Cardinal John Henry Newman, the celebrated Anglican convert to the Catholic faith, was beatified by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010. When he is canonized, Newman will become the first saint from post-Reformation England who was not a martyr.
Why were there so many martyrs in the British Isles? Before King Henry VIII tore his nation away from the pope and the Catholic Church in the 16th century, martyr saints in that land were few. England’s saints tended to be bishops and scholars, monks and mystics, such as St. Augustine of Canterbury, Venerable Bede, St. Aelred of Rievaulx, St. Anselm and St. Etheldreda. (St. Thomas Becket was one of the few exceptions.)
But the Protestant Reformation changed all that. As it sought to co-opt or dismantle the Catholic Church throughout Britain, it put to death those who stood in its way.In 1970, Pope Paul VI canonized a group of Forty Martyrs of England and Wales; in 1987, Pope John Paul II beatified another group of Eighty-Five Martyrs of England, Scotland and Wales. Additional Reformation martyrs from Britain have been canonized separately. Who were these men and women, willing to oppose their rulers and die for their Catholic faith?
More and Fisher
In 1534, Henry VIII declared himself the Supreme Head and Governor of the Church of England so that he could remarry and father a legitimate male heir. He demanded that his loyal subjects accept his new position.
Most complied. A heroic few did not, however, and became the first Catholic martyrs of the English Reformation. Among the most famous were Thomas More and John Fisher, both beheaded in 1535 and canonized in 1935 by Pope Pius XI. Thomas More had been Lord Chancellor of England and one of Henry’s close advisers, but he refused to approve the king’s misdeeds. Sadly, John Fisher stood alone as the only bishop in England who opposed Henry, offering counsel to Queen Catherine of Aragon, whom Henry sought to divorce. The executions of these two men sent shock waves throughout Europe.
The Carthusian Monks
Lesser known are the Carthusian Monks of the Charterhouse of London. Unlike More and Fisher, whose executions Henry mercifully commuted to beheading, these martyrs suffered torturous deaths from 1535 to 1537. They were starved to death, left to die of exposure, or hanged, drawn and quartered.
To understand the brutality of the treatment these men received, we should note more explicitly what it meant to be “hanged, drawn and quartered,” though the description is not for the faint of heart.
After being dragged on a hurdle (a wooden frame) to the place of execution, the prisoners were hanged by the neck until almost dead. Then, while they were still alive, they would be disemboweled and emasculated, and their entrails and genitalia would be burned as the prisoners looked on.
Finally, the body was beheaded and cut into four quarters, which were put on public display to deter others who might attempt to follow their example.
Thomas More watched John Houghton, prior of the London Charterhouse, and his companions on their way to execution. He told his daughter, Margaret, that they went as bridegrooms to their wedding, full of joy that they could die for their Lord.
Two other martyrs, John Rochester and James Walworth, were hung in chains from the walls of the city of York, dying of exposure.
John Davy and Robert Salt were sent to Newgate prison, chained standing and left to die of starvation.
One of Thomas More’s wards, Margaret Clement, visited the monks at Newgate, feeding them and cleaning their cell, until Henry VIII became suspicious that the starving monks seemed to survive too long. From then on her efforts were thwarted, and the monks eventually succumbed to starvation.
After Henry’s death, the brief reigns of Edward VI and then Mary I first brought about a Calvinist reformation and then a Catholic restoration. Under Elizabeth I, the Parliament legislated the compromise Church of England, which claimed to be a via media (“middle way”) of sorts between Calvinism and Lutheranism.
Elizabeth I and her Stuart successor, James I, instituted laws against recusancy — that is, the refusal to comply with or conform to the state church. Many Catholics became “recusants.” Some of the priests were taken to the infamous “Tyburn Tree” outside London, a novel form of gallows whose triangular form allowed for multiple hangings simultaneously.
Catholic laypeople paid heavy fines if they didn’t attend Anglican services or take oaths against the pope. The state regarded nearly all Catholics (especially Jesuits) as probable traitors, involved in plots to overthrow the monarch.
