In 1970 the late Pope Paul VI added to the interminable roster of saints an impressive group of thirty-seven men and three women known collectively as the Forty English Martyrs. So ordinary are most of their names — quite unlike the Roman Saint Eleutherius or the Danish Saint Canute — these names are so definitely English they could be easily mistaken for your neighbor! For example on this list there is a John Jones, a David Lewis, an Ann Line and a Margaret Ward! But these have earned the distinctive title “Saint” indeed “martyr.” For each individual suffered excruciating torments ending in death for one reason only — they refused to deny their Holy, Roman, Catholic and Apostolic Faith during a period in history know as the Protestant revolt when it was high treason in England to be a member of the true Church.
To illustrate how highly these forty saints valued their Faith we cite a few examples of the tortures inflicted usually after a long and agonizing imprisonment in the foul and filthy dungeons before a barbarous execution. To mention a few of the tortures by name: There was “Limbo” a dark filthy hole, full of rats and spiders; “Little Ease” was a cell so small a man was unable to sit, stand or lie down in it. A more intricate device known as “The Scavenger’s Daughter” is described as “a hoop or circle of iron into which the whole body was, as it were, folded up and hands and feet and head bound fast together.”
The most common and most painful of all was that gruesome invention “the rack.” Three “degrees” of racking are found in the accounts of the martyrs. The first as simply to be hung up by the hands suspended above the floor; the second and better known was to have a rope attached to feet and hands, drawn over windlasses, by which they could be stretched as far as the presiding magistrate chose. One of the martyrs, Saint Nicholas Owen, S.J., died from this torture alone. The well-known Saint Edmund Campion, S.J. had his arms completely and permanently disjointed by repeated rackings so much so that he was not even able to lift them by his own power and when asked how they felt he replied, “Not ill for he felt them not at all.”
The martyr-poet Saint Robert Southwell, S.J. endured the most intricate rack job in the home of the infamous Richard Topcliffe, agent of her majesty Queen Elizabeth I. Southwell was “hung from a wall by his hands, with a sharp circle of iron round his wrist, pressing on his artery, his legs bent backwards and his heels tied to his thighs.”
These and other tortures were used principally to make the victim “give in” or incriminate others. Unfortunately relatively few were able to last under this treatment and became spies for the English government.
For the heroes of God who did “hold fast” there yet awaited them the unbelievable sufferings of execution. Yet with joy they approached these executions, gruesome as they were. Saint John Rigby compared his oncoming torments as a “flea-bite in comparison of that which it hath pleased my sweet Saviour Jesus to suffer for my salvation”. He greeted the verdict “guilty” with an exultant “Praise to You, O Lord, King of Eternal Glory”.
As the majority of the martyrs suffered the penalty for “high treason” it will suffice to give one account of this type of execution which is found in the excellent summary of the martyrdom of Saint John Houghton, O.S.B. written by the Catholic Truth Society of London.
First, the Saint ascended the ladder most eagerly and was attached to the gallows by a thick rope meant not to produce immediate strangulation but merely to stun. “At the conclusion of (his) prayer, the ladder was turned on one side so that the holy Father was suspended from the gallows, the rope was almost immediately cut and he fell to the ground while yet alive. As he began to revive, they dragged him a short distance, and stripping of his clothes, commenced the work of butchery; they ripped him up, tore his heart and entrails form his body and threw them into the fire. The blessed man not only uttered no complaints in the midst of his torments, but on the contrary, prayed incessantly until his heart was torn out, and conducted himself with patience, mildness and tranquillity more than human. When he was at the point of death, and almost disembowelled, he exclaimed with fervour, “Most holy Jesus, have mercy upon me in this hour”. And credible persons who were present at the execution, have affirmed, that when his heart was extracting, he uttered ‘Good Jesu, what will ye do with my heart’, and then expired. His head was separated from his body, which was afterwards divided into quarters, and thrown into a cauldron to be parboiled; these quarters were again subdivided and fixed in different parts of the city. One arm was nailed to the wall over the entrance into the monastery (of which Saint John had been Prior for five years).”
Awful, indeed, but as Saint Augustine so aptly phrased it, — it is “not the pain but the cause that makes the martyr”. And concerning their cause, we shall let the martyrs speak for themselves.
Saint Edmund Campion, S.J. (1581): “As to the treasons which have been laid to my charge, and for which I come here to suffer, I desire you all to bear witness with me that I am thereto altogether innocent…I am a Catholic man and a priest; in that Faith I have lived, and in that Faith do I intend to die. If you esteem my Religion treason, then I am guilty; as for the other treason, I never committed any, God is my judge.”
Saint Luke Kirby (1582): When exhorted, with promise of the Queen Elizabeth’s mercy, to confess his duty to her and forsake his duty to the Pope “answered that to deny the Pope’s authority was denying a point of faith, which he would not do for saving his life, being sure this would be to damn his soul….”
