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The Priest Martyrs of England

by Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl


This 1971 article by then-Reverend, Archbishop Donald Wuerl tells of the brutal treatment and martyrdom of forty priests during the reigns of King Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, and their successors.

Larger Work

Homiletic & Pastoral Review


24 – 33

Publisher & Date

Catholic Polls, Inc., New York, NY, April 1971

The story of the Forty English Martyrs is in no small part the story of courageous, faithful priests. It is a tale, gruesome in part, that unwinds as we follow the almost total replacement of the Catholic Church in England over a period of one hundred years by a national religion. More than three quarters of the recently crowned martyrs were priests and of these, aside from the Jesuits whose light shines forth for all to see, there was a rough numerical division between religious order men and diocesan priests. The story of these men, their lives and deaths, has many morals, but rests most assuredly on the overriding fact that these priests, in the face of the "new theology," the offered accommodation with the "world as it is," and the promise of personal gain, chose the faith and loyalty to its teachers, especially to him who spoke from Rome.

Henry VIII, the second of the Tudor family kings, had displayed both intelligence and shrewdness in his early days as king. His throne was secure or at least as secure as the English throne had been in some hundred-odd years since Richard III had been murdered. For a brilliant, if not entirely his own, defense of the faith against Martin Luther he had received for himself from Pope Leo X the title Defender of the Faith.

On to this stage stepped Anne Boleyn. The well rehearsed story of her part in the dissolution of the marriage of Henry and his lawful wife Catharine is news to no one. And with it came the wreck of a religious unity that had been England's heritage for over one thousand years.

Defiance was something new to King Henry. He would hear no argument that countered his own. Anne would be both wife and Queen with or without the Pope's invalidation of his previous marriage. It is at this point that the story of the forty martyrs, in fact, begins. Clement VII refused to give in to the demands forwarded him from London that the Church declare invalid the royal marriage of Henry and Catharine. After involved appeals and interminable discussions involving most of the greater universities of Europe, Henry married Anne. At the same time he had the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Cranmer, dissolve his first marriage leaving him free to secure the succession of his throne for any children he might have by Anne. Things moved rapidly from this point on. Parliament confirmed Henry's divorce. The Pope excommunicated Henry. Henry enacted the Act of Supremacy appointing himself and his successors Protector and only Supreme Head of the Church and clergy of England. Thus in 1534 the fight which had started as a quarrel over the need for an heir broke out into a full fledged struggle on doctrine matters.

As the battle lines were drawn up it became apparent that few were prepared to resist the King in his pretentions as Head of the Church. Of the most well known of those who did place his faith was Thomas More. In 1535, one time Lord Chancellor of England and friend of the King, Sir Thomas More, who was "the King's loyal servant but God's servant first," was beheaded. Reminiscent of Becket's protest of submission to the King in all things "saving his sacred office and the rights of holy Church," many others were soon to follow this path to the scaffold, swordsman's block or the dungeon's tortures.

Three Priors Go First

It is at this date that we meet the first of the group now known as the Forty English Martyrs. Fathers John Houghton, Augustine Webstor and Robert Lawrence were all Carthusian priors. Houghton served as prior of the monastery at London, Webstor at Axholme, Lincolnshire, and Lawrence at Beauvole. The three gathered in London in 1534 to petition the King for an exemption from the Oath of Supremacy for their communities. As if Houghton knew what fate would be his when he arrived to petition the King, he prepared himself with what seems to be almost a joyful anticipation. A special triduum of prayer was held at the monastery, at the conclusion of which this Prior celebrated the Mass of the Holy Spirit. Then, together with Lawrence and Webstor, he marched off to see the King. They asked a respite from the application of the new law called the Act of Supremacy, which held it to be high treason to deny that the King was supreme head of the Church of England. Their petition was based on the supposition that one could be both loyal subject of the crown and faithful son of the Church in England. The answer to this request was imprisonment and trial for high treason. Thomas Cromwell, at this point vice-regent in matters relating to the Church of England, conducted the trial and ordered the verdict of guilty.

Richard Reynold Meets Death

On May 4, 1535, the three were dragged off through the yard of the Tower of London to be ceremoniously executed before a large turnout of the royal court. To emphasize the point that this was a break with the Church and not just the execution of a few treacherous monks the three were executed wearing their religious habits, a procedure openly repudiated by all the Christian nations of Europe for over seven hundred years.

