Action Alert!

Divorce, Dissolution, and Death: The English Martyrs

by Bess Twiston-Davies


Between the years 1534 and 1681, in an open field in London, known as Tyburn, more than one hundred English Catholics were martyred by hanging, drawing, and quartering. In this article Bess Twiston-Davies summarizes the events and circumstances which led to the deaths of Sts. John Houghton, Thomas More, John Southworth, Edmund Campion, and Irish archbishop Oliver Plunkett, just to name a few.

Larger Work

This Rock


8 - 13

Publisher & Date

Catholic Answers, Inc., El Cajon, CA, July / August 2006

Today it is London's busiest shopping street, but it hides a dark history. On this site, more than a hundred martyrs were killed for their Catholic faith by the English government. Between 1534 and 1681, some of England's most famous Catholics died at what is today the entrance to Oxford Street, a consumer mecca jam-packed with shops. But at the time of the martyrdoms, the area was an open field called Tyburn, in the center of which stood a distinctive triangular-shaped gallows called "the Tyburn Tree." One hundred five martyrs died a slow and painful death there after being accused of treason against the state. "Hanging, drawing, and quartering" was the official sentence for traitors, which means that they were hanged as fire burned beneath them to boil their organs, then their bodies were slit open or "drawn," and their hearts and other vital organs ripped out. Their corpses were slung ignominiously into a pit near the gallows.

Hanged for Hiding Priests

Although the English Catholic minority is familiar with the martyrdoms, these shameful events are largely unknown by the majority of English people. Their story forms part of England's hidden religious history, of a centuries-long era when being a Catholic was considered incompatible with being loyal to the monarchy. During this time, the Mass was illegal, priests risked death, and lay Catholics could be fined for going to Mass and hanged for hiding priests.

The reasons lay in the English Reformation, the abrupt abandonment of Catholicism in the sixteenth century in favor of a hybrid of Catholicism and the new Protestant religion. But England's Reformation had little to do with the Protestant reforms of Martin Luther in Germany. It was prompted entirely by the personal life of the King Henry VIII. In 1527, Henry VIII decided he wished to divorce his wife, Spanish Catherine of Aragon, because their union had not produced a male heir. He had also fallen in love with Anne Boleyn, a lady of the court, and wished to marry her. When the Pope refused Henry a divorce, the king began to wrest control of the Catholic Church in England from Rome. In 1534, he declared himself supreme head and sole protector of the church in England. Any Catholic who refused to accept Henry as head of the Church of England was breaking the law, and the punishment for this was death. The martyrdoms began.

Prophecy Fulfilled

The story of the martyrs can still be seen today in the Catholic churches of England. Westminster Cathedral, the principal Catholic cathedral of London, has a chapel to the martyrs. The exquisite medieval church of St. Etheldreda's, in Holborn, is adorned with statues of English martyrs. But the best starting point for a tour of the martyrs' history is the Benedictine convent called Tyburn, located just 300 paces from the site of the martyrdoms, according to a stone plaque outside the building.

The convent belongs to the order of the Adorers of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Originally from Paris, they arrived in London at the beginning of the twentieth century, when a new anti-religious law had forced them to abandon their home in France. Their foundress, Mother Marie Adele Gamier, wrote to the archbishop of Westminster, Herbert Cardinal Vaughan, seeking help. He directed them to Tyburn.

The nuns' arrival in 1903 fulfilled a prophecy that one day a religious house would stand in Tyburn and venerate the Reformation martyrs. Indeed, the convent's crypt houses a shrine to the martyrs containing relics of many of those who died on Tyburn gallows. Fr. Gregory Gunne had made this prophecy as he walked through Tyburn over 300 years earlier. His companion, a government spy, reported Gunne to the authorities. He was arrested and his prophecy was recorded in the documentation of his trial. The French nuns, whose Paris home was at Montmartre — "the mount of martyrs" — had known nothing about the prophecy and very little about the English martyrs.

