From The Angel of Syon : The Life and Martyrdom of Blessed Richard Reynolds, Bridgettine Monk of Syon, Martyred at Tyburn May 4, 1535 by Dom Adam Hamilton O.S.B., London, 1905. Transcribed by Hieronymopolis.
A SONG OF SYON
In honour of Blessed Richard Reynolds, Martyr, of the ancient Order of Our Most Holy Saviour, known as that of St. Bridget of Sweden, who suffered for the Faith under Henry VIII., 4th May 1535.
“Diligit Dominus portas Sion, super omnia tabernacula Jacob.”
“The Lord loveth the gates of Syon above all the tabernacles of Jacob.” – Ps. Ixxxvi. 2.
RICHARD most Blessed ! Father thou and Brother,
Born of our House, as of our queenly Mother,
To thee we turn for help as to no other,
Martyr of Syon !
We the sole link with England’s past, remaining
True to our ancient Faith and holy training,
Call on thy succour, now that Faith is waning,
Love growing colder !
In exile’s hour thy hand would ever lead us,
Through thorny paths thy help would gently speed us,
Now in the haven, still thine ear will heed us,
Crying from Syon !
Martyr most brave, whose faith would never falter,
Neath a king’s frown, or Tyburn’s knife and halter,
Gain us like faith, who round thy Syon’s altar
Joy in thy triumph !
Brother, who like a bridegroom to the marriage,
Choosing the hurdle for thy festal carriage,
Didst, with a joy man’s hate could ne’er disparage,
Fly to thy torments !
There with white lips the name of Jesus gasping,
In thy last hour the Cross of Jesus clasping ;
Torn limb from limb, the Martyr’s crown art grasping –
Safely in Syon !
Joy of our House, and glory of our nation,
To whom we owe our wondrous preservation,
Pour from on high the balm of consolation,
Blessing thy daughters !
Urged by thy prayers our Jesus will defend us,
And while we chant His Psalter He will send us
Angels of peace to comfort and defend us,
As in past ages !
And our Sweet Lady in thy soul descrying
Her purest Mirror, with thy prayer complying,
Safely shall guide us unto joys undying,
In the true Syon.
U. I. O. G. D.
Rev. Dom Bede Camm, O.S.B.
THE MARTYRDOM AT TYBURN
¶ THE desire expressed before the Court at Westminster by Blessed Richard, that he might be allowed time to prepare for death, was granted. The sentence was given on April 29, and was executed on May 4. Cranmer, rightly judging that the king’s purpose would be better served if the monks could even at the last moment be seduced from their glorious confession and led to acknowledge the royal supremacy, wrote as follows to Cromwell :
¶ “Whereas the Prior of Axholme, named Webster, and Master Raynald of Syon, are attainted of high treason for offending against the late statute made for suppressing the usurped power of the Bishop of Rome, I marvel at both, as they are learned men, and Webster promised he would never support that opinion. If there is no other offence alleged against them, it will much more tend to the conversion of others to convert their consciences by sincere doctrine, and so for them to publish it, than to suffer the penalty of the law. If they were sent to me, I suppose I could do much in their behalf.”
¶ His request was not granted. Dr. Thomas Starkey, who had been chaplain to Blessed Margaret Plantagenet, and was now one of the king’s chaplains, was sent by Cromwell to try to pervert Reynolds. Starkey gives an account of their interview in a letter to Cardinal Pole, whose friend he had formerly been. After referring to the martyrs as maintaining the Pope to be Christ’s Vicar, he says : “In this opinion sturdily stood Reynolds, whom I have heard of you many times praised ; who was so rooted therein that he would admit no reason to the contrary….By the licence and commandment of Master Secretary I was admitted to hear Reynold’s reasons, and to confer such light as God had given me in the same cause with him….With him I conferred gladly. For sorry I was for many causes, that a man of such fame, as he was here noted both for virtue and learning, should die in such a blind and superstitious opinion. But nothing could avail, but that he would, in that opinion, as a disobedient person to the King’s laws, suffer his death with the other of the same minds.” Starkey died three years later. Strype says that the king “frowned upon him,” and suspected him of being insincere. It may have been so. Several others, as Starkey wrote, were sent to pervert the confessors.
¶ The memorable 4th of May dawned at last ; memorable not only for the victory of the martyrs over the Prince of Darkness, but for its far-reaching consequences in the future of England. In the morning they were called from their cells, and led to the gate of the Tower. “The faces of these men,” writes a Protestant author of our own time, “did not grow pale ; their voices did not shake ; they declared themselves liege subjects to the King and obedient children of the Church.” With a smile on their lips, radiant with the joy of the Holy Ghost, they laid themselves on the hurdles at the gate. With what loving affection they greeted each other in this hour, so soon to meet in heaven, no words could utter. Blessed Thomas More was at this moment conversing in his cell with his daughter, Margaret. Perhaps the clank of armour and the trampling of horses drew him to the window, for “looking out of the window, he chanced to behold one Master Reynolds, a religious, learned, and virtuous father of Syon, and three monks of the Charterhouse, for the matter of the supremacy and matrimony going out of the Tower (in their religious habits) to execution ; he, as one longing in that journey to have accompanied them, said unto my wife, then standing there beside him : Lo, dost thou not see, Meg, that these blessed fathers be now as cheerfully going to their deaths as bridegrooms to their marriage ?” So writes Roper, Blessed Thomas More’s son-in-law, who, of course, received it from his wife, Margaret.