Among the many Jesuits who suffered martyrdom were Edmund Campion, Robert Southwell and Henry Walpole. Among the laity were three fearless women: Margaret Clitherow, Margaret Ward and Anne Line.The three Jesuits endured exile during their studies on the Continent, constant danger while serving Catholics in England, and torture leading to brutal executions after their arrests.
Campion was so horribly stretched on the rack that he could not raise his hand to swear an oath at trial. Southwell was held in such a fetid cell that vermin covered his clothing. Walpole converted upon witnessing Campion’s execution in 1581 and suffered his exemplar’s fate 14 years later.
All three suffered and died as young men, having given up the worldly celebrity they had experienced at Oxford and Cambridge.Margaret Clitherow suffered a peculiar form of execution on March 25, 1586. Refusing to enter any plea when accused of hiding priests — to protect her family from having to testify against her — she was pressed to death. In this vicious form of execution, the victim was placed on the ground with a stone behind her back and a door on top of her. As more than 800 pounds were added on top of the door, Margaret was crushed within 15 minutes.
Margaret Ward helped Father William Watson escape from prison, smuggling in a rope that the priest accidentally left behind. The authorities discovered what she had done and tortured Margaret to make her reveal his whereabouts. She refused and was hung at Tyburn on Aug. 30, 1588.
Anne Line was executed Feb. 27, 1601. Her “crimes”: Not only did she harbor a Catholic priest, but she also exclaimed that she wished she could have saved a thousand more.
Civil War and Revolution
In fewer numbers Catholics continued to suffer during the reign of Charles I and during the so-called Interregnum, when Parliament and then Oliver Cromwell ruled England after the English Civil War ended in 1649.
Cromwell took his “Model Army” to Ireland to punish Catholic rebels, massacring priests in the siege of Drogheda and executing those who remained in Ireland. Catholics in England were relatively at peace during the Interregnum before the restoration of the Stuart dynasty in 1660.
The so-called Popish Plot, a fiction spread by the notorious perjurer Titus Oates, accused Catholics of a conspiracy to assassinate King Charles II. In 1679, laymen Edward Coleman and Thomas Pickering, as well as Jesuits Thomas Whitbread and Anthony Turner, fell victim to Oates’ perjury and fraud. They were executed at Tyburn.
Oliver Plunkett, the Irish bishop of Armagh, was brought to London for a manifestly unfair trial and condemned to death. On July 11, 1681, he became the last Catholic priest to be executed at Tyburn.
In some ways, the 18th-century Enlightenment era that followed was the lowest point for Catholics in England. Looking back on the previous two centuries, they recalled all that their ancestors had endured, even as they found themselves weakened and ostracized — so lacking in fervor that their enemies did not even consider them worthy of persecution.
Toleration and Newman’s Conversion
For centuries, Catholics in England were subject to discriminatory laws of various kinds that kept them from full participation in economic, civil and social life. In 1778 and 1791, Parliament passed the “Relief Acts” allowing Catholics to practice their faith more freely, own and inherit land, and join the army (which needed soldiers). Finally, in 1829, the Catholic Emancipation Act removed all the restrictions on voting and holding office that had encumbered Catholics for more than 200 years.
Ironically, when Parliament extended toleration to Catholics, John Henry Newman — still a minister in the Church of England — opposed it. He believed that toleration weakened the Anglican claim that the Church of England was the true apostolic church, avoiding both Catholic and Protestant errors.
Nevertheless, 16 years later, after much prayer and consideration, Newman joined the Catholic Church — shocking his family and Oxford friends — and soon became an Oratorian priest. He wrote great works of theology, philosophy, literature and apologetics; founded oratories, schools and a Catholic university. When Newman died in 1891, it was said that he did more than anyone in his lifetime to remove the stigma of being Catholic in England.
Cardinal Newman’s beatification affirmed to the world that his life was a courageous testimony to the Catholic faith. But it should also remind us of the many martyrs of the British Isles — men and women, priests and laypeople — who, long before him, through their deaths, bore heroic witness to Our Lord and His Church.
Stephanie A. Mann writes from Kansas.