Fr. Bede Camm, a Benedictine, helped in gathering an extraordinary collection of relics of the martyrs and in establishing the convent's shrine to them. Tyburn's crypt contains bones retrieved from the gallows pit, scraps of martyrs' hair and of the blood-stained shirts they wore to their deaths, and even a corporal (the linen cloth on which the bread and wine are placed during the words of consecration) used by several martyred priests.

Monk and Martyr

The first martyrs were Carthusian monks, who died in May 1534. John Houghton, the prior of the London Charterhouse, had celebrated a Mass to the Holy Spirit with other Carthusians, seeking enlightenment after Henry VIII asked them to acknowledge that he alone was supreme head of the English church.

An eyewitness wrote this account of the Mass: "Suddenly there came from heaven — all of us heard and wondered — a pleasant sound like the voice of a gentle breeze, charming our outward ears as with a sweet breath, and then gently striking them with a softly whispered murmur." Interpreting this as a sign from God, Houghton and his companions told the king they could not obey him. They were condemned to death and hanged on May 4. Houghton's arm was nailed to the gate of the London Charterhouse. Tyburn's shrine includes a portrait of Houghton by the Spanish painter Francisco de Zurbaran depicting him holding his heart. The story goes that Houghton cried, "Good Jesus, what will you do with my heart?" as the hangman ripped it out. He and the other monks are also commemorated on a pane of stained glass at St. Etheldreda's Church.

Defender of the Faith

Witnessing Houghton depart for the gallows was perhaps the most famous of all the martyrs, St. Thomas More, who was nearing the end of a fourteen-month imprisonment when he saw the Carthusians taken to Tyburn from the tower. More said to his daughter, "See how the blessed fathers go to their deaths as cheerfully as bridegrooms to a marriage." Within months More, too, would die for his faith.

Only two years earlier, he had been at the pinnacle of worldly success. As lord chancellor to Henry VIII, he was one of the most powerful men in England. Indeed, his writings were well known throughout Europe, and he counted among his close friends the important German humanist Desiderius Erasmus. The king's portrait painter, Hans Holbein, painted his portrait as well as a portrait of the entire More household. More was also renowned as a Catholic apologist; he anonymously wrote an "Answer to Luther" that attacked the ideas of the German Reformer. In 1521 he helped edit Henry VIII's writing in opposition to Luther. In response, the Pope granted Henry the title "Defender of the Faith" — a name ironically retained by British monarchs today.

More became deeply troubled when Henry sought a divorce from his wife. When Henry's brother Arthur died twenty years before, Henry had applied to the Pope for special permission to marry Catherine, Arthur's widow. Twenty years later, he claimed that his marriage was unlawful and cited a passage from Leviticus that said no man should wed his brother's wife. As he waited for the Pope to judge the case in Rome, a priest named Thomas Cranmer advised Henry to seek the advice of professors of divinity at Oxford and Cambridge universities on whether there were biblical grounds for his divorce. They voted narrowly in Henry's favor, but the Pope refused to grant the divorce.

In 1533, Cranmer, now the archbishop of Canterbury, declared Henry's marriage to Catherine void. The next week, Anne, who had secretly already wed Henry, was crowned queen. The Pope excommunicated Henry.

A spate of laws separating the church in England from Rome was introduced by the furious Henry. Priests were told to delete references to the pope from prayer books and to preach sermons against Rome. All England's citizens were to understand that the king rather than the pope was now the head of England's church. Thomas More resigned as lord chancellor the day after one of these laws was passed. His real fall from grace, though, came when he refused to take an oath to obey a new law that said that only Henry's children with Anne were legitimate heirs to the throne.

More died at Tower Hill in London on July 6, 1535. At the last minute, Henry VIII changed his sentence from hanging, drawing and quartering to beheading. More has been a hero and role model for English Catholics ever since. The pressures on him to conform were immense. He sacrificed power, prestige, and wealth for his faith and has been called the "person of greatest virtue" ever to live in England.