¶ The three miles journey from the Tower to Tyburn was always a painful part of the sentence. Chauncey speaks of their suffering on the hurdle, as it jolted over the rough stones, or splashed through the pools and mud “with which the route abounded.” To terrorise the people, they were taken to the place of execution and hanged in their religious habit ; in the tyrant’s intention as an aggravation of cruelty, but to the martyrs a dearly cherished privilege, and to their successors a glorious consecration of their sacred habit. I have not been able to find the source of what is told by some modern writers, that when the first halt was made at Holborn, a devout lady knelt by the hurdle, and wiped the mud from their faces and asked their blessing. It is true, however, that a halt in this Via Dolorosa was usually made at Holborn, when it was the custom to offer the sufferers a drink, so the fact is probable. The demeanour of the immense crowd that escorted them indicated a feeling of sullen fear, no doubt, and that there were innumerable sympathisers with the holy victims of tyranny, is certain. At last the “triple tree” was in sight, with the huge cauldron, the fire, the cart, and the usual surroundings of the terrible spectacle of an execution for treason. Besides the vast crowd of spectators, there was a group present of such as would not usually be found on these occasions. “Yesterday,” writes the imperial ambassador, “there were dragged through the length of this city three Carthusians and a Bridgettine monk, all men of good character and learning, and cruellyput to death at the place of execution, only for having maintained that the Pope was the true Head of the Universal Church….And the same fate has overtaken a priest (Blessed John Hale), for having spoken and written concerning the life and government of this king. It is altogether a new thing, that the Dukes of Richmond and Norfolk, the Earl of Wiltshire, his son, and other lords and courtiers were present at the execution, quite near the sufferers. People say that the King himself would have liked to see the butchery ; which is very probable, seeing that nearly all the Court, even those of the Privy Chamber, were there ; his principal chamberlain, Norres, bringing with him forty horses, and it is thought that the King was of the number of five who came thither accoutred and mounted like Borderers, with vizors before their faces. That of the Duke of Norfolk’s brother got detached, which has caused a great stir, together with the fact, that while the five thus habited were speaking, all those of the Court went away.”
¶ The presence of the courtiers was intended by the king to counteract the universal disapproval of the people, and perhaps from some fear of a rising; “he whole city is displeased, as they were of exemplary and holy life,” writes the papal nuncio in France. It is uncertain if the king was present. In a letter of Ortiz, the imperial agent in Rome, to the empress, he says that there “were martyred three Carthusians, a monk of Monte Sion (Syon monastery) of the Order of St Bridget, a very learned man, another priest, who would not acknowledge the King as supreme spiritual Head, but only the Pope. They died with great constancy, and with much blame of the judges who condemned them.” This feeling of the people could only be increased by the demeanour of the martyrs. As each ascended the scaffold he was offered his life if he would recant. Houghton was the first to die ; then the other Carthusians ; then Blessed John Hale ; and, lastly, our martyr of Syon. Each spoke to the people from the cart. The touching speech of Blessed John Houghton declared his belief and that of his fellowmartyrs in the divinely revealed dogma of the Supremacy of St Peter s successor. “Our holy Mother, the Church, has decreed and determined otherwise than our Lord the King with his Parliament has ordained. Therefore am I obliged in conscience to suffer this and every torment, rather than deny the teaching of the Church. Pray for me, and pity my brethren, of whom I was the unworthy Prior.” Then on his knees he recited part of the 30th Psalm, beginning : “In Thee, O Lord, have I hoped, let me not be confounded” ; and when he had ended it, with the words, “Into Thy hands I commend my spirit ; Thou hast redeemed me, O Lord, the God of Truth,” the gentle Carthusian prior was thrown from the ladder, the rope was instantly cut, and the usual quartering followed. Our Bridgettine martyr had to witness all the butchery of the others while awaiting his own turn. They were first half strangled with a very thick cord, that they might be fully alive during the subsequent butchery. “And as in their souls they swerved not from the way of truth,” writes Fr. Maurice Chauncey, “so no pallor was seen in their faces, no trembling in their speech, no fear of death in any outward sign. Strengthened by the Spirit of Truth, for whose sake they went to their death agony, they were as cheerful as ever they were when in the fullness of health and security.” It was Blessed Richard’s lot to listen to the dying words of Blessed John Houghton, “in a most sweet voice,” as Chauncey says, uttering the prayer, “Most merciful Jesus! have mercy on me in this hour” ; and again, when the executioner’s hand was on his heart, saying, “Good Jesus! what will you do with my heart?” In Dom Bede Camm’s Lives of the English Martyrs, he has published the following, brief but important passage, from the Arundel MS. 152: “Which Reynolds, being the last that was executed, and seeing them cruelly quartered, and their bowels taken out, preached unto them and comforted them, promising them a heavenly banquet and supper for their sharp breakfast taken patiently for their Master’s sake. He never changed colour nor was disquieted, and then in the end lastly went to die manfully himself.”
