“In the introduction Father Law gives…a vivid sketch of the persecution, which can hardly fail to kindle the love and admiration of Catholics towards those glorious martyrs, – martyrs, as he truly points out, at once of charity and faith. It contains a beautiful letter of Mr. John Duckett, written the night before his martyrdom (September 7th, 1644), which, we believe, has not hitherto been printed in full.” (Dublin Review, Vol. 79, 1876)
¶ It may be truly said that no country, with perhaps the single exception of Ireland, can boast of so glorious an army of martyrs since the days of the catacombs. The persecution in which they suffered is remarkable for its duration as well as its violence. It commenced with the twenty-seventh year of Henry VIII., and endured with little intermission for about a century and a half until, in 1681, the martyrdom of Oliver Plunket, Archbishop of Armagh, at Tyburn closed the long list which had begun by the execution of the three saintly Carthusian priors and their companions on April 29, 1535. Meanwhile it could reckon among its victims persons of every rank and condition in society bishops and noblemen, monks and friars, Jesuits and seminary priests, ladies and poor servants, merchants, lawyers, schoolmasters, tradesmen whose biographies supply us with rare examples of every virtue in every sphere of life, and who, for the most part crowned with the glory of martyrdom, lives already illustrious for eminent sanctity and heroic self-sacrifice.
¶ The particular causes, too, for which these martyrs suffered ought to serve to enhance their merit in our eyes, and render them the dearer to us. Many died in defence of the Catholic doctrine of the Supremacy of the Holy See. This was the cause for which Sir Thomas More, the saintly Bishop of Rochester, the Carthusians, the Bridgettines, the Franciscans and Benedictines, and others, both priests and laymen, gave their lives (eighty-two in all) during the last eight years of Henry’s reign. If their number, in comparison with those who fell away at that time, is lamentably small, all the greater honour to the few, who in the face of the national apostasy saw what others were too blind to see, and, like their Divine Master, trod the winepress alone.
¶ The conflict under Elizabeth and in the subsequent period was in some respects of a different nature. In the earlier years of that Queen’s reign her Government was content with persecuting measures short of death, hoping by a well-planned system of fines, confiscation, imprisonment, and the gradual extinction of the clergy, little by little to rob the people of England of their newly-recovered faith. And for a while it seemed as if the priesthood must die out, and the Catholic religion in England succumb to heresy without a struggle. It was at this critical moment that, by the forethought and zeal of William Allen, the first English seminary, the fruitful parent of many others and the nursery of future martyrs, was successfully established at Douay. In 1574 a small band of four newly-ordained priests made their way into England. Three years later Cuthbert Mayne, the protomartyr of the seminaries, was hanged, drawn, and quartered at Launceston. Three years more, and no less than a hundred missionaries had poured into the country from Douay, from Rheims, and from Rome, with marvellous success attending upon their labours. Dr. Allen had now happily persuaded the Society of Jesus to take part in the sacred conflict ; and Fathers Campion and Persons entered England in 1580, in which single year it is said that some 10,000 apostates were reconciled to the Church. Meanwhile a succession of sanguinary laws were enacted to meet the reasoning and influence of the new missionaries. It was already a capital crime to maintain the authority of the Pope, to print or publish books maintaining that doctrine, to absolve or reconcile any one to the Church, or to persuade any one to be so reconciled. But this was not enough; and in 1584 the famous Act of the 27th of Elizabeth was passed, by which it was declared high treason for any priest ordained abroad to come into the kingdom ; and any one receiving, relieving, or comforting such priest was to be considered a felon, and to suffer death. Truly, therefore, has it been said of the clergy of those times that they were martyrs of charity as well as of faith. English youths, who then voluntarily embraced the ecclesiastical state and the work of a missionary, did so at the risk of their lives for the pure love of souls and with the truest love of country. More than a hundred priests died simply for their sacerdotal character, with no other charge so much as alleged against them than that of offering the Holy Sacrifice ; while scores of the laity, with no less zeal and charity, suffered the same punishment for the sole crime of giving aid and shelter to their persecuted pastors. If among the many martyrs whose names are recorded in the Calendar some were accused of political treason against their sovereign, such accusations were rarely, if ever, believed either by the accusers or the judges who condemned them; and each one of the 260 who suffered death after the accession of Elizabeth might have saved his life by a single visit to the Protestant church.
