Who are the English Martyrs?
The English Martyrs are the English men and women who sacrificed their lives for the Catholic Church during the persecution of Catholics, between the years of 1534 and 1680. Being a Catholic priest was an offense punishable by death, as was harbouring priests. Being Catholic, and refusing to partake of the Protestant sacraments/not going to Protestant church services, was considered treason. Those convicted of treason were hanged, drawn, and quartered (or, if female, burned at the stake).
As you can imagine, the prospect of being either 'quartered' (while alive- the hanging lasted only until the convict was thoroughly stunned, not dead) or burned alive would have been absolutely horrifying. This is why we find the martyrs so inspiring: in spite of the possibility that their heads might be displayed on London Bridge to dissuade the public from offending the crown, after the grisliest and most humiliating executions Elizabethan torture could concoct, they were still some of the most joyful, humble, Jesus-loving people we will ever hear of.
Some English Martyrs that everyone should know:
Saint Margaret Clitherow: also known as the 'Pearl of York', Saint Margaret was a fairly well-off, beautiful woman, wife to a Yorkshire butcher and mother of three. Already married, at the age of eighteen, for three years, she converted to Catholicism in the year 1574. Her husband remained a Protestant, but supported her, and she raised their children Catholic (her son, Henry, eventually went to Reims to train as a priest). Masses were regularly celebrated in her home, and she taught the Faith to children. There was a hole cut into her attic that lead to the adjoining attic, through which the priests she hid could escape if there were a raid.
In 1586, she was brought to court for the offense of harbouring a priest. Rather than pleading either guilty or innocent, which would mean a trial in which her family would be made to testify, and also mean that her persecutors would murder her for her Catholicism and therefore put their souls in further peril, she remained silent. She knew the punishment for remaining silent, but did anyway.
On Good Friday, she was stripped down, and laid on a sharp rock. The door of her own house was laid on her, and weights added. In fifteen minutes, she had been crushed to death, invoking the Name of Jesus to the last, her back broken by the sharp stone. It is suspected that she may have been pregnant at the time, and that this was done publicly- the two men that had been supposed to execute her were so distressed that they hired four desperate beggars to take their place. This was especially shocking as women were rarely killed, undressed, in public, particularly in such a gruesome way; in fact, so shocking, that Elizabeth I, who had persecuted Catholics with zeal, wrote to the citizens of York to express her horror.
Saint Margaret's hand is currently venerated at the Bar Convent in Yorkshire.
"I ground my faith upon Jesus Christ, and by Him I steadfastly believe to be saved, as is taught in the Catholic Church through all Christendom, and promised to remain with Her unto the world's end, and hell 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 come from heaven, and preach any other doctrine than we have received, the Apostle biddeth us not to believe him. Therefore, if I should follow your doctrine, I should disobey the Apostle's commandment."
Saint Edmund Campion: I actually learned about this amazing man through the Blogosphere. Shout-out to Peregrin for mentioning him just a little over a year ago (she also wrote about him here)!
Saint Edmund was a secret Jesuit who ran a secret printing-press in the country, on which he printed his famous Ten Reasons, which, I've heard, he would smuggle into Protestant chapels and plant in the pews. He was caught in his underground ministry by priest-hunters, and taken to Tyburn at 41 to die.
Before this, he was a well-educated young man and liked by Queen Elizabeth, who held him in lasting regard. He was a gifted spokesman who gave the address when she visited Oxford, just as he had also welcomed Queen Mary when he had been just 13. He was under the patronage of the powerful William Cecil and the Earl of Leicester, tipped to be the possible future husband of the Queen. When caught, he was taken to London with pinioned arms and the words, Campion, the seditious Jesuit attached to his hat. Upon hearing his death sentence, Campion broke out into 'Te Deum'.
"In condemning us, you condemn all your own ancestors, all our ancient bishops and kings, all that was once the glory of England — the island of saints, and the most devoted child of the See of Peter."
Saint Thomas More, whom Kathryn wrote about for Our Friends, the Saints a while ago, could very well be called the man who started it all. He was a husband and father, a famous lawyer, and was appointed Lord Chancellor to King Henry, who was very fond of him. When King Henry broke with Rome and decided to take the Sacrament of Marriage into his own hands, Saint Thomas remained silent, stepping down from his role of Lord Chancellor and letting go of his income and status. The time came, however, when he was asked to take an oath and acknowledge Henry's supremacy over the English church, which he could not, in conscience, do (Henry went through wives like flu-sufferers go through tissues, which the Church would obviously disapprove- as it should). He was taken to the Tower of London, but remained cheerful and humble through all of this humiliation. He, the King's friend, was beheaded for refusing to turn his back on the one, true Church and condone Henry's selfish choices.
He described himself as, "the King's good servant- but God's first."
My favourite resources on the English Martyrs
Faith of Our Fathers: in Search of the English Martyrs (2014)
This DVD captures the journey of two British priests who travel through England to see the sites of the English Martyrs. The celebrate the Eucharist on the same altars, stand in the same rooms, and see the hiding places were priests sat for days at a time. They also picture relics and have interviews with other people who are passionate about the Martyrs.
The Autobiography of a Hunted Priest, by John Gerard, SJ. Father Gerard was a Jesuit priest who traveled through England during Queen Elizabeth's reign. He tells the stories of martyrs and converts, some quite amazing, and delivers riveting accounts (in old-fashioned English, of course) of his suffering- but also of his great joy and humility while he suffered for Christ.
You could also do worse than read this cool post on Catherine of Aragon.
Interesting stuff about the English Martyrs
1.) There is currently a convent where Tyburn was, and they have a lot of relics there- I think they may even have a bit of cloth with Edmund Campion's blood on it.
2.) Speaking of blood (...awkward), there is another Saint who was profoundly converted when Saint Edmund's blood splashed on him at his execution. The only trouble is that I've forgotten his name and can't find him online; he was mentioned in the above documentary, which I would highly recommend.
3.) Doctor Perne, possibly the most notorious turncoat of the era, told his Calvinist friend that she should never die in any Faith but the Catholic one, despite the fact that he had converted to Anglicanism to save his position, himself. Unfortunately, he died unexpectedly before he could do his planned last-minute conversion. His friend, however, was converted.
4.) Campion and More are venerated in Anglicanism. WHAT. The heights of awkwardness. But anyway... huzzah, ecumenism.
Happy Feast of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales, and may we be inspired by them,