that it was made in the workshops of Limoges in France, and is a typical example of Limoges workmanship, save for one feature, that the eyes are not of the more usual blue glass, but are simply gilded hollows” [6].

She suggested that a new Limoges cross (crucifix) might have been presented to the church for its altar when the church was rebuilt in late C13th or C14th adding:

“the damage to the crucifix figure – the loss of an arm, a hand and the piercing of the loin cloth – is suggestive of some violence and may not have been accidental, but may reflect its fate at the time of the Reformation” [7].


“This corpus figure is not simply a mute testament to a long-lost crucifix, but a rare evocation of the artistic links between England and France in the Middle Ages” [8].

Further historical context was presented by Dr Campbell [7 and 8]; more broadly, this is covered by Eamon Duffy in The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400-1580 (Yale University Press, 1992).

Operation Icarus and the recovery of the corpus

The complex operations involved in the recovery of the corpus were initiated when Scotland Yard’s art and antiques unit was tipped-off by HMRC that a stuffed gorilla’s head was en route to the UK. This was subject to CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, which is an international agreement between governments aimed at ensuring that international trade in specimens of wild animals (e.g. gorilla’s heads, ivory goods &c) and plants does not threaten their survival.

Initially the Metropolitan police approached the importer of the gorilla’s head. When pressed for further items of interest, they were shown two C15th oak church panels, which turned out to be those from the Torbryan Rood screen, stolen from a church in Newton Abbot earlier in 2013, and a heart stone. In May 2015, The Guardian reported that at this point, West Mercia police took over the investigation and launched Operation Icarus. [The article notes that codenames are randomly computer-generated and whilst this appears to be quite apposite, it should not be confused with Europol’s Operation Icarus concerning on-line sexual abuse, or the plan of the same name by Anonymous in relation to a 30-day cyber assault attack on stock markets and world banks].

From their talks with the south London collector and other dealers, and a search of the internet, it became evident to the West Mercia police that for at least six years and possibly longer remote and often unlocked churches had been targeted and stripped of precious artefacts.

On 1 May this year, The Argus reported that amateur antiques dealer Christopher Cooper had been given a custodial sentence of three years and eight months after stealing more than 30 artefacts from churches in more than ten counties over three years, of which the Coombes corpus was one of the earliest. The article included photographs of the corpus and the Coombes church in Lancing, and stated “[Cooper] was finally reported to police when a rare Bible one of the collectors bought for £18,000 never materialised. This coincided with the arrest of another man in 2013 after a gorilla’s head was ordered through the post, which unearthed artefacts linked to Cooper and the country-wide investigation Operation Icarus began”.

Consistory Court judgment

Arrangements were made to return the recovered corpus to the parish church in November 2015, but the parish was reluctant to replace it in the church where it would be vulnerable to further theft. Though close to a major road, the church is relatively isolated and in the absence of an electricity supply the installation of an alarm system would not be straightforward.

The Archdeacon of Chichester made a place of safety order on 16 December 2015, and the matter was referred to the court; Chancellor Hill directed that the provisions of S21(6) Care of Churches and Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction Measure 1991 be disapplied and instead required the P-i-C and churchwardens to petition for a faculty to make appropriate provision for the corpus [3]. The ensuing petition sought the court’s permission for the corpus to be made the subject to a long-term loan to Chichester Cathedral in order that it could be securely housed in its Treasury and therefore available for public viewing. On 15 January 2016 an interim faculty was granted, permitting the corpus to remain in the place of safety previously sanctioned by the Archdeacon [4].

Although at paragraph 19 in Re St. Lawrence Oakley with Wootton St. Lawrence [2014] Court of Arches the Court of Arches stated in “uncompromising language” that in disposal cases faculties should seldom be granted without a hearing in open court, Chancellor Hill observed: the proposal was not an outright alienation of the corpus to a third party but the depositing of the item in the mother church of the diocese by way of a long-term loan: the proposal was uncontroversial; the court would not be better informed by convening a hearing in open court; and such a hearing would add delay inconvenience and expense. He stated that in this case, consideration of the case on written representation was consistent with the overriding objective set out in r 1.4(2)(c) Faculty Jurisdiction Rules 2015 [5].

