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Everyone whose ancestors lived in these islands before 1538 is descended from Catholic stock. Quite when my forefathers gave up their Catholic faith is unknown, but as they came from a part of the border with Wales where Catholicism proved hard to extirpate, I would like to think it took some time; but however long or short the time, they did what most English and Welsh people did in the end – they went with what the State wanted – even if, as early as the late seventeenth century they were no longer conforming with Anglican practice.

Today the Catholic Church remembers the forty canonised martyrs of England and Wales who were executed by the State between 1535 and 1679; these are but a small proportion of the hundreds who were hounded, persecuted and put to death by the State during the period between 1535 and the eighteenth century. The Church chooses this day, 4 May, because it is the anniversary of the martyrdom of the Carthusian priors, St John Houghton of London, St Robert Lawrence of Beauvale and St Augustine Webster of Axholme, and St Richard Reynolds, a Bridgettine of Syon Abbey, and Blessed John Haile, a secular priest. Significantly, they were wearing their priestly vestments. They were hung drawn and quartered. Their crime? They refused their assent to the Act of Succession, which made Henry VIII, Head of the Church and made his children by Anne Boleyn rightful heirs to the throne ahead of Princess Mary, the only surviving child of Henry’s one canonical marriage to Catherine of Aragon. In June, St John Fisher and St Thomas More would go to the block for the same reason. It ushered in an era of unprecedented brutality. It was true that heretical individuals had been tortured and executed for their crimes, but nothing on the scale that now erupted had been seen. It is significant that when Princess Mary became queen in 1553, she continued the policy of her father and brother, and by 1558 the number of executions was d slowing down; it seemed as though the Protestant resistance was breaking; only her death in 1558 stopped England and Wales returning to the Catholic fold.

It was a violent age, and those contemporaries who criticise men like St Thomas More for participating in its legal cruelties might ponder, especially if they are American, their own country’s continuing commitment to what many of us regard as crude and nasty methods of killing the incarcerated; where legal systems allow such things, it is, though, pointless to condemn the individuals in the system who operate it. But why, one might ask, the level of violence across such a long period?

The answer seems to lie in what happened in Mary’s reign. According to its most recent historian, Eamon Duffy, Cardinal Pole and Mary had a clear aim in continuing the violence begun by her father and brother. The State had used extreme violence because the ordinary people were very attached to their Church and their faith. The old Protestant myth, that the Church was corrupt and unpopular was just that, as Duffy showed in his magisterial Stripping of the Altars. Had the myth been true, then few would have fought for the Church, and there would have been little need for extreme and prolonged violence by the State; only through fear and force could Henry and his men suppress popular loyalty. But that was, as Mary’s reign showed, all they managed. Within a couple of years of Mary coming to the throne, having dealt with the most prominent anti-Catholics, ordinary people felt confident enough to bring out their hidden alter-pieces, their concealed rood-screens and their statues.  By 1558 it was beginning to look as though the harsh medicine of Cardinal Pole had had its effect – and then he and Mary died. The Protestant Elizabeth would continue her father’s policy.

As we look back to scenes which are reminiscent of what is happening in parts of the Middle East now, we can regret the spectacle of Christians (In Byron’s words) ‘burning each other, quite persuaded that all the Apostles/would have done as they did’. We can also be profoundly grateful that Christians have learned do do better, and now try to discuss what divides them rather than trying to compel others to conform by force. But on this feast day, we can also admire the faith and the courage of those who died for their faith.

It seems fitting to end this reflection with the words of one the first martyrs, St. John Houghton (c. 1486-1535) Carthusian hermit, and priest, who died on this day:

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.”

His last words were from Psalm 30:

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”

For those who wish to say a prayer for the martyrs, here is one suggestion:
Oh God, in whom there is no change or shadow of alteration, you gave courage to the Holy Martyrs. Grant unto us, we beseech you, through their intercession, the grace to always value the Holy Mass. May we be strengthened to serve you in imitation of the courage of these Holy Martyrs. We ask this through Jesus Christ, Your Son, who lives and reigns with You in the unity of the Holy Spirit, forever. Amen.