Between 1536 and 1537, over 40,000 men revolted against the Protestant take-over of the King’s counsel and Parliament. The banner of these soldiers and those who followed them was the Banner of the Five Wounds of Christ, emphasising a long-held love for the Sacred Heart of Jesus centuries before the modern devotion began in France. This Pilgrimage ended in the death of hundreds of men, and ended the open resistance of Catholics to the upheaval of their religion and culture in England. This Pilgrimage occurred in the northern parts of England, where the great families of Catholics resistance, the recusants, held sway. After this came the great persecutions of Catholics in England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland, resulting in the deaths of many holy men and women, now called the Martyrs of England and Wales, as well as the Martyrs of Ireland and Scotland.
Two abbots of Lancashire were killed for “treason” in supporting this movement. I walked the grounds of Whalley Abbey, were the last Abbot, John Paslew, was hung from one of the great gates into the monastic grounds. Such heroism as displayed by Abbot Paslew was seen over and over again in the county of Lancashire. Photos of the abbey may be seen below.
Recently, I attended a talk on the Lancashire martyrs. Almost 20% of the martyrs of England were from this county. The lecturer, Mr. Christopher Robson, has a passion for sharing information on the great heritage of the Faith, which was passed down almost to the present day. I say “almost”, as the beautiful churches built during the re-establishment of the Catholic hierarchy, are almost empty now. The aging Catholic population of England is more obvious in the country side than in the large cities, where the Catholic Church thrives because of converts.
Sadly, the blood spilt by those who died because they believed in the True Presence of the Eucharist, and the Papacy, has all but disappeared from the imaginations of most Catholics in England, even in Lancashire. This is one reason why Mr. Robson has so much zeal for sharing the stories of the martyrs as he travels from parish to parish with his excellent presentation.
He reminded the audience that in order to be judged a martyr by the Church, a person must meet tight conditions of canon law. The first is that one has to die remaining faithful to the Catholic Church and the second is that one must be killed because one will not deny the Faith. Robson noted that St. John Paul II in canonising St. Maximilian Kolbe stated that he was a “martyr for charity,” that is, giving up his life for another, as this wonderful saint technically did not meet the canonical guidelines for being called “martyr.” There is a long tradition of martyrs in Great Britain, One only has to think of St. Alban, St. Edmund, Martyr and St. Thomas a Becket. The last great saint died for maintaining the independence of the Church as against secular power.
The many Lancashire martyrs did meet the two main criteria stated above. As Robson pointed out, the men and women discussed died for the faith with great courage, but were ordinary , normal lay people and priests living normal lives in difficult situations. That had to make hard decisions in appealing conditions. Their courage and their sacrificial actions were balanced with prudence and common sense. They did not seek after martyrdom. Even St. Thomas More tried to avoid being arrested, but only when he could no longer find a way to not pursue the course he took to maintain his faith and conscience, did he state his stand clearly.
That Lancashire was the stronghold of Catholicism until the 20th century may be seen as a sheer gift of grace. One out of five people carried on the religion, mostly in isolated towns and villages, or in the large estates in the countryside. Catholics usually did not inhabit the market towns, as the central government in London had more power over those places.
A network of safe places once continued without a break from Lancashire all the way up to the Borders of Scotland. Priests were accompanied by lay men at night, who would escort them to these farm houses and country homes, to be cared for by the women of the families. This network was successful for three reasons. The first was the zeal for the Mass and the sacraments. The second was the fact that people could “keep their mouths shut” and not talk about harbouring priests or having Masses said in their homes. The third was that priests were trained to avoid questions which would cause them to be arrested. I wonder if such character traits necessary for creating a network of prudent and silent people could be established today under persecution?
The list of the Lancashire martyrs is long, but here are some of them. I copy this from wiki, but Robson gave more detail on each person, of course. You may look up the individual persons by clicking on the links. I have chosen three to highlight below.
•Edmund Arrowsmith: A Jesuit priest born in Haydock and executed in Lancaster on 28 August 1628. Declared a saint by the Catholic church.
•Ambrose Barlow: A Benedictine priest born in Manchester and executed in Lancaster on 10 September 1641. Declared a saint by the Catholic church.
•Edward Bamber: A priest born in Poulton-le-Fylde near Blackpool and executed in Lancaster on 7 August 1646. Beatified by the Catholic church.
•James Bell: A priest born in Warrington and executed in Lancaster on 10 April 1584. Beatified by the Catholic church.
•John Finch: A layman born in Eccleston near Preston and executed alongside James Bell in Lancaster on 10 April 1584. Beatified by the Catholic church.
