Tyburn & The Blood of 105 English Martyrs

I had an amazing day last Tuesday...I bet my American readers will love this post!

I was asked to go with my 10 year old son's school year group on a trip in honour of the close of The Year of Faith and the month of Holy Souls. We went on the train up to London (about 40 minutes for us) and caught the tube from Bank to Marble Arch, where we visited Tyburn Convent.

This is one of those incredible places, easily missed if you didn't know it was there, yet steeped with history of a dark and bloody kind, as Tyburn Field was the site of public execution for London from 1196 to 1783. 

Map showing the location of Tyburn gallows along with its immediate surroundings, from John Rocque's map of London, Westminster and Southwark (1746)
Originally an Elm tree sufficed as the make-shift gallows at Tyburn, but in 1571 a more efficient structure called the "Tree" or "Triple Tree" was erected on the site. This consisted of a horizontal wooden triangle supported by three legs (an arrangement known as a "three-legged mare" or "three-legged stool"). This allowed the gallows to be used for mass executions, such as on 23 June 1649 when 24 prisoners – 23 men and one woman – were hanged simultaneously, having been conveyed there in eight carts.

From a Catholic perspective we are particularly interested in the 'great cloud of witnesses' (cf. Hebrews 12:1) who gave their lives in defence of the Catholic religion, from the time of the start of the schism under Henry VIII (1534) until the end of the seventeenth century (interestingly, up until this time, England hand been one of the most important & influential Catholic Countries in the world).

Between 1535 & 1681, over 600 Catholics died for their faith because they would not accept that the English Monarch was above the Pope and the head of the Church in England, 105 of them at Tyburn. This situation arose because of Henry VIII's desire to divorce his wife, the Spanish Princess Catherine of Aragon, who had not given birth to a son during their 24 year marriage. Henry wanted to wed his mistress, Anne Boyleyn and because the Pope would not agree to the divorce, Henry declared himself above the Pope. More on that here.

The Carthusians of the London Chaterhouse were considered living saints by the people of the city. Henry was eager to secure their support for his “Act of Supremacy” as he considered it would sway public opinion greatly in his favour. Knowing they were facing their deaths, the Monks gathered in their chapel for a votive Mass of the Holy Spirit to discern God's will. It was reported that at this miraculous Mass, the Holy Angels were heard singing throughout the monastery, At the elevation, St. John Houghton's hands locked up, and he was unable to lower them. At that very point, the monks together opted for martyrdom. Emboldened, they now faced death for their faith with stoic hearts. In the picture on the right of a painting in the Tyburn Crypt, you can see St. John offering the Mass, and on the right hand corner, the Holy Angels present. That would certainly do it for me!

