Carthusian Martyrs of London

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Carthusian Martyrs of London

That there was good reason to go in terror of Henry was made clear by the fate of the handful of monks who upheld the jurisdiction of the pope and the unity of Christendom. On 20 April 1535 John Houghton, Augustine Webster, and Robert Lawrence, the priors of the Charterhouses of London, Beauvale, and Axelhome were arrested. 74 They were committed to the Tower which they entered by the Traitors’ Gate, and in which they remained in foul conditions. They were soon joined by Dr. Richard Reynolds, of the Brigettine monastery at Syon who was reputed to be “the most learned monk in England”. While in the Tower they were subjected to a personal interrogation by Cromwell and the Royal Commissioners who brought with them the Act of Parliament under which it was intended to condemn them if they refused the oath. The priests said that they were ready to consent to all that the law of God permitted. “I admit no exception,” said Cromwell. “Whether the law of God permits it or no, you shall take the oath without any reserve whatsoever, and you shall observe it too.” The prisoners objected that the Catholic Church had always taught the contrary to what was set forth in the Act of Parliament “I care nothing for what the Church has held or taught,” replied Cromwell. “I will that you testify by solemn oath that you believe and firmly hold what we propose to you to profess: that the king is Head of the English Church.” The prisoners answered that the fear of God would not allow them to disobey or abandon the Church, seeing that St. Augustine says that he would not believe even the Gospel if the Holy Catholic Church did not teach him to do so.

At their trial the monks insisted that the supremacy of the pope had been instituted by Our Lord “as necessary to the conservation of the spiritual unity of the mystical body of Christ.” They were cut short by the judge who stated that as the Act had been passed and was law it could not be called into question. Twice the jury refused to condemn priests of such radiant holiness despite threats that if they failed to find in favour of the king they would suffer the same fate as the monks. Cromwell himself then came to intimidate them in person, and they brought in a reluctant verdict of guilty. The four prisoners were sentenced to be hanged, drawn, and quartered at Tyburn. 75 Tuesday 4 May 1535 was the day fixed for their execution. It had rained during the night and the streets were coated with mud. The Martyrs for the faith were dragged by horses to Tyburn, lying on their backs on hurdles, jolting over rough cobbles, their heads beaten against the rough stones, and splashing through puddles of filthy