There were no responses to the Public Notice, and the DAC recommended that the parish consult the Church Buildings Council and Historic England. The CBC restated its policy that “church treasures belong in churches, and should only be removed in exceptional circumstances”, but would not object to the principle of a permanent loan to the Chichester Treasury [9].

Referring to his earlier judgment Re St. James the Great Flockton [2016] ECC Lee 4 at paragraph 36, the Chancellor observed that the discretion to permit the disposal of church treasures should be exercised sparingly. In Wootton, supra, at paragraph 34 the Court of Arches suggested a sequential approach, according to an hierarchy of disposal options: (i) no change in ownership, such as long-term loan (“disposal by loan”); (ii) sale to an institution with title passing, though possibly at an undervalue (“disposal by limited sale”); and (iii) commercial sale at the best price achievable (“disposal by outright sale”). At paragraph 36, it continued:

“Disposal by loan and by limited sale both safeguard security and (to some extent) visibility of the article … [but] … ownership and any form of control are entirely lost in both forms of disposal by sale”.

The proposal in the instant case was for the lowest level of disposal, and in his assessment of the information Chancellor Hill noted inter alia [13]:

(iii) between its restoration to the church in 1877 and its later theft, the corpus has not been used for sacramental or liturgical purposes, but merely exhibited as an item of historic and aesthetic interest:

(ix) since what is proposed is merely a loan (albeit long-term) the corpus will remain subject to the faculty jurisdiction and, should circumstances change, the decision to deposit the corpus in the cathedral treasury can be revisited at any time and if, at a future date, the court considers it just and expedient, the faculty can be amended and an alternative solution found;

(x) it remains open to the court to permit the corpus to pay a return visit to Coombes parish church or perhaps on an ad hoc basis for it to be displayed or examined elsewhere should suitable occasions arise in the future.

On the basis of all the information available to the court, paragraph 13 (i) to (x), the Chancellor was persuaded that a faculty should issue to permit the long-term loan to Chichester Cathedral for a renewable period of 10 years [14]: the attached conditions provided inter alia that the corpus remain within the faculty jurisdiction, and cannot be moved whether permanently or temporarily, altered in any way, or made the subject of any scientific or other investigation without prior permission of the court.

The Dean and Chapter would be responsible for the insurance of the corpus, and the costs of and occasioned by the petition (together with the interim faculty) are to be borne by the petitioners “with the Dean and Chapter making such contribution as is deemed fair and reasonable”.


The importance of the case lies in the application of the Court of Arches judgment in Wootton, and the conditions imposed which ensure that the corpus remains within the jurisdiction of the consistory court, despite its relocation to the Cathedral Treasury.

Advice on the protection of church treasures is beyond the scope of L&RUK, although we noted that guidance is provided by ChurchCare and Ecclesiastical Insurance. Whilst many will be surprised at the lack of security prior to the theft at Coombes (which appears to have relied upon the height at which it was located) there are examples known to us which are similarly vulnerable. Such issues are clearly pertinent to the level of insurance held by PCCs for their churches &c, but perhaps greater attention should be placed on security under the present quinquennial inspections, currently subject to review here and here.


Betjeman notes: “[o]utside [Coombes Parish Church] is an amusing tombstone to Henry Daniel, d. 1860; his dying words were “I shall not be here long, Mother”, [Best British Churches, New edition, updated by Richard Surman, (2011 Collins, London) page 670]. Whether a present-day consistory court would approve of the inscription is another matter.

Updated: 26 November 2023 at19:51. 

Cite this article as: David Pocklington, "Gorilla’s head leads to return of church relic" in Law & Religion UK, 22 June 2016, https://lawandreligionuk.com/2016/06/22/gorillas-head-leads-to-return-of-church-relic/

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