If you read this, and you are a Catholic, I bet you will cry:
To Blessed John Houghton God was pleased to grant the single honour of being the first man since pagan times to suffer death in England for being a Catholic. After lovingly embracing the executioner, who craved his pardon, the holy Martyr entered the cart which stood beneath the gallows; and there, in the sight of the multitude, he was asked once again whether he would submit to the king's laws before it was too late. Nothing daunted, he replied: "I call Almighty God to witness, and I beseech all here present to attest for me on the dreadful danger of judgement, that, being about to die in public, I declare that I have refused to comply with the will of His Majesty the King, not from obstinacy, malice, or a rebellious spirit, but solely for fear of offending the supreme Majesty of God. Our holy Mother the Church has decreed and enjoined otherwise than the king and Parliament have decreed. I am therefore bound in conscience, and am ready and willing to suffer every kind of torture, rather than deny a doctrine of the Church. Pray for me, and have mercy on my brethren, of whom I have been the unworthy Prior." He asked for time to say his last prayer, which he took from the 30th Psalm: "In thee, O Lord, have I hoped; let me never be confounded: deliver me in Thy justice . . . Into Thy hands I commend my spirit; for Thou hast redeemed me, O Lord, the God of truth." Blessed John Houghton was now ready to meet death. 
A thick rope had been chosen, for fear he might be strangled and expire too quickly. It was placed about his neck. The sheriff gave the signal. The cart was drawn aside; and the gentle monk, who had done good to many, and harm to none, was hanging like a malefactor from the gallows. Then came the worst part of the business, for no mercy was shown, and the hideous sentence was carried out in all its details. The rope was cut, and the body fell heavily on the ground; but John Houghton was not dead. They tore off his holy habit, and laid him on a plank or platform. The executioner inflicted a long and ghastly wound with a sharp knife, dragged out his entrails, and threw them in a fire prepared for the purpose. The poor sufferer was conscious the whole time; and while he was being embowelled he was heard to exclaim: "Oh most holy Jesus, have mercy upon me in this hour!" When at last the executioner placed his hand upon the heart to wrench it from its place, the blessed Martyr spoke again. A German, Anthony Rescius, who afterwards became auxiliary Bishop of Wurzburg, was close by. He overheard his last words: "Good Jesu! what will ye do with my heart?" The struggle was over at last John Houghton had been faithful unto death, and gained the crown of life. ~ L. Hendricks, The Carthusian Martyrs (London, 1931), pp. 18-20.
Doms John Houghton, prior of the London house, Robert Lawrence and Augustine Webster, respectively priors of Beauvale and Axholme, were the first martyrs to die under the reign of Henry VIII on 4th May 1535. Two more were killed on June 19 of that year and by August 4, 1540, all 18 had been tortured and killed for refusing to place their allegiance to the king before their allegiance to the Pope.

In November 2013, in the Crypt chapel at Tyburn Convent, 60 children, some parents like myself, and some teachers, gathered with a priest of the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, Father Jeff Woolnough, to pray the Mass.

First, one of the nuns of the convent addressed the children and explained some of the history of Tyburn, the convent, and the things that have gone on there, as I have above. The children were wonderfully attentive and had lots of good questions at the end of her talk.

Mass was said versus Deum, on the beautiful altar under the replica of the gallows; the Tyburn Tree. You may just be able to make out the inscription, in English "Jesus convert England". Just think about that for a moment. What a tragedy that we have to pray it, but think of the Ordinariate and you start to wonder if this prayer was being fulfilled as we gathered for Mass in that chapel?

The nuns are devoted to keeping the memory of the martyrs alive and hallowed and our talk covered the history of the Convent, the historical context of the events, stories of the martyrs and the history of Tyburn itself. We were shown a piece of the bloodstained shirt worn by St. William Howard when he was martyred in December 1680 and a relic of the venerable Father Thomas Holland, hanged at Tyburn in July 1616. Also there is a fragment of the venerable Father Edward, whose heart had leapt out of the fire into which it was thrown after it had been plucked from his body. The largest single relic is an entire arm bone of Blessed Father Thomas Maxfield.

St. Ralph Sherwin, a companion of Oxford scholar and Jesuit priest Edmund Campion, who was also a Protestant deacon before his conversion, was reported to have, in December 1581, “kissed with great devotion the blood of Campion dripping from the hands of the executioners.”

Four years later, in 1585, and speaking of the death of Father Campion, Father Gregory Gunne said, “The day will come that you shall see a religious house built there [the site of the gallows] for an offering.” Father Gunne was betrayed and later at his trial he repeated his prophecy that one day there would be a religious house at Tyburn in memory of the martyrs. (He himself was not hanged but sentenced to exile.)

Having heard the story of the miraculous Carthusian Mass, and many more snippets of history from the sister, and knowing that one of my own dear patron saints, St. Edmund Campion, was himself martyred right there, I was filled with a great love of Jesus Christ, and gratitude at the witness of these incredibly brave martyrs. 