That same day another religious who was outspoken in defense of the old faith met his death. Father Richard Reynold of the Brigittine Order was noted as perhaps the most learned monk of his time. Both his learning and his piety was remarked at Cambridge where he was a professor until he, as spokesman for his order, refused to take the Oath of Supremacy. Writing of Reynold, Cardinal Pole, who knew him well and was himself no stranger in the groves of the academy, says this priest was the only English monk he knew who was well versed in the three classical languages, Latin, Greek and Hebrew. His knowledge of the Church fathers was in evidence as he pleaded his case in court. First he called on all the majority of the living faithful in England to be his witness to the truth of the old religion over the new interpretation; then, as dead witnesses, he summoned "all the great General Councils, all historians, the only doctors of the Church for the last fifteen hundred years, especially, St. Ambrose, St. Jerome, St. Augustine and St. Gregory." The trial ended in a vote of "guilty." On June 2, 1957, on the grounds of Syon House, where once stood Syon Abbey, the first Mass in four centuries was celebrated and prayers offered in honor of its onetime prior, Richard Reynold.

Following this row with the English monasteries, Henry suppressed, in 1536, all the smaller or lesser religious houses within his kingdom, generously disposing of their land and possessions to his followers. In 1538 the same tactic was this time applied to all the larger remaining religious houses, thus rendering their protests politically and economically sterile.

John Stone Protests Too Much

John Stone, an Augustinian monk from Canterbury, took exception to the highhanded way with which he felt his order had been handled, and protested. This was not his first public admonition addressed to the King. But, it seems, this time he protested once too often; first against the divorce, then against the Act of Supremacy, and now against the suppression of the monasteries. In December 1538, nearly four centuries from the martyrdom of Becket at the same spot, when the friars refused to sign the deed of surrender of their home and possessions, John was arrested and committed to prison at Westgate. In retaliation for his recalcitrant behavior, it was decreed that he should be hanged, drawn and quartered. This sentence passed on him was reserved only for the most hideous crimes such as conspiracy to do bodily harm to the king. Nevertheless it was imposed on this man because he did protest too much. The execution of this sentence usually required that the victim be dragged by horse to his place of death, then hanged by the neck with chains just short of his death, then cut down while still conscious, or at least still alive, chopped into four quarters, effectively terminating his life. So died John Stone. This manner of execution soon became normal for Catholic priests and of the Forty Martyrs so died Edmund Arrowsmith, a Jesuit, and Ambrose Barlow, a Benedictine.

In 1558 Elizabeth, termed Queen of England by the grace of God and Defender of the Faith, was proclaimed and crowned Queen. The short and turbulent reigns of Edward VI, Mary and the ten days of Lady Jane Grey, were over. The new faith was to be once more firmly installed. The Act of Supremacy and the Act of Uniformity were again proclaimed, soon to be followed by the adoption of the 39 Articles in 1563. The 39 Articles established a Church of England, largely Protestant in dogma but with a hierarchical organization similar to the Catholic, and a liturgy translated into English from the prevailing Latin.

Soon it was decided that firm steps had to be taken for things were getting out of hand. There was now not only the threat of the Catholic adherence to the old religion but the phenomenon within the new church of dissenters and non-conformists. Elizabeth saw in her realm the factions known as Puritans, who wished in their own terms to "purify" the Church; the Presbyterians, who planned to substitute organization by presbyters in place of bishops; the Brownists, who gave birth to the latter-day Congregationalists; and the Unitarians, who denied the doctrine of the Trinity. It soon became apparent that only harsh steps would bring all to the new religion. Masses and the recitation of the divine office were to be stopped. So declared the Queen!

"I Possess Three Things"

The Bishop of London, Edmund Bonner, replied bravely when confronted with the new order concerning the Mass: "I possess three things, soul, body and property; of the last two you can dispose at your pleasure. But as to my soul, God alone can command me." There was soon a new bishop in London. Bonner died a prisoner in the Tower.

It is at this point that we meet a large number of the Forty. Father Guthbert Maine had been born in Devonshire. After the custom of the time he was ordained having studied in the house of his uncle, also a priest. At nineteen, following ordination, he went off to Oxford to undertake formal studies. At the outbreak of the persecution directed primarily at the clergy, Father Maine left for Douay, on the French coast, to continue his studies at the newly constructed seminary there. He fell under the watchful care of Edmund Campion while at Douay and was much impressed by him. In 1576 he returned quietly to England to begin his ministry, staying with friends in the vicinity of Exeter. An "Account of the Life and Death of Cuthbert Maine," written and published in 1582 by a friend of Father Maine, relates the fast end to the ministry of this young priest.