•Richard Hurst: A layman born in Broughton and executed alongside Edmund Arrowsmith in Lancaster on 28 August 1628. Beatified by the Catholic church.
•Thurstan Hunt: A priest born in Rothwell near Leeds in the West Riding of Yorkshire and executed in Lancaster on 3 April 1601. Beatified by the Catholic church.
• Robert Middleton: A Jesuit priest born in York and executed alongside Thurstan Hunt in Lancaster on 3 April 1601. Beatified by the Catholic church.
•Robert Nutter: A Dominican priest born in Burnley and executed in Lancaster on 26 July 1600. Beatified by the Catholic church.
•John Thules: A priest born in Whalley and executed in Lancaster on 18 March 1616. Beatified by the Catholic church.
•Thomas Whittaker: A priest born in Burnley and executed in Lancaster on 7 August 1646. Beatified by the Catholic church.
•John Woodcock: A Fransciscan priest born in Clayton-le.Woods and executed in Lancaster alongside Thomas Whitaker on 7 August 1646. Beatified by the Catholic church.
•Edward Thwing: A priest born in Heworth near York and executed in Lancaster alongside Robert Nutter on 26 July 1600. Beatified by the Catholic church.
• Roger Wrenno: A layman born in Chorley and executed in Lancaster alongside John Thules on 18 March 1646. Beatified by the Catholic church
• Lawrence Bailey (Baily): A layman executed in Lancaster on 18 March 1604.
Further to this list, it should also be noted that the last Abbot of Whalley Abbey, John Paslew and the last Abbot of Sawley Abbey, William Trafford along with a monk by the name of Richard Estegate are also believed to have been executed at Lancaster on 10 March 1537 after being tried for complicity in the Pilgrimage of Grace, although there are some claims that Paslew was taken back to Whalley for execution. Whilst there is a tradition of considering them among Catholic martyrs of the English reformation, they are not formally listed among those martyrs that have had their cause advanced through the canonisation process of the Catholic church.
I add the name of William Marsden, Geoge Haddock, Laurence Richardson, Dermot O’Hurley, Robert Middleton, John Jones, John Rigby, and John Almond, and this list could be longer—of all Lancashire men who died for the Faith.
I would like to highlight three: Edmund Arrowsmith, Roger Wrenno, and John Southworth, only a few of the wonderful saints to emulate.
Next to me on a small table in my room is a small brown packet holding a few of the small linen squares which have touched the “holy hand” of St. Edmund Arrowsmith. One of these linen pieces has healed a toothache of mine.
Edmund Arrowsmith’s shrine is not too far from where I heard the lecture in Chorley. I shall come back to Chorley again. Arrowsmith was born in the Yeoman class in Haydock, Lancashire. One of his ancestors died in jail for the Faith and his own parents were put in prison for recusancy. Arrowsmith went to the Continent to study at the new seminary set up by Cardinal Allen in Douay. After ordination, Arrowsmith was arrested once back in England and ministering to the Catholics, but was released. He joined the Jesuits, and began to travel about Lancashire, saying Mass and giving the sacraments to those without such privileges year after year. He was betrayed but managed to escape. Remember, that Elizabeth invented the Secret Police, and had a network of spies under Cecil and Walsingham. Spies and those who wanted to cooperate with destroying Catholicism infiltrated the great houses where the Masses were celebrated. Arrowsmith dashed away for his life. However, his horse could not jump a trench and Arrowsmith was finally caught, badly treated, and finally hung, drawn and quartered in Lancaster in 1628. One his way to the gallows, a priest reached out of his prison window and blessed Arrowsmith. This man was John Southworth, another Lancashire man.
St. John Southworth was released, but after serving the people of Lancashire, was arrested over and over again, after he was freed or escaped, and killed, finally, at Tyburn. In April, I saw his body, which had been sent back to France to Douay, but had disappeared until found in someonee’s garden in 1927. Southworth’s tomb is in the Martyr Chapel in Westminster Abbey.
Roger Wrenno was born in Chorley, about ten minutes away on foot where I write this post. He was a big man, arrested for aiding and abetting priests. When he was on the scaffold and being hung, the rope broke. The authorities stated that it was a sign from God that Wrenno should not be killed but convert to Anglicanism. His reply is famous in this part of the world. As he ran back to the gallows, to be hung again, he said, “If you had seen that which I have just now seen, you would be as much in haste to die as I now am.”
Elizabeth I called Lancashire “the very sink of Popery.” From this short view of some of the Lancashire martyrs, one can understand her zeal in wanting to snuff out the one, true Faith in this county, where I have been privileged to visit for a few days.
JMJ, pray for us.
God is good,