We have received an answer to the mystery of St Lelius. We are extremely grateful to Dr Giles Mercer, who was headmaster at Prior Park from 1996-2009, for finding this passage in J.S. Roche’s ‘A History of Prior Park College’ (1931), pp. 256-7:
The high altar, which was made in Rome of Italian marbles, was the gift of the Countess English. Its sepulchre for relics is seen through a beautiful pierced cross of statuary marble, and on the back of the altar is an inscription asking for prayers for the donor. There are no relics in the sepulchre, but as an explanation of this fact, two traditions exist: one that the marble chest, supposed to contain the relics, on its arrival at Prior Park from Rome, was found to be empty: the other that they were destroyed by a general order from Rome, as many spurious relics were about that time sent from the Eternal City by unauthorised individuals. The relics that were to have been inserted in the sepulchre were said to be those of St Laelius, the Boy Martyr, whose name appears on the back of the altar.
It is disappointing to discover that the chapel does not, after all, contain relics of a child martyr. It seems that Countess English – or at least her agents – may have fallen prey to merchants peddling fake relics in Rome. A lively trade in forgeries such as this has been in operation since the Middle Ages, as is well known. We do not know whether St Lelius even existed. Possibly his identity was part of the deception on the part of the sellers.
One thing is certain, however. There must be a relic present in the High Altar, or it could not have been consecrated.
‘We honour the martyrs' relics, so that thereby we give honour to Him Whose [witness] they are: we honour the servants, that the honour shown to them may reflect on their Master’.