A VISION OF TYBURN by Gilberte Turner (1907)

Time: 6 o’clock of a June evening. London at its fullest and gayest; a section of its inhabitants setting homewards to emerge again gorgeously apparelled for fresh gaiety ; the great majority homeward bound for rest and refreshment after the day’s work.

Place: the top of an omnibus at the Marble Arch.

¶ An unlikely setting for reverie, for the seeing of visions or the dreaming of dreams ; and, besides, rain is falling, lightly, it is true, but persistently; and the dingy mackintosh aprons of the bus are shining and heavy with wet, and there is a pattering on my umbrella. But I have been searching musty chronicles all day, and my eyes are weary with crabbed character and indistinct print on discoloured parchment or paper; and my head is heavy with the close, book-laden atmosphere of a great library; and I am in the mood to see things, even the most familiar, in a fresh light. From my lofty perch I can just catch a glimpse of the French convent where the Blessed Sacrament is adored perpetually for the Conversion of England, and where there is an oratory dedicated to the English Martyrs, and where Reverend Mother loves to tell in French, how one priestly martyr at Tyburn predicted that in three hundred years’ time a convent should stand. His words must have sounded like the wildest sort of raving to the men around him, fresh from their work of demolishing all trace of the old religion. An era of light and learning, of emancipation from the thraldom of an out-worn creed, of a New Theology, was dawning. And they were asked to believe that three hundred years later Englishmen would have progressed no farther along the path of enlightenment than to erect a convent on this same spot—that the Old Theology would be living still! Doubtless there were some that cried then as they did later to another, “Away with thee and thy Catholick Roman faith!” The whole thing was old-fashioned, out-worn, exploded—the New Ideas had come to stay!

¶ Which things are an allegory, and a useful one, in an age that is also busy in casting off the yoke of faith and boasting of its progress and enlightenment. Who among us is untainted and untouched by fear, by sickening doubt at times, when the age talks loudly and triumphantly, and God sits very still and lets it talk ; and in a panic we besiege the Tabernacle for a sign that comes not ? Then it is heart-healing to look back on what history has to say.

¶ How many times man has risen and clamoured against high Heaven from the days of Babel down!—how many times the floods of doubt and of infidelity have arisen and threatened to sweep all faith in God from the face of the earth!—and when have the gates of Hell prevailed? There can hardly be a better spot in England on which to revive a drooping and a languid faith than this same battle-ground between the old ideas and the new.

¶ These and many thoughts like them vaguely present themselves as I sit in the rain, wearied with a long, hot day’s work, and the lumbering buses roll past, while we pause to set down and take up passengers, and all the street noises and bustle seem somehow softened and deadened by this gentle, refreshing downfall.

¶ I half close my eyes and the whole scene changes: the thickly clustering houses disappear, and give place to a broad, open space, beyond which all is country; there are trees on both sides of the road that leads all the way from the City to Oxford, and where Connaught Square now stands there is a square, indeed, and in the midst, a clumsy, black, sinister erection, and at a little distance a pile of wood that burns sullenly under a huge, black, steaming cauldron, that gives off a sickening odour of hot tar. And then with the eyes of my mind, but so vividly that I am sure I should see it with my bodily eyes if I could but rouse myself to sit up and look, I see a long, unending procession that files slowly out from the heart of the City, all the long, weary two miles and a half from Newgate. It is a stream of people, and I hear the low, sullen roar of a great crowd in motion—a crowd that is partly angry and brutal, partly excited and hostile, but all intent on its centre—on the long line of horses dragging hurdles, surrounded by other horses bearing men in authority—men whose faces show that they at least know no relenting, no hesitation in their chosen task. Momentary pity there may be, as they glance for an instant in the dust beside them, but a pity mingled with contempt and disgust, and more often they are merely indifferent. These fools have brought it on themselves; they have but to stand up like men and forswear their folly—they have but to conform to the latest fashion in theology, proclaiming Glorious Queen Bess or Wise King James Head of the Church, and their reward shall be great and instantaneous. It is so plainly all their own doing that they are there, strapped on hurdles at the horses’ heels, racked and tortured, their heads and faces bathed in sweat and occasionally in blood, that it is hardly worth any sane man’s while to do aught but assist in ridding the earth of such combined madness and treason. For this long line is part of the noble army of martyrs that for more than one hundred and fifty years took that road from Newgate or the Tower, to Tyburn gallows, there to pay the penalty of their belief in the Unity of the Faith and the Headship of Peter.

¶ That was the crux then as it is now, as it ever will be while the world lasts, although it may be put in different words and take on different phases. Non serviam was the battle-cry of Lucifer at the beginning, non serviam the world cried in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and non serviam the world cries now. There is no sound so sweet to the ears of the Lord of all Misrule, and he dresses up fresh arguments in every age to appeal to men’s fickle vanity in order to set them shouting it. They are specious arguments too—love of country, loyalty, love of knowledge, care for the poor and ignorant—anything will do that sets men thinking how wise, how good, and how kind they are while they kick against the goad. “Yea, hath God said?” he asked of Eve, and her sons reiterate the query : “By what authority?”