¶ Not less than the angelic beauty of his countenance, and the supernatural attraction he exerted on all with whom he came into contact, does this manfulness of Blessed Richard, the fortitude which is one of the seven gifts of the Holy Ghost, appear conspicuously in the few details concerning him which we possess. Together with the gift of sacred eloquence for which he was renowned, it fitted him to be the comforter of his fellow-martyrs. As with unblanched cheek he gazed on the fearful scene, he must have felt his soul flooded with gratitude to God that his last of many sermons was to be preached amid surroundings so tremendous, that his words must needs thrill his hearers as they had never been thrilled before. The terror-stricken multitude, the savage courtiers of King Henry, grouped apart on horseback, the mangled bodies of the martyrs, the ghastly preparations for his own sacrifice ; all bore witness that in that dread hour Christ and the Prince of Darkness met once more in deadly strife before men and angels, and the martyrs were victorious and “overcame by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of the testimony, and they loved not their lives unto death.”
¶ The expression, “that after a sharp break fast they should have a sweet supper,” was also used by Ven. John Sugar before his martyrdom : “Though I shall have a sharp dinner, yet I trust in Jesus Christ I shall have a most sweet supper.” I do not know that it originated with Blessed Richard.
¶ Each one, as soon as the rope was cut and he had fallen to the ground, was dragged to the plank, hurriedly stripped, his body cut open and his entrails and heart thrown into the fire. Then they were beheaded and quartered, and the head and quarters fixed in various parts of the city. The execution of his brethren was soon over, and it was our martyr’s turn to mount the cart. From that pulpit he spoke to the people. All that we know of his discourse is the brief summary in Chauncey’s work. “He exhorted the people to constant and earnest prayer for the King, lest he who at the beginning of his reign had begun like Solomon in wisdom and piety, might like that monarch be in his latter days seduced by women to his destruction.” This, of course, referred to the royal divorce, and it is unlikely that he was allowed to speak at length on such a topic. We may rest assured that a prayer for his brethren and sisters at Syon mingled with his dying aspirations.
¶ A passage, which I give in Father Stanton’s translation from Cardinal Pole’s Defence of the Unity of the Church, contains a special reference to his martyrdom : “One of these martyrs I must not pass over without a special notice, as he was intimately known to myself. Reynolds was his name, and he was one who, for. the sanctity of his life, might be compared with the very first of those who profess the more exact rule of conduct, according to the discipline of Christ….To manifest to all future time the praises of his sanctity and doctrine, and to show the height of his piety to Christ and his love of his country, it was ordained that in company with the other heroes he should, in this time of so great need, give testimony to the truth with his own blood. He gave it in truth, and was among the first to give it, and that with such constancy of mind, that as I was told by one who was present at the spectacle and had observed most attentively all that took place, when he put his neck within the murderous halter, he seemed rather to be putting on a regal chain than an instrument of death, such was the alacrity manifested in his countenance. O Blessed man! truly worthy of the fullest confidence of thee, O my country!”
¶ It is recorded that an arm of Blessed John Houghton was suspended over the gate of his monastery. There is no record that the same was done with any portion of Blessed Richard’s relics, but from a circumstance to be mentioned in the next chapter, I have a suspicion that such was the case.
¶ The conflict was over, and the victory won by the blessed martyrs of Christ. Our hearts have often been thrilled by that sublime “O Felix Roma !” with which the glorious hymn at the Vespers of SS. Peter and Paul utters the exulting joy of Rome, purpled with the blood of her martyred apostles. No city in the world can vie with the splendour of Rome in her countless army of white-robed martyrs. But London’s Tyburn has been hallowed and glorified by the blood of many martyrs of Christ, and the capital of our mighty Empire, that in many ways recalls Imperial Rome, is through them invested, though she heeds it not to-day, with a glory that infinitely transcends all her earthly greatness. “These men,” says the Protestant writer quoted above, “were not less beautiful in their resolution, not less deserving the everlasting remembrance of mankind, than those three hundred who, in the summer morning, sat combing their golden hair in the passes of Thermopylae. We will not regret their cause ; there is no cause for which any man can more nobly suffer, than to witness that it is better for him to die than to speak words which he does not mean.” And if the writer’s comparison is but poor and weak, it is none the less matter for thankfulness that the heroism of our English martyrs is, at least, dimly and imperfectly discernible by English men who are not of the household of the faith. That one of that heroic band went forth to die from that community, which alone of so many, has as if by a miracle continued its corporate existence and its ceaseless sacrifice of prayer and praise to this hour, must needs increase our reverence for those who have a right to claim as one of themselves the Angel of Syon.