Saint Margaret Clitherow (1586): “….I am fully resolved in all things touching my faith, which I ground upon Jesus Christ, and by Him I steadfastly believe to be saved, which faith I acknowledge to be the same that He left to His Apostles, and they to their successors from time to time, and is taught in the Catholic Church throughout Christendom, and promised to remain with her unto the world’s end, and hell’s gates shall not prevail against it; and by God’s assistance I mean to live and die in the same faith, for if an angel came from heaven, and preached any other doctrine than we have received, the Apostle biddeth us not believe him. Therefore, if I should follow your doctrine, I should disobey the Apostle’s commandment. Wherefore, I pray you, take this for an answer and trouble me no more for my conscience.”
(Her response to certain Protestants asking her to pray with them.) “I will not pray with you, and you shall not pray with me; neither will I say Amen to your prayers; nor shall you to mine.”
When asked if he would defend Queen against Pope in Religious war Saint Polydore Plasden replied “I am a Catholic priest, therefore I would never fight nor counsel others to fight against my religion for that were to deny my Faith.”
Saint Edmund Jennings , priest (1591): When enticed to conform to Protestant religion replied that he “would live and die in true Roman Catholic Faith, which….all antiquity had ever professed, and….would by no means go to the Protestant churches, or once think that the Queen could be head of the Church in spirituals.
“‘I must obey God’, saith Saint Peter, ‘rather than man’, (Acts V) and I must not in this case acknowledge a fault where there is none. If to return into England priest, or to say Mass, be Popish treason, I here confess I am a traitor.”
Saint Swithin Wells (1591) to Richard Topcliffe: “God pardon you and make you of a Saul a Paul, of a bloody persecutor one of the Catholic Church’s children; by you malice I am thus to be executed, but you have done me the greatest benefit that ever I could have had. I heartily forgive you….”
Saint Eustace White , priest (1591): “Christian people, I was yesterday condemned as a traitor for being a priest and coming into this country to reconcile (hear confessions) and use other of my priestly function, all which I confess I have done in sundry places of this realm for some years together. I thank God that it hath pleased Him to bless my labours with this happy end, when I now am to die for my faith and my priesthood. Other treasons I have not committed. If I had ever so many lives, I would think them very few to bestow upon your Tyburns to defend my religion. I wish I had a great many more than one, you should have them all, one after another.”
Saint Henry Walpole, S.J. (1595): When asked to join in prayer with Protestants for his own peaceful death he said “that by the grace of God he was in peace with all the world, and prayed God for all, particularly those who were the cause of his death; but as they were with them; yet he heartily prayed for them, that God would enlighten them with His truth, bring them back to His Church, and dispose them for His mercy” …he also prayed: “…may His Divine Majesty never suffer me to consent to the least thing by which He may be dishonored,, nor you to desire it of me, and God is my witness, that to all here present, and particularly to me accusers, I wish as to myself the salvation of their souls, and to this end they may live in the true Catholic Faith, the only way to eternal happiness.”
Saint Ann Line (1601): “I am sentenced to die for harbouring a Catholic priest, and so far I am from repenting for having so done, that I wish, with all my soul, that where I have entertained one, I could have entertained a thousand.”
Saint John Roberts, O.S.B. (1610)” When accused of coming back into England without authority he said that “he was sent into England by the same authority by which Saint Augustine, the apostle of England, was sent, whose disciple he was, being of the same order, and living under the same rules in which he lived, and that for the profession and teaching of that religion, which Saint Augustine planted in England, he was now condemned to die….”
Saint Edmund Arrowsmith, S.J. (1628): “You gentlemen, who are come hither to see my end, bear witness with me that I die a constant Roman Catholic, and for Jesus Christ’s sake. Let not my death be a hindrance to your well-doing and going forward in the Catholic religion, but rather an encouragement therein. For Jesus’ sake have a care for your souls, than which nothing is more precious; and become members of the true Church as you tender you salvation; for hereafter that alone will do you good. Nothing doth so much grieve me as this England which I pray God soon convert.”
Saint Henry Morse, S.J. (1645): “I am come hither to die for my religion, for that religion which is professed by the Catholic Roman Church, founded by Christ, established by the Apostles, propagated through the ages by an hierarchy always visible to this day, grounded on the testimonies of holy scriptures; upheld by the authority of fathers and councils, out of which, in fine, there can be no hopes of salvation.”
(he continues)…”And I hold for certain that the present tumults, and all the calamities, under which the nation groans, are to be ascribed to nothing else but heresy, and this spawn of so many sets, and that it will be in vain to look for tranquillity and happiness, or any lasting remedy for these evils, as long as this mortal poison remains in the very bowels of the nation…”
Saint Robert Southwell, S.J. (1595): “He cannot have God for his Father that refutes the Catholic Church for his Mother; neither can he attain to the Church Triumphant who is not a member of the Church Militant.”