¶ Arrived at the scaffold the procession halts for a few brief minutes as one by one the hurdles reach it, the cruel cutting ropes are severed, and the dazed and tortured man set free to mount the rude ladder. Faint, exhausted, weak from pain and loss of blood, he is no sooner on the scaffold than he is beset by teasing questions and by arguments that, backed by the gallows and the cauldron, must surely prove conclusive. And yet not one in the long roll of those that attained thus far found them so. There are mitred abbots heading the procession, there are priests, seculars, Jesuits, Benedictines, lay-brothers, gentlemen, and there are gentlewomen also, and very near the end there is a venerable Archbishop; but not one to flinch, not one who is not eager and steadfast to the end.

¶ Hear John Nelson, priest—a man who, at the age of fortyfour, when most men are settled in their ways beyond the thought of change, gave up all to go to Douai and study for the priesthood. His course was short after that—two years of preparation, one of active work in England—and he is caught, imprisoned, and here he is on the scaffold, praying, exhorting, until the cry of “Away with thee and thy Catholick Roman faith” sets him praying again ; then, when the cart is drawn from under him, the cry of the crowd is exchanged for “Lord, receive his soul.”

¶ Hear Everard Hanse, priest, whose words in his worst agony are, “Oh, happy day!”

¶ Hear Edmund Campion, the great Jesuit, answering all questions as to his belief in the authority of the Pope with the simple words, “I am a Catholic,” and protesting with his last breath that he died “a perfect Catholic.”

¶ Hear Ralph Sherwine, priest, who had borne a year’s imprisonment with such continual and prolonged racking that his tormentors had more than once thought him dead, and once laid him in the snow to bring him round, and whom at the last the brutal hangman thought to terrify with the words, “Here, Sherwine, take thou thy wages!” seizing him with the hands still covered with Father Campion’s blood ; which hands, for their covering’s sake, the martyr, reverently kissed. He begins his prayer with fervent thanks to each Person of the Eternal Trinity, and pressed for a confession of treason he answers, “If to be a Catholic only, if to be a perfect Catholic, be to be a traitor, then am I a traitor.” And he dies with the words, “Jesu, Jesu, Jesu, be to me a Jesus,” on his lips.

¶ Hear Alexander Briant, priest, twenty-eight years old, racked even more than Sherwine and nearly starved to death in prison, the only vow he takes is, if he should escape with his life, to become a Jesuit, and, as such, a traitor of a deeper dye. At his trial in Westminster Hall he had managed somehow to make himself a rough cross of wood, and “made shift also to shave his crown,” because some ministers had taunted him with being ashamed of his religion and his Holy Orders. On the scaffold he protests that he dies “a true Catholic,” and tries to say the Psalm Miserere mei, Deus, when he is interrupted by “being delivered of the cart with more pain by reason of the negligence of the hangman than either of the others,” viz., Campion and Sherwine.

¶ See William Filbie, priest, twenty-seven years of age, of whom no word is recorded but only, that “one of the Sheriff’s men taking from him a little cross of wood he had concealed in his handkerchief and repeating several times, ‘Oh, what a villainous traitor is this that hath a cross,’ Mr. Filbie answered nothing, only smiling at them.”

¶ See Ann Line, an invalid widow lady, who has to be brought to the place of execution with a certain amount of care lest she should die before reaching it, and who, accused of the crime of harbouring a priest, stands boldly on the scaffold to defy her executioners, and declare to the crowd, “with a loud voice,” that her only regret was she could not have entertained a thousand.

¶ Then near the end of the line when the fires of persecution are dying down, and only fanned into fitful flame by wicked men for their own aims, in an occasional “Popish Plot,” see the venerable, white-haired Archbishop Oliver Plunkett, dragged from his see in Ireland, where he lived in simple dignity on the princely stipend of £80 a year, to suffer as a dangerous traitor to the State.

¶ There is not much sign of doubt or hesitation about any of them ; they, like St. Paul, “know whom they have believed,” and no arguments can convince them that one lightest Word of His—far less His own Constitution of His Church—can be a matter open to debate. “The noble army of martyrs” the Church celebrates, and these form but one small regiment therein ; but a regiment that fulfils the poet’s ideal—”their’s not to reason why, their’s but to do and die.”

¶ “Fares, please,” says the conductor’s voice in my ears ; and I sit up with a start to find the omnibus swinging along the Edgware Road, and leaving Tyburn with its memories behind.

Taken from The Month : A Catholic Magazine, Vol. CX, 1907.

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