04 May 2010

Unshakeable Attachment to the Pope

Today on the Carthusian calendar is the feast of Saints John Houghton, Robert Lawrence, Augustine Webster and their companions. They were loyal sons of Saint Bruno and loyal sons of the Church who were martyred during the reign of King Henry VIII in sixteenth century England. Here’s their story as told by a Carthusian monk:

The Martyrs of our Order in England — Saints John, Augustine and Robert and their Blessed companions, to be entirely correct — were victims of the persecutions under King Henry VIII. His unlawful marriage to Anne Boleyn put him in conflict with the Church. In early 1535 he had Parliament pass an ‘Act of Supremacy’ making him Head of the Church of England. Those who remained loyal to the Pope were to be considered guilty of high treason. The Prior of the London Charterhouse, John Houghton, together with two other Carthusian Priors who happened to be in London at that time, Robert Lawrence of Beauvale and Augustine Webster of Axholme, went to see the king’s vicar, Thomas Cromwell, to ask to be excused from the unlawful oath of loyalty. In response, they were imprisoned in the Tower of London. They were tried, and the same royal official bullied the jury into declaring them guilty of high treason, for which the punishment was to be ‘hanged, drawn and quartered’.

On 4 May 1535, together with Richard Reynolds, a Brigittine priest, and John Hale, a secular priest, they were dragged lying bound on a ‘hurdle’ through the muddy streets of London to Tyburn, the place for execution of criminals. These five were the very first of the many Catholics to be martyred for the faith in sixteenth and seventeenth century England. They were first hanged, then cut down when still half alive, disemboweled and cut into four pieces, all the while praying for their executioners.

After their holy deaths, the question for the London Carthusian community was: shall we follow our holy Prior? Some thought that with some mental restriction they could swear the oath of supremacy ‘in order to save our monastery’, but most of the community took the right decision. Seven cloister monks and six brothers, thirteen in all, suffered martyrdom, some of them in the same way as the three Priors, but others died from ill-treatment in prison, thus being spared from the gruesome ordeal. The three Priors are among the ‘forty Martyrs of England and Wales’ canonized by Paul VI; the others are Blesseds.

Brother William Horn deserves particular mention. He was imprisoned in Newgate Prison in London, with nine other Carthusians, in 1537, to be starved to death. Only William survived and was transferred from Newgate to the Tower, eventually winning his martyr’s crown by being “hanged, drawn and quartered” at Tyburn on 4 August 1540.

Besides the four names already listed here, the name of the other Carthusian martyrs of England are as follows: Humphrey Middlemore, William Enxmewe, Sebastian Newdigate, John Rochester, James Walworth, Thomas Green, Richard Beere, Thomas Johnson, John Davy, Robert Salte, Walter Peerson, Thomas Scriven, Thomas Reeding, and William Greenwood.

The indictment of John Houghton, Robert Lawrence, Augustine Webster along with the Brigittine and secular priests on the 26 April at the Tower of London stated that they were ‘treacherously machinating to deprive the king of his title’ and they ‘falsely, maliciously and traitorously’ denied the king as head of the Church of England.

John Houghton was the first to suffer. He and the others, however, were given one final chance to accept the ‘Act of Supremacy’, but all refused.

The ‘Act of Supremacy’ of 1534 read as follows:

‘Albeit, the King's Majesty justly and rightfully is and oweth to be the supreme head of the Church of England, and so is recognised by the clergy of this realm in their Convocations; yet nevertheless for corroboration and confirmation thereof, and for increase of virtue in Christ's religion within this realm of England, and to repress and extirp all errors, heresies and other enormities and abuses heretofore used in the same: Be it enacted by authority of this present Parliament that the King our sovereign lord, his heirs and successors kings of this realm, shall be taken, accepted and reputed the only supreme head in earth of the Church of England called Anglicana Ecclesia, and shall have and enjoy annexed and united to the imperial crown of this realm as well the title and style thereof, as all honours, dignities, preeminences, jurisdictions, privileges, authorities, immunities, profits and commodities, to the said dignity of supreme head of the same Church belonging and appertaining. And that our said sovereign lord, his heirs and successors kings of this realm, shall have full power and authority from time to time to visit, repress, redress, reform, order, correct, restrain and amend all such errors, heresies, abuses, offences, contempts and enormities, whatsoever they be, which by any manner spiritual authority or jurisdiction ought or may lawfully be reformed, repressed, ordered, redressed corrected, restrained or amended, most to the pleasure of Almighty God, the increase of virtue in Christ's religion, and for the conservation of the peace, unity and tranquillity of this realm: any usage, custom, foreign laws, foreign authority, prescription or any other thing or things to the contrary hereof notwithstanding.’

All-powerful God, You sanctified by martyrdom John and his
companions because of their fidelity to the Pope. Following
the example of their unshakeable attachment to the unity of
the See of Peter, may we be able thus to serve You in peace.