I was also struck by the way we understand martyrdom in contemporary society. After so much Islamic violence has been visited on us, we tend to think of martyrs as people willing to kill for what they believe, and die for an opportunity to kill as successfully as possible. The great moral theologian, Dominic Prummer O.P. defined it like this:
Martyrdom is the endurance of bodily death in witness to the Christian religion. Therefore three conditions must be verified for martyrdom: a) actual death; b) the infliction of death by an enemy out of hatred for Christianity. c) the voluntary acceptance of death. — Therefore the following are not genuinely martyrs: those who die by contracting disease in their care of lepers, those who suffer death for natural truths or for heresy, or who [indirectly] bring about their own death to safeguard their person. — The effect of martyrdom is the remission of all sin and punishment, since it is an act of perfect charity.
The Christian martyr does not die out of hatred of the enemy as a soldier might, but out of love for his killers, as Jesus taught and lived (Mt 5:43-48). "No man has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends" (Jn 15:13), but for the Christian our enemies are also our friends as long as their conversion is possible. After Stephen: St Peter, St Paul, and St James the Apostle (Acts 12:2) were all martyrs, and following them a "great cloud of witnesses" (Heb 12:1). In the liturgy of the Church, special honour is given to the Virgin Martyrs (women and men, Rev 14:4) who are models of both the virtues of chastity and courage.

What incredibly powerful spiritual messages we can learn from these saints, how their stories inspire and guide us all on our own individual spiritual journeys. The degree of courage and faith it must take to suffer death for Christ is extraordinary, and something we increasingly, seem to find incredible. Is that because we think less on the prospect of death and what will come afterwards? Do we distract ourselves with temporal fascinations, drawn like a moth to the flame by whatever catches our eye at any given moment? This car, a show of flesh, a momentary high?

I was also really struck by the theological import of what was going on at Tyburn now. Standing under the gallows, Fr. Jeff, a convert from Anglo-catholicism, offers up the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, versus Deum, in English. Fr. Jeff had the courage to do that, despite the fact that, in all likelihood, not one of those children had experienced Mass in that way before. He took the opportunity at the homily to explain in simple terms that in this way, we would all be praying to God together. The children did not murmur about the anomaly. 

I could not help but wonder if this was what Pope Benedict was thinking about when he created the Ordinariate as a bridge for those born into the Anglican Tradition, the legacy of Henry VIII's infidelity, the subsequent attempt to foist Protestantism on the English people, it's rejection, and the resultant via media: the Anglican Settlement, to be reunited with the Bark of St. Peter.

There is no doubt that there are many Anglicans who hold and teach the Catholic faith. It is such a tragedy that they are separated from us...We need them! Father Jeff's joy at being able to stand at this altar in this place was emotional and palpable, and I thanked God with all my heart for him and his ministry, and that we had him with us on this trip.

After lunch, we headed by bus to Victoria and visited our Mother Church, Westminster Cathedral. Fr. Jeff took the lead and pointed out the main points of interest as we went around the Cathedral. If you have never been before, it is a spectacular building.

This may not make any sense, but one of the little insights I had and shared with Fr. Jeff while we were on this trip was that as someone who was gifted Catholicism from my Mother, I have always had a sense of the Catholicity of Ireland, where everyone goes to Mass, practically all the Churches you pass are Catholic, and the Angelus bell still sounds on the radio and television at 12 and 6pm. I have always felt England was...Well, a bit Protestant really. At best, a bit confused. But I never felt hugely at home spiritually here. This has meant that I haven't been to Walsingham, I have been to Westminster Cathedral, once, about 20 years ago, but I have never been to Tyburn either. I have been to loads of Spanish Cathedrals, Italian Basilicas, French Churches. I feel the continent is really Catholic. For this reason, this trip was really enjoyable and important for me personally. It provided me with a sense of great joy and presented me with much to reflect on.

I am still meditating on the day and all that went on. It has affected me very deeply, and was a true pilgrimage. I was really honoured to be a part of the experience and to be able to share it with my youngest son. I think it's really important that the children were exposed to this day and these places. They may not have understood the significance fully (although judging by the quality of some of the questions asked, they had a pretty good idea) but what they undoubtedly will have experienced is the Catholic culture. This is not simply doctrinal, but expressed in the beauty of the art and architecture, the space and serenity of a place like Westminster Cathedral, the histories and devotions at Tyburn, the beautiful liturgy of the Mass said with such reverence and joy. I am confident it will be a memory that they will always treasure.


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