Presumptions Replace Proof

Mr. Richard Greenville, the sheriff, proceeded to the house of one Mr. Tregan on the pretense of looking for a criminal recently come up from London on the run. With force he seized the young priest and after imprisonment of some six months charged him with high treason, the proof being that he had obtained from Rome a copy of the papal decree containing the absolutions for the recently celebrated holy year, that he maintained the Bishop of Rome's supremacy in matters doctrinal, and that he had said Mass within the realm of England. The jury balked at the indictment, as there was no evidence to the charges brought against Maine save that he was in possession, at the time of his arrest, of a "small disk of wax stamped with the figure of a lamp and blessed by the Pope." Judge Manhood, nonetheless, directed the jury to find him guilty, alleging "that where plain proofs were wanting strong presumptions ought to take their place." With the jury's verdict, the sentence of death was passed.

Father Maine Hanged

The Latin manuscript reporting his death says that on the day before his execution his jailers approached him offering pardon if he would swear upon the Bible that the Queen was the Supreme Head of the Church of England. His answer that "the Queen neither ever was nor is nor ever shall be the head of the Church in England" sealed his fate. On November 30, 1577, after having been dragged through the streets of Launceston feet first, he was hanged by the neck until dead.

Sir William Cecil, Baron of Burleigh and Secretary of State under Elizabeth, remarked once of Edmund Campion that he was "one of the diamonds of England." Well was he so described. Campion passed early into Oxford as a don at St. John's College where he established himself with great applause as one possessed of a quick mind and broad intellect. He later travelled to Ireland stopping long enough to write a history of the nation, and then proceed to Douai where he continued his studies for the priesthood. In 1573 he moved to Rome and was admitted to the Society of Jesus. His first commission as a Jesuit took him to Prague in the Kingdom of Bohemia where he set about teaching and writing for seven years. It was during this interval that he was ordained a priest. His reputation as a preacher spread so wide that soon Emperor Rudolf II, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire and King of Bohemia, presented himself on many occasions to hear this "English divine who speaks God's mind."

It soon became apparent that such talents should be placed at the disposition of his own country. So in 1580, on the assignment of his religious superior, he set out for England. Campion marked his arrival in London with a sermon on the feast of SS. Peter and Paul that drew large crowds and even greater attention. Soon he was forced to take to the road and a life of hiding. In his letter to Claude Aquaviva dated November 17, 1580, he described his life and efforts at this point: "I ride about some piece of the country every day. The harvest is wonderful great. On horseback I meditate my sermon; when I come to the house, I polish it. Then I talk with such as come to speak with me, or hear their confessions. In the mornings, after Mass, I preach, they hear with exceeding greediness, and very often receive the sacraments, for the ministrations thereof we are ever well assisted by priests, whom we find in every place, whereby both the people is well served, and we much eased in our charge . . . but I cannot long escape the hands of the heretics."

On July 17, 1581, he was apprehended and placed in the custody of the Sheriff of Berkshire until such time as he could be brought to London. On the rack, an instrument consisting of a large frame having rollers at each end to which the limbs are fastened and between which the body is stretched, he refused to alter his convictions. One author, Bishop of Challoner, relates Campion's sense of humor reminiscent of that of Thomas More. One morning after having been on the rack, his keeper asked him how his hands and feet felt. He answered, "Not ill because not at all."

Campion Denies Treason Charge

On the 14th of November, 1581, he was brought from the Tower to the King's Bench and his trial began. The jury was impanelled on the 20th of that month and oddly enough passed judgment that same day in time to permit the judge to render judgment of death. The day of execution was set for December 1, 1581. Mr. Everard Hanses, quoting an eye-witness of Campion's death, wrote in 1582 that at the place of execution Campion made answer to the charges brought against him. "I am a Catholic man and a priest. In that faith have I lived and in that faith do I intend to die, and if you esteem my religion treason, then I am guilty. As for any other treason, I never committed. I stand condemned for nothing but the saying of Mass, hearing confessions, preaching and such like duties and functions of priesthood." His life at the age of 42 was ended by the ax.

From the death of Campion to the respite in 1609, eighteen other of the Forty Martyrs met their deaths. Of these, Fathers Ralph Sherwin and Alexander Bryant, who according to the Tower Journal was shackled for making himself a small wooden cross, were executed in 1581. Fathers John Paine and Luke Henry were martyred in 1582. The first Welsh martyr, Richard Gwyn, went to his death, hanged, drawn and quartered, in 1584. So great was his resolve that the crowds at his death site to no avail cried that he be allowed to die before being cut down from the gallows for the quartering. Edmund Gennings, Swithun Wells, Polydore Plasden and Eustace White perished on December 10, 1591.

