Video: Lessons from the English Martyrs



Yesterday was the feast of the English and Welsh Martyrs and so I recorded a sermon in which I considered not only the courage of the martyrs, but also the prejudice, abuse and dirty tricks they were subjected to. It is helpful to remember that the actual experience of the martyrs was not always a simple progress to glory, and to learn from the difficulties they faced. We may also have to face prejudice, lies and nastiness and we should be prepared for that as a part of carrying the cross with our Blessed Lord.

Against this background the verve, spirit, and good humour of the martyrs is all the more inspiring, and a good lesson for us. I hope you enjoy the video.

Here is the text if you prefer just to read it:

TEXT for "Lessons from the English Martyrs"

Laudetur Iesus Christus.
Praised be Jesus Christ.
Our Lady, seat of wisdom. Pray for us.

I am speaking to you today from my little domestic chapel in Lewisham which I have informally dedicated to Our Lady, Seat of Wisdom.

Martyrs from every walk of life

Today is the feast of the Martyrs of England and Wales. The great majority of these martyrs were priests: Jesuits, other religious and “seminary priests”. However, there were some notable laity, including the great saints Margaret Clitherow and Anne Line who suffered for “harbouring priests” as the terminology was. St Margaret Ward smuggled a rope into the Tower of London to enable Fr John Gerard to escape. Unfortunately the rope was too short and it was traced back to her.

Many of the martyrs were quite young men. It was typical for them to be ordained in their early twenties and many suffered after only a short time on the mission. They were characters in their own right. At the English College, a riot nearly broke out over an argument over the appointment of a Rector and the failure of the authorities to implement the orders of the Pope.

Suffering “dirty tricks”

We naturally want to emphasise the glorious courage of our martyrs and their daring exploits as they ministered in the midst of great danger. Especially during the Elizabethan period, we can be inspired by the tales of priests on the run from house to house, hiding in chimneys and ingenious holes constructed by Saint Nicholas Owen.

However, we should also remember the systematic abuse and prejudice to which they were subjected. It was necessary for the martyrs to protest their innocence of any political intentions. Indeed the Church would not consider for beatification anyone who had become involved with political manoeuvrings.

As the 16th century progressed, Catholics were widely reviled and the “black legend” grew with its fantastic tales of the Spanish Inquisition and the nefarious Jesuits. We still find some echoes of this in popular presentations of history and sadly, even some Catholics are taken in by this today.

Some of the “dirty tricks” to which the martyrs were subjected can give us an idea of how miserably lonely their fate must have been at times.
After the arrest of St Edmund Campion, whenever the pursuivants run by Topcliffe arrested a priest, they would allege that Campion had revealed their whereabouts. This was a horrible slander since Campion had remained constant – a fact that was clear when the priests eventually saw his condition.

St Nicholas Owen, as we have heard, suffered an agonising death after protracted torture. His torturer was under orders not to kill him so he put about the story that Owen had committed suicide.
To my mind, one of the nastiest slanders was that alleged against St Margaret Clitherow. She had been arrested for giving shelter to a priest, Fr John Mush. He had said Mass for the people of York and St Margaret was pressed to death in punishment for facilitating this. The authorities told the outrageous lie that she was having an affair with Fr Mush.

Martyrs with lively characters

Notwithstanding these ghastly physical and psychological torments, the martyrs were great characters and retained their spirit to the very last. This is shown by the great number of sayings lovingly preserved by Catholics who went to witness their execution. Catholics would try to secure their bodies for burial if possible, or even dip their handkerchiefs in their blood so that they could obtain the treasure of a relic of the martyr. There is a lot of material from the speeches that the martyrs were often allowed to make before their execution.

Execution speeches

There are so many wonderful speeches of the martyrs that I am only able to give a brief selection.

St Edmund Arrowsmith at his trial, accused of being a priest, did not tell a lie but made an equivocation. He said “I would that I were worthy of being a priest.” At his execution, after going to confession to a fellow-martyr, St John Southworth, he said “Be witnesses with me that I die a constant Roman Catholic and for Christ's sake; let my death be an encouragement to your going forward in the Catholic religion.”

This theme of encouraging others was common. The night before his execution, Blessed William Patenson was put in a cell with seven criminals. He spoke with such earnestness to them that six out of the seven were reconciled to the Catholic Church. The authorities were so enraged by this that they ensured that he was cut down from the noose before he was dead so that he was alive when he was disembowelled.

St Anne Line said at Tyburn, just before her execution “I am sentenced to die for harbouring a Catholic priest. So far am I from repenting that I wish I could have entertained a thousand.”

St John Rigby, a layman and labourer, said that his forthcoming torments were “a flea-bite in comparison of that which it hath pleased my sweet Saviour Jesus to suffer for my salvation.”

Blessed Philip Powell, a Benedictine Monk, executed in 1646, said at the scaffold “You come to see a sad spectacle, but to me it is not, It is the happiest day and greatest joy that ever befell me, for I am condemned to die as a Catholic priest and a Benedictine monk, a dignity and honour for which I give God thanks.”

Blessed Hugh Green, a secular priest executed in 1642, gave a sermon from the scaffold during which, in common with many of the martyrs, he explicitly forgave and prayed for his executioners: “I forgive all the world from my heart and all those who have had a hand in my death; and I pray God give you all grace to seek Him and attain His mercy and eternal glory.”

Indeed, the martyrs were so conscious of the eternal truths that they often expressed gratitude to those who tried them. Blessed John Wall, a Franciscan put to death in 1679, said of those who obtained his execution that they were the best friends he ever had in his life. Blessed William Lacey, a secular priest executed as an old man in 1582 said on his arrest “It is only paying the common debt a little sooner; we will go into the house of the Lord forever.”

Lessons for us today

This is the first and most important lesson that the martyrs can teach us: their keen awareness of the eternal truths made them ready for death each day. They were conscious of their own sins and constantly lived lives of prayer and penance in order to be ready to stand before the Lord. They followed the teaching of Our Lord: “Stay awake, praying at all times for the confidence to stand before the Son of Man.”

Their courage is perhaps the most obvious lesson. In addition to the physical torments which faced them, many of them suffered imprisonment and abuse for years beforehand. They stood firm against the Zeitgeist, the spirit of the age. Such constancy is important for us today when there are so many influences that threaten to undermine our moral and spiritual life.

In the face of prejudice, the Martyrs insisted on the truth. They did not take the easy and fatal way out of saying that all religions are the same or that there are many equally valid views on any subject. In response to prejudice and lies, they proclaimed human truth. In response to errors concerning the faith, they proclaimed divine truth. They took a stand when it was most difficult and often confusing. Again, their lesson for us today is transparently clear. By following the traditional teaching of the Church we are able to know with certainty the truths pertaining to our salvation. By serious and diligent reading, we are able to know those human truths of history and modern life that will help us to dispel the falsehoods that confuse so many people.

The martyrs are a great cloud of witnesses to the faith in England during the darkest of dark ages. They kept the faith alive and their memory sustained Catholics until the penal laws were finally repealed and the hierarchy was restored. We should pray to them for an increase in faith, for fortitude in the face of prejudice, and for clarity of thought in the face of confusion.

Gloria Patri …
Our Lady, Seat of Wisdom. Pray for us.

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