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.