Topcliffe Nabs Gennings

By the time Edmund Gennings was born at Litchfield in Staffordshire in 1567 there existed in England, in fact, two religions; one enjoying the patronage and protection of the State, the other outlawed. It was in the former that Edmund was baptized and came of age. Following the custom of the time, he entered the service of another family, a member of the gentry, at the age of 16. The Sherwoods were Catholics. And while in the service of this family, Edmund converted to the Catholic faith. When the young Sherwood announced that he intended to go to Douai to study for the priesthood, Gennings followed his example. In 1589, as an ordained priest, Edmund returned to England to take up the office as a "roving priest." By this time the remnants of his family were dead except his brother John who, while moving to London, had become bitterly anti-Catholic. Edmund went in search of his brother and also ended up in London sometime in 1591. Clement Tigar, in his short work "Forty Martyrs of England and Wales," relates the incidents connected with the arrest of Father Gennings:

He made arrangements to say Mass in Gray's Inn Fields at the house of Mr. Swithun Wells on November 7, 1591, and told a few Catholics of the rendezvous. Very early in the morning, a little group of Catholics made their way to the house, and Father Gennings commenced the Mass in an upper room. Just as he reached the consecration there was a loud banging on the front door below. When the door was opened, Topcliffe, with other officers, broke in and rushed upstairs. One of the gentlemen assisting at Mass thought it best under the circumstances to hurl Topcliffe downstairs, and did so. In a few minutes Topcliffe came upstairs again, his head all bleeding, and tried to break into the room where Mass was in progress, but the gentlemen present kept him out. Fearing he might raise the whole street, they said if he would wait till the end of Mass they would surrender, but if he attempted to profane the sacred mysteries, they would be obliged to oppose force by force. Topcliffe accepted the terms and Father Gennings continued the Mass to the end, the Catholic gentlemen present standing with drawn swords. When Mass was over, they surrendered, and Topcliffe rushed in and seized Father Gennings before he had time to unvest. All present, to the number of about ten, were arrested and taken to Newgate.

Priests Enter from Douai

The evidence presented at the trial was that Father Gennings had said Mass. Apparently this was all that was needed to convict him and off he went to the gallows. Ten days afterwards, the Martyr's brother, John, was received into the Church, went to Douai, was ordained a priest and later became a Franciscan monk.

By the late 16th and early 17th centuries the sporadic and impulsive arrest and executions of priests reached a new high. E. I. Watkin in his book, Roman Catholicism in England, notes that after 1585 the majority of condemnations were made simply for being priests in England. But still the tide was not stemmed. By 1585, 229 priests came to England from Douai, and 33 were sent from the Venerable English College in Rome. Of these 70 were imprisoned and 23 were put to death within a year of their arrival. Sometimes, however, loyalties went against the official position even in those charged to implement the royal laws. Some jailers winked at the saying of Mass by the prisoners and Watkin maintains that "the prisons, in fact, became centers of Catholic ministry, to some extent even of propaganda, where a priest could be found to do his office."

The overwhelming number of priests coming into England were Englishmen sent abroad and trained at the College of Douai in France. But the next largest source of priests for the English isle was the Venerable English College in Rome. The students in both these institutions were in part supported by the Holy Father's contributions and in part by what English Catholics could smuggle out of England in the way of funds. Most times the antics resorted to get funds to the continent seem to resemble those employed in the 1960's by Englishmen avoiding the "ceiling" then placed on funds taken out of the country by would-be tourists. In a letter to the King of Spain, dated May 6, 1583, Bernardino de Mendoza, Ambassador to the Court of Queen Elizabeth, wrote:

The Queen maintains such a multitude of spies in France to dog the footsteps of the English Catholics there, that it is not possible for their friends to send them a penny without her hearing of it. They therefore constantly have recourse to me, and I send the money as if it were my own. I have now 10,000 crowns which they have asked me to send.

James I Seeks a Realm United in One Church

In 1603 Elizabeth I passed before the judgment seat of God. In the Diary of John Manningham he notes, "This morning about three o'clock Her Majesty departed this life, mildly like a lamb, easily like a ripe apple from a tree." She was succeeded by James of the House of Stuart.