¶ The following statistics may help to give some idea of how fiercely at times the persecution raged, and how great was the peril incurred by every missionary who ventured upon this glorious strife. The Douay registers regularly record each year the names of the newly-ordained priests. The list of 1581 gives the ordinations of 43 priests. Of these 15 are marked with the letter M., as subsequently martyred. In 1583 the martyrs are 10 out of 29. Next year they are 9 out of 30, and in 1585 10 out of 24. During the last six months of a single year, 1588, there were no less than 33 martyrs, 22 of whom were priests. Yet the stream of missionaries did not slacken. The report of each fresh martyrdom was celebrated at the college by a Mass of thanksgiving and a solemn Te Deum, and only served to stimulate the zeal and fervour of those who were longing to share the same labours and win the same crown. From calculations furnished in 1596 it is estimated that in that year there were already above 300 priests from the seminaries at work on the English mission, assisted by about 50 survivors of the old Marian clergy, and 16 priests of the Society of Jesus. (1) At this time the catalogue of martyrs already numbered 101 secular priests and 4 Jesuits, while more than 100 priests had been sent into banishment.
¶ During the last years of Elizabeth’s reign the Franciscans, following the example already set by the Jesuits, began one by one to enter upon the mission. They in turn were soon followed by the Benedictines, and both now largely helped to swell the list of martyrs. From towards the close of the reign of James I. to the accession of James II. there were occasional periods of comparative rest. The penal laws indeed increased in number and rigour, and the prisons were constantly full, but less blood was actually shed. The reluctance of Charles I. to put priests to death for their religion, it is well known, was one of the chief causes of the rupture between the crown and the parliament which resulted in the rebellion and, with it, a fresh outbreak of violence against Catholics. This continued for some years, and brought a score of priests, regular and secular, to the scaffold. Lastly, after another temporary lull, the excitement produced by the calumnies of Gates awoke the Elizabethan statutes into active operation; and in 1679 the horrors of 1588 were once more repeated, 8 priests of the Society of Jesus, 2 Franciscans, 5 secular priests, and 7 laymen being sacrificed to the popular hatred of the Church, not to speak of many others who died from the hardships of their prisons. (2)
¶ In estimating the heroism of our martyrs during this long and fiery trial, we must not forget what kind of torments were involved in the death which was constantly before the eyes of the young missioner from the first hour of his college life. He had before him the prospect of being tortured on the rack, suspended above the ground by the hands in iron gauntlets, bent double in the ‘little ease,’ or thrust into loathsome pits. He had to expect tortures of the mind as well as of the body, while his persecutors ply him with insidious questions to draw from him the names of friends and benefactors which in charity he was bound to conceal ; and lastly he had to face a death which was no less than a disgusting and obscene butchery, and of which the hanging upon the gallows was the least part either of its shame or of its pain. With few exceptions the martyrs were sentenced to the penalty of high treason to be hanged, drawn, and quartered. In some cases indeed the humanity of the sheriff or the sympathies of the spectators were so far exerted on behalf of the sufferer as to permit him to hang till he was dead ; but commonly the hanging was little more than a rude shock. It was the knife and not the rope which was the real instrument of execution. The body was cut down alive from the gallows, and then submitted to the barbarous and indescribable process by which it was ripped up, torn to pieces, and literally, bit by bit, thrown into the boiling caldron before the still open eyes of the dying martyr. One instance shall be given in the words of a valiant woman who tells what she saw and heard when, on the eighth of August 1642, Mr. Hugh Green suffered at Dorchester, in the fifty-seventh year of his age. ‘The unskilful executioner, by trade a barber,’ Mrs. Willoughby writes, ‘was so long in dismembering him that he came to his perfect senses and sat upright. The people pulled him down by the rope which was about his neck ; then did the butcher cut his belly on both sides and turned the flap upon his breast, which the holy man feeling put his left hand upon his bowels, and looking on his bloody hand laid it down by his side, and lifting up his right hand crossed himself, saying three times, “Jesu, Jesu, Jesu, mercy !” the which, though unworthy, I am witness of, for my hand was on his forehead, and many Protestants heard him and took great notice of it ; for all the Catholics were pressed away by the unruly multitude except myself, who never left him until his head was severed from his body. Whilst he was thus calling upon Jesus, the butcher did pull a piece of his liver out instead of his heart, and tumbling the entrails out every way to see if his heart was not amongst them ; then with his knife he raked in the body of the blessed martyr, who even then called on Jesus; and his forehead sweat, then it was cold, presently again burned ; his eyes, nose, and mouth ran with blood and water. His patience was admirable, and when his tongue could no longer pronounce that life-giving name, Jesu, his lips moved and his inward groans gave signs of those lamentable torments which for more than half an hour he suffered. Methought my heart was pulled out to see him in such cruel pains lifting up his eyes to heaven and not yet dead. Then I could no longer hold, but cried, “Out upon them that did so torment him” upon which a devout gentlewoman, understanding he did yet live, went to Cancola, the sheriff, who was her uncle’s steward, and on her knees besought him to put him out of his pain, who at her request commanded to cut off his head. Then with a knife they did cut his throat, and with a cleaver chopped off his head ; and so this thrice most blessed martyr died.’ (3)
