Tradition means the whole of Catholic life, not just liturgy

A story from the Catholic Herald, the best of the UKs Catholic papers to which you should subscribe if you don’t already, has a very interesting story.

Oxford’s martyrs to be honoured with a plaque
By Ed West
4 July 2008

Last year’s Latin Mass Society pilgrimage honours the four martyrs

Four Catholic martyrs executed during the reign of Elizabeth I are to be commemorated with a plaque at the place of their death.

The four men – George Nichols, Richard Yaxley, Thomas Belson and Humphrey Prichard – will be remembered during a pilgrimage to the city held in October, when the Auxiliary Bishop of Birmingham will unveil the memorial.

The men died on July 5 1589 in Holywell Street, site of the 16th century town gallows.

Nichols and Yaxley were priests trained at Douai College in Rheims at a time when re-entering England after taking holy orders overseas was a capital office.

Nichols gained fame as the priest smuggled into Oxford Castle to reconcile highwayman Harcourt Taverner with the Church the night before his execution. Belson was a layman from a local Catholic land-owning family who had refused to conform. The family had moved from Oxfordshire to avoid intolerant magistrates after his father Augustine Belson had been fined for non-attendance at Anglican services, and their home, Ixhill Lodge, was a refuge for priests. Thomas Belson, his third son, was imprisoned in the Tower of London in 1585 for "conveying intelligence" for a Catholic priest, but had been released after five months on condition he be "banished from the realm". He had studied at the independent and relatively tolerant Oriel College under the Spanish Protestant Antonio del Corro, one of the earliest advocates of religious freedom.

The last to die, Welshman Prichard, had worked for 12 years as a servant at the Catherine Wheel, a Catholic-run inn on the corner of Broad Street and Magdalen Street that was a refuge for priests. The landlady of the inn was jailed for life.

Catholicism was on the increase in the city during the late 1580s at the peak of the Elizabethan state’s paranoia about the old religion, less than a year after the Spanish Armada had been defeated. Nichols was known to have returned many to Catholicism in the city, making him a high priority for the authorities.

It was in the Catherine Wheel that the four men were captured on the night of May 18 1589. The authorities arrived at midnight and, after arresting Prichard when he unbolted the door, apprehended the other three after vestments were found on the premises.

All four were taken by horseback to Bridewell Prison in London, where they were tortured and interrogated by Elizabeth’s spy chief Sir Francis Walsingham. Nichols was placed in a rat-filled dungeon while Yaxley was put on the rack, and both priests were hanged from their hands for up to five hours to make them betray their associates, although it is recorded that they maintained their silence.

The four men received much sympathy from the Oxford population during the investigation and trial. A graduate of Magdalen College was so inspired by their courage that he walked alongside the prisoners all the way to London, and was punished for reporting their ill-treatment along the way by being consigned to the notorious lunatic asylum Bedlam[Sounds like my seminary experience…]

All four men were condemned to death for the crime of returning to England after receiving foreign ordination in the case of Nichols and Yaxley, and for assisting priests for Belson and Prichard. All were brought back to Oxford to be executed. _The priests, guilty of treason, were hanged, drawn and quartered, while the laymen, guilty of a felony, were only hanged.

Prichard, the last to die, was the only one allowed to speak at the execution, declaring in a brief dialogue with a Protestant minister: "I believe all that the Holy Roman Church believes, and what I cannot explain by mouth, I am ready and prepared to explain and testify to you at the cost of my blood." The priests’ heads were placed on the castle wall and their bodies on the city walls.

Within a year the story of their deaths had become a bestseller across Catholic Europe, with eyewitness reports published in Antwerp and translated into Spanish, French and Italian.

The four men were among 85 martyrs of England and Wales beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1987, and among 70 Catholic martyrs associated with Oxford.

The plaque cost just over £2,600 and is being organised by the St Catherine’s Trust charity. It records how the four men "were executed for their Catholic faith" and will be unveiled on Saturday, October 25 by Bishop William Kenny, auxiliary bishop of Birmingham. The pilgrimage is organised by the Latin Mass Society and begins with a Solemn High Mass at Blackfriars at 11 am and ends with Benediction.

The Latin Mass Society has held a pilgrimage to Oxford since 2005, the procession following the route taken by the martyrs on their route from Bocardo prison to the gallows, which are marked by mock gallows.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Mary says:

    Being English living abroad, raised a Roman Catholic in days when being a Catholic was not considered an attribute, I did enjoy reading of the four Oxford Martyrs. When growing up we daily prayed for the conversion of England and the canonisation of the English martyrs, did you know they did’nt like executing women in those days, hence the landlady receiving a life sentence, which would have been a living martyrdom. I hope and pray to see England once again become “The dowry of Mary” before I “pop by clogs”

  2. Theresa says:

    Wow. They were apprehended when the vestments were found on the premises. Apparently these courageous priests did not choose to reduce their risk of being caught by offering Mass in just any old clothes. In spite of the great personal risk, they desired to appear at the great wedding feast of the Lamb properly dressed, and to offer Holy Mass in worthy garments.