King James was the son of Mary Stuart and hailed already as James VI of Scotland. With his ascension to the throne of England on March 24, 1603, he became James I, King of both England and Scotland. The Scottish had brought him up in the Protestant faith and his preference was for a united realm — united in one Church. As a supporter of the theory of the divine right of Kings to rule, he insisted that the faith, or at least the Church, be one and united behind him as God's regent on earth for the British Isles.

Both Catholic and English

John Almond challenged the right of James to impose his religion on the people as a matter of public policy. It is possible to be a Catholic and a loyal subject of the crown at the same time was his position. For it he was to pay dearly. Almond's service in the Church began at about his 15th or 16th year as he left his home in Allerton, Lancashire, to attend school at Much-Wooton not too far from Liverpool. His studies carried him abroad and he eventually passed through Douai College on his way to the English College in Rome. Not much is heard of him upon his return to England until his arrest in 1612.

Another graduate of the English College followed this same ill-fated line of defense before the King's bench some years later. The speech he made from the gallows confirmed the position that one can be both Catholic, even a priest, and English. Pope Paul, in the canonization ceremony, October 25, 1970, in St. Peter's Basilica before more than 30,000 witnesses-over half of whom had come from England-repeated that final plea of John Plessington.

James I was followed on the throne in 1625 by Charles I, but Catholics fared no better under him. Of the Forty Martyrs, Alban Roe, a Benedictine priest, and Henry Morse, a Jesuit, both saw the gallows and the quarterers' irons. Father Morse was a man who, even without the tale of events that led to his martyrdom, could qualify for canonization. He fits into the patter of "a plague priest" familiar enough to readers of European history. The year 1636 saw a terrible plague strike London. Some sections of the city seemed harder hit than others and the area around St. Giles-in-the-Fields ranked near the top as a disaster area. One report lists a death-rate reaching over 4,000 a month for the city with the St. Giles area well near the top in contributions to this grim roll call. Within the context of this plague and the locality of St. Giles the life of Father Henry Morse first comes to the attention of biographers. He spent a great deal of time visiting the homes of the stricken to bring both the comfort of what physical kind he could and the consolations of the Church reserved to those soon to leave this world.

Paul VI Canonizes Martyrs

Clement Tigar relates that Father Morse once himself fell victim to the plague but soon was well enough to resume his charitable work. Arrested once on charges of being a priest, he was released after an imprisonment at Newgate. His adventurous nature seems to have involved him in many a ministry, for we read of his pastoral works in Cornwall, his retreats preached for soldiers during his banishment at Ghent and his work with the Sisters of Antwerp just prior to his return to England.

Not too long after his arrival he was apprehended on suspicion of being a priest. Since he had been tried once on this charge and found guilty there was no need, in the mind of his judge, to repeat the whole affair. He was ordered dispatched on the 1st of February, 1645.

But things were not going so well for the King either. Factions were everywhere dividing the loyalties of too many subjects. Enough people were now whispering quite loudly that perhaps England were better off without a king. Unable to control his heritage, Charles granted religious liberty to the Presbyterians in Scotland, hoping vainly to win a respite for himself in what was shaping up as a civil war in England. The Puritan faction under Oliver Cromwell was now a force to be reckoned with. In 1649 Charles, after repeated military defeats, was imprisoned, forced to abdicate, and was finally beheaded at Whitehall on January 30.

For the first time in the annals of English history, since 827 when Egbert, King of Wessex was declared King of the English, there was no longer a king. The Commonwealth was declared and Cromwell named Protector.

In 1658 Oliver Cromwell died, succeeded by the inept Richard Cromwell. By May of that same year he had resigned as Lord Protector. On May 1, 1660, Charles II was proclaimed king, thus restoring a somewhat tarnished but nonetheless viable monarchy. He entered London to be hailed King of England on May 29, 1660. Under him, Philip Evans and John Lloyd were martyred outside Cardiff Castle on July 22, 1679. Both were priests. Within this reign the remaining Forty Martyrs — John Plessington, secular priest; John Wall, Franciscan father; John Kemble and David Lewis, Jesuit priests — were executed for the faith.

On Monday, May 18, 1970, Pope Paul VI presided at a Consistory of the College of Cardinals at which the final decision was made to canonize the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales. The press statement issued in London that day reads, in part, as follows:

The Martyrdom of Christians is the most sublime expression and sign of this love, not only because the martyr remains faithful to his love to the extent of shedding his blood, but also because this sacrifice is performed out of the loftiest and noblest love that can exist, namely love for Him who created and redeemed us, who loves us as only He can love, and expects from us a response of total and unconditioned donation, that is, a love worthy of our God.

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