¶ Yet it was in anticipation of such an end as this that young Edmund Genings would speak to his companions at college, not with fear of the combat, but with eager longing for his crown, saying, ‘Vivamus in spe’ (Let us live in hope) ! The manner in which our martyrs prepared for and welcomed their death is characteristic throughout. They met it not only with Christian patience and fortitude, but with alacrity and joy. When Sir Thomas More looked out from his prison-window upon Father Houghton and his brethren on the way to their execution, he exclaimed to his daughter, ‘See, Meg, these blessed fathers be now as cheerfully going to their death as bridegrooms to their marriage !’ The same might have been said of all. Father Campion used to lift his hat as he passed under Tyburn gallows, partly out of reverence for the martyrs who had already shed their blood there, and partly, as he said, because one day he made sure he would hang there himself. Father Bullaker, when he heard his sentence pronounced, could not contain his joy, but fell on his knees and sang his Te Deum in open court. At the gallows the most timid by nature seemed to gain strength at the sight before them. Those who came last would embrace the dead and mangled corpses of those who had gone before, or dip their own rope in the pools of blood, or kiss the stains of blood on the hangman’s hand. To many a prisoner awaiting his hour of execution, as with S. Ignatius of Antioch, there was but one cause of anxiety lest at any moment he should be robbed of his martyr’s crown. Perhaps no better example could be selected of the spirit which in general animated the whole body of martyrs and confessors than that expressed in the farewell letter of John Duckett to Dr. Richard Smith, Bishop of Chalcedon, written from his prison on the night before his martyrdom (Sept. 7, 1644). Its beautiful simplicity and sublime faith need no comment. It shall be given in full, for every word is matter for a meditation : (4)
‘Most reverend Father in God, I desire you to give me leave to bid you farewell, seeing it is the last opportunity I shall have in this life of presenting my humble duty to your Lordship. My time is spent and eternity approacheth, not of misery but of joy. I fear not death, nor I contemn not life. If life were my lot, I should endure it patiently ; but if death, I shall receive it joyfully, for that Christ is my life and death is my gain. Never since my receiving of holy orders did I so much fear death as I did life, and now, when it approacheth, can I faint ? O, no ! for the nearer it is at hand the more my soul rejoiceth, and will ever till my life be ended in this happy cause ; and then most of all, as I will hope in the mercy of Christ Jesus, for whose sake I suffer. Therefore I beg of your Lordship, and also of those two worthy houses [Douay and Rome], of which I am a most unworthy member, to give God thanks for this great benefit which He mercifully bestows on me, a miserable sinner. Let us all, I beseech you, rejoice and exult in this day which our Lord hath made, who be for ever praised of all for time and eternity. Your Lordship’s humble and undeserving servant,
¶ On the other hand, the part that the laity of England took in this sanguinary conflict for the faith is worthy to be held in everlasting remembrance. It is consoling and edifying to observe how constantly each band of priests brought to the gallows was accompanied by one or more such faithful companions in martyrdom their converts, or their hosts and protectors ; as if to give proof of how close and affectionate was the union between the pastor and his flock.
¶ Some few examples may be here picked out from among many, in illustration of the severity with which the laity of both sexes were treated, and of the various causes for which they gave their lives. Mr. Swallowell, a minister of the English Church, was hanged, drawn, and quartered, simply for becoming a Catholic. William Pikes in 1591 was, for the same capital offence, cut down from the gallows alive and pinned to the ground by the halberts of the sheriff’s men, while his heart was cut out with the butcher’s knife. Mr. Ashton, a gentleman of Lancashire, was executed for daring to procure from Rome a dispensation to marry his second cousin ; and Nicholas Horner, a poor tailor, was horribly racked and tortured, and finally hanged, for making a ‘jerkin’ for a priest. Carter, a printer, and Webley, a dyer, were hanged ; the one for printing, and the other for distributing, Catholic books. Mrs. Clithero, a lady in York, was pressed to death for refusing to plead on the charge of having harboured a priest in her house ; and Mrs. Line was flogged, tortured, and hanged for assisting another to escape from his prison. The year 1593, remarkable for being the only one during the last twenty-two years of Elizabeth’s reign in which no priest was put to a violent death, supplies us with a notable instance of the dangers to which a simple layman, zealous for his faith, might at any time be exposed. Four Catholic gentlemen were imprisoned for recusancy in York gaol. A Protestant minister, who happened to be confined in the same prison for some misdemeanour, persuaded them to give him instruction in the truths of the Catholic faith, and afterwards betrayed them for attempting his conversion. For this offence they were brought to trial, condemned, and executed. Two ladies, Mrs. Anne Tesse and Mrs. Bridget Maskew, wereat the same time sentenced to be burnt ; and though they were afterwards reprieved, they remained ten years in prison.