Send Severed Head to Rome

St. Thomas More is depicted on a stone carving in the center of the chapel of the martyrs at Westminster Cathedral, to one side of the crucified Christ. On the other side is another early Reformation martyr, St. John Fisher, the bishop of Rochester. A staunch supporter of Queen Catherine, Fisher preached in public against the king's divorce, once even saying he was prepared to die for the indissolubility of Catherine's marriage to Henry. After refusing to accept Henry as head of the Church, he was imprisoned and accused of treachery. In 1535, Fisher was made a cardinal by the Pope in a bid to induce Henry to treat Fisher less severely. Instead, Henry prevented the cardinal's hat from arriving in England and said he would send Fisher's head to Rome instead. Fisher was beheaded at Tower Hill on June 22, 1535, and his head was stuck on a pike to deter others from similar treason. It is said to have remained so life-like and healthy that after a fortnight the authorities threw it into the Thames. Both St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More were canonized in 1935.

"My Faith Is My Crime"

The tomb of St. John Southworth is in the martyrs' chapel in Westminster, the only complete remains of an English martyr. The scion of a wealthy family in Lancashire, a pre-dominantly Catholic county in the northwest of England, Southworth was a priest who ministered to plague victims in London. He survived three imprisonments and was sent into exile several times before his eventual arrest in 1654. He was condemned to death after confessing that he was a priest, and he died at Tyburn on June 28, declaring, "My faith is my crime, the performance of my duty the occasion of my condemnation." Accounts differ as to whether it was the Spanish ambassador or an English Catholic nobleman, but someone bribed the hangmen to obtain Southworth's body. It was re-assembled, embalmed, and buried at Douai during the French Revolution. In 1927, the body of St. John Southworth was transferred to Westminster Cathedral.

Southworth was one of several generations of English priests trained abroad in Douai, now in northern France but then part of Spain's territory in the Netherlands. Southworth trained in the English College, a seminary founded in 1568 by English cardinal William Allen to train Englishmen as priests. It was the first of an eventual network of seminaries founded in continental Europe to train priests for "the English mission." More than 160 Douai priests died martyrs. Changes in the law during the reign of Queen Elizabeth (1558-1603), Henry VIII's daughter, made it high treason for a priest to enter or remain in England or to convert people to the Catholic faith, or for lay people to hide or help a Catholic priest. The penalty was death.

Despite this, a steady stream of English Catholic priests continued to filter back into England, helping preserve the Catholic faith in the country. In 1622, just over fifty years after its foundation, Douai had ordained 1,000 Englishmen as Catholic priests. After ordination, they returned home, usually in disguise and using false names, knowing they faced betrayal and death. Perhaps the most famous was a Jesuit named Edmund Campion.

Campion's Brag

Campion's story, which was brilliantly recounted in Edmund Campion by the English Catholic novelist Evelyn Waugh, infuriated England's new Protestant elite. While he was still a university student, Campion's sparkling wit and intellectual brilliance had attracted the patronage of the queen. William Cecil, the queen's chief secretary of state and the sinister architect of her religious policies, had once called Campion "one of the diamonds of England." Groomed for high office in the Church of England, Campion chose to turn his back on a stellar career and instead seek martyrdom as a Catholic priest.

He became a priest at Douai and a Jesuit in Rome and returned to England secretly in 1580 with a small band of priests on a mission to support the country's beleaguered Catholics. It did not long remain a secret. At the suggestion of a lay Catholic, Campion wrote a defense of his mission known as "Campion's Brag" that began to circulate among Catholics. Within days, the "brag" reached the queen's advisors. The hunt for Campion began. He fled north, but he was betrayed in July 1581 by a government spy. He had left a Catholic house at which he had been preaching when another group of Catholics arrived to see him. They rode after him, begging him to return to say Mass for them. Ignoring his superior's qualms, Campion agreed. He was arrested after the Mass. Just three weeks before his arrest, copies of his "Ten Reasons," a lucid defense of Catholicism, had been circulated to students at Oxford University. He had seriously irritated the Elizabethan authorities.

In prison, Campion was tortured and had his nails ripped out. Then the authorities decided to grant his request to thrash out the great religious questions in a debate with Protestant clergy. Weak from physical suffering and lack of sleep and food, Campion defended himself brilliantly. Nevertheless, he was falsely charged with plotting against Queen Elizabeth and sentenced to death. He was hanged at Tyburn along Fr. Ralph Sherwin, one of the priests who had accompanied him from Rome, on December 1, 1581.