    Courage. Courage. Courage.

    Love. Love. Love.

    To go to a people desperately needing a priest, desperately needing the sacraments, in spite of the knowledge that eventually it meant almost certain death.

  3. It’s reading stories like this that make you appreciate the way things are now. But the question is who will stand up in the face of persecution today? )i.e. Passing of pro-cod laws, promotion of sodomy, etc, etc)

  4. Deusdonat says:

    This is indeed a sad yet inspiring story. The bitter irony is that while the UK is tolerant to Muslims to the point of kow-towing to them, the constitution still proclaims it iligal for a Catholic to ascend the throne.

    Incidentally, I don’t know how many here saw the gratuitous Protestant propagandist tripe that was the movie “Elizabeth”, but of the many bastardizations of history, the one that was most interesting (yet botched) in the movie was that of Father John Gerard, SJ (back when they were actually legit : ) Fr Gerard, for those who don’t know, was actually a Protestant convert to Catholicism who did missionary work during the reign of Elizabeth I. He was also captured and tortured/imprisoned. Only unlike the portrayal in the movie…he actually ESCAPED from the tower of London…the only documented person ever to do so.

    If there are any film people out there, I would love to collaborate on making a film on his life. It would be an action-adventure to rival Braveheart.

  5. LCB says:

    “”I believe all that the Holy Roman Church believes, and what I cannot explain by mouth, I am ready and prepared to explain and testify to you at the cost of my blood.””

    Old school.

    So, uh, when will the Queen formally apologize and make reparations? I’m waiting…

  6. Amazing and inspiring stuff. I always appreciate the story of the martyrs. Thanks, Father for publicizing this.

    In ICXC,

    Fr. Deacon Daniel

  7. Jim says:

    Let’s not forget that the hangings stopped when the Government realised that the publicity was damaging. So that most martyrs in Scotland and England died in prison cells, starved and ignored by the authorities.

    Our fathers, chained in prisons dark,
    Were still in heart and conscience free:
    How sweet would be their children’s fate,
    If we, like them, could die tor thee!
    Faith of our fathers! Holy Faith!
    We will be true to thee till death.

    Or maybe not at the moment, please…I’m working on our ecumenical website
    (this is true)

  8. reinhart10 says:

    “I believe all that the Holy Roman Church believes, and what I cannot explain by mouth, I am ready and prepared to explain and testify to you at the cost of my blood.”

    That makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up. I only wish I could be a fraction as eloquent or courageous when faced with the slights to our faith, small and large, that bombard it daily. How blessed those martyrs and how fortunate we who have their example. Deo gratias.

  9. Guy Power says:

    I know I’m the product of an American education and I oughtn’t know …. but that photo sure looks like it has a gibbet in it!


  10. Pingback: » Tradition means the whole of Catholic life, not just liturgy 4 Silence: What The World Is Saying About 4 Silence

  11. Dena Hunt says:

    Regarding LCB’s reference to “the Queen”:
    That’s not England’s monarch. He is King Francis and he resides very quietly in Bavaria, descended from Mary Stuart, the true Queen of England, murdered by Elizabeth I. King Francis, via genealogy, is actually king of England, Scotland, *and* France. He, and all his family, are, have always been, Catholic, and perhaps not surprisingly, have never engaged in the sexually scandalous behavior so infamous among the currently reigning “royal” family–which is descended from a German from Hanover, not even royal, and in origin, not even British. A direct consequence of rabid English hatred for Catholics.

  12. Habemus Papam says:

    Dena Hunt:The German in question, Georg von Brunswick was inported because he would not question the status quo, the Whig aristocracy and AAnglican clergy who lived off the profits of the dissolved Monasteries. And this despite the fact that the last Stuart monarch had willed her Catholic half-brother James Francis Edward as her rightful successor. For centuries the British people were sold a story of the Protestant Reformation which was pure propaganda for keeping the new elite in power.

  13. hoya1239 says:

    Seeing that Oxford already has a monument to the Protestants executed under Mary I this monument is a long time coming. Even in America we are fed this Protestant biased view of English history. Mary I, a true woman of faith and worthy descendent of her brave mother Catalina de Aragon, tried her hardest to bring her country back to Mother Church. In Anglophone history books she is called Bloody Mary even though her dispicable father Henry VIII, brother Edward VI and sister Elizabeth I killed thousands more Catholics! Mary was actually a very popular queen! It was members of the newly minted Anglican “clergy” and power hungry nobles that hated her and sought her downfall. The victors are those who write the history books.

    Saint Thomas More would be proud of his alma mater.

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