¶ Meanwhile the Catholics throughout Europe were admiring and envying this renewal in England of the glories of the first age of the Church. Princes and Bishops delighted to show honour to the English student or exile who passed by their way, as martyrs in desire if not in deed. S. Charles Borromeo seemed to bear a particular affection for our suffering countrymen. S. Philip Neri used to embrace the young priests who went from the Roman College to get the old man’s blessing before embarking on their perilous journey; and his well-known greeting to them, ‘Salvete flores martyrum !’ has ever gratefully been remembered by us, and made the name of the Saint specially dear to all English Catholics. The relics of those who shed their blood were eagerly sought for and treasured as relics of saints. Their pictures adorned the walls of churches, and their lives were written for the edification of the faithful. Catholic literature was full of their praises. The great commentator on Holy Scripture, Cornelius a Lapide, when he comes to speak of the Apostle’s words in Heb. x. 34, finds the most obvious illustration of this text in the incidents of the Elizabethan persecution then raging, and makes honourable mention of such men as Francis Tregian or of Philip Howard Earl of Arundel, ‘ whose deeds have equalled, if not surpassed, in heroism those, of the primitive heroes of the Church.’ Cardinal Baronius, in like manner, in his revision of the Roman Martyrology, cannot touch on S. Thomas of Canterbury without reference to ‘the glory of our own age, which has had the happiness of witnessing so many Thomases crowned,’ as he dares to say, ‘even with a more ample martyrdom.’
¶ These are the men whom God’s Providence has raised up amongst us for our example and our delight. They belong to us, and appeal to us, as no others can. Their blood has hallowed the soil on which we stand. Their precious relics are still in abundance preserved in our colleges and convents, and have by constant miracles borne witness to the efficacy of their prayers. One thing alone is wanting to complete their glory and our consolation that they should be raised upon the altars of the universal Church by a solemn decree of the Sovereign Pontiff. As far back as 1643 Pope Urban VIII. issued a commission to inquire into the cause and manner of their deaths. The seizure of the papers, the execution of Father Bell, O.S.F., one of the persons thus nominated, and the many difficulties of the times, put a stop to further progress in the matter. Two years ago, the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, under happier auspices, thought the fitting moment had arrived for once more bringing forward their cause. The ordinary process instituted by his Eminence was completed in due form at the London Oratory, and the acts forwarded to Rome in the summer of 1874, the Rev. F. Morris, S.J., acting as promoter. May we not pray that it may be reserved for our Holy Father, to whom England owes so much, to confer yet one more blessing on our country by the solemn beatification of these our martyrs?
(1) The names of these 16 Jesuits, with their chief places of abode, are given by Father Morris, S.J., in his Troubles of our Catholic Forefathers, 1st series, p. 191.
(2) After the death of Charles II. there was no more blood shed in England for the sole cause of religion, but the laws of Elizabeth against the priesthood remained in full force for nearly another century, and many of the clergy were tried for their lives for saying Mass. At the trial of James Webb, June 25, 1768, the ChiefJustice, Lord Mansfield, had to submit to the jury that it was ‘ high treason for any man who is proved to be a priest to breathe in this kingdom’ (see Barnard’s Life of Challoner, Dublin, 1793). The last priest tried for his life was the Hon. and Right Rev. James Talbot, brother of the Earl of Shrewsbury, at the Old Bailey in 1769, acquitted only for want of evidence.
(3) This is by no means a solitary instance of such prolonged torture. A very similar case is described in the ‘Life and Martyrdom of Mr. Richard White, schoolmaster,’ protomartyr of Wales, in the Rambler of 1860, vol. iii. p. 233 ; and a number of others may be found in Challoner’s Missionary Priests.
(4) The original letter is preserved in the archives of the Archdiocese of Westminster.
Taken from A Calendar of the English Martyrs of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries with an Introduction by Thomas Graves Law, Priest of the Oratory. London : Burns and Oates. 1876.