"Today Rather Than Tomorrow"

Sherwin was the protomartyr for his seminary, the venerable English College in Rome, where he is famous for saving, "Today rather than tomorrow" when taking his post-ordination oath promising to return to England and face death. This college is known as "the seminary of martyrs" because so many of its students died for the faith. Whenever news of a martyred former student reached Rome, the seminarians would gather in front a painting of early English martyrs to sing "Te Deum" in thanksgiving. Every December 1, priests trained at the English College gather at Tyburn Convent to say a special Mass for their martyred priests.

Other English seminaries were founded in Spain and Portugal by a one-time rector of the English College in Rome, Fr. Robert Persons, S.J. The first was the English College of St. Alban's in Valladolid, where an entire wall is lined with portraits of former students who died as martyrs. The martyrs were sometimes accompanied at their deaths by Luisa de Carvajal, an extraordinary Spanish noblewoman who, learning of the martyrs' suffering in England, came over to be with them in their final hours on earth. Whenever a St. Alban's student was captured and sentenced to death, de Carvajal came to the prison with food for a last supper and prayed with them. After their deaths she made arrangements to rescue their remains, either paying the hangman or getting men to dig them out of the pit of bones by night.

One notable martyr whose relics de Carvajal rescued was St. John Roberts, the first Benedictine martyr missionary to England whose portrait appears on page 9. A Welshman, Roberts began his studies at St. Alban's but later transferred to the Benedictine monastery of Valladolid. In 1603, during the plague, he arrived in London and zealously ministered to the sick and dying. He was imprisoned five times and exiled from England three times before his capture in 1610. Even as he was dying at the Tyburn gallows, Roberts astonished the crowds with his high spirits, joking, "Here's a hot breakfast despite the cold weather" as he looked down at the fire burning to boil his remains.

Thirty years later another Benedictine missionary, St. Ambrose Barlow, was hanged for helping Catholics in the north. Roberts and Barlow were canonized by Pope Paul VI in 1970 as part of the forty English martyrs of England and Wales. This group also included a number of Englishwomen, including St. Margaret Clitherow of York, who was crushed to death in 1586 for hiding Catholic priests, and St. Anne Line, who was hanged at Tyburn in 1601 for sheltering a Catholic priest. She died saying that rather than repenting, she wished she could have sheltered 1,000 priests instead of only one.

No Greater Crime

The last martyr of Tyburn was the Irish archbishop St. Oliver Plunkett. During a wave of anti-Catholic persecution in Ireland — then an English colony — Plunkett, the archbishop of Armagh and prelate of All Ireland, was accused of masterminding an anti-English rebellion. He was tried in London by a judge who declared that there was no greater crime than promoting the Catholic faith. He died on July 11, 1681, and his corpse was taken to a Benedictine monastery in Germany. Today his body rests at the monastery of St. Gregory the Great near Bath, and his head lies in an Irish convent.

The feast of the English Martyrs is celebrated on October 25. Although not all the English martyrs have been declared saints, they are honored today by English Catholics in their schools and churches.

Further Reading

  • Eamon Duffy, The Voices of Morebath: Reformation and Rebellion in an English Village (Yale University Press, 2003).

  • Christopher Haigh, English Reformations: Religion, Politics, and Society under the Tudors (Oxford University Press, 1993).

  • Alice Hogge, God's Secret Agents: Queen Elizabeth's Forbidden Priests and the Hatching of the Gunpowder Plot (HarperCollins, 2006).

  • Evelyn Waugh, Edmund Campion (Ignatius Press, 2005).

  • Gerard Wegemer, Thomas More: A Portrait of Courage (Scepter Publishers, 1995).

Bess Twiston-Davies is a freelance journalist based in London who writes for the Catholic Press and The Times newspaper. She is an occasional contributor to the BBC World Service (radio).

© Catholic Answers, Inc.

This item 7374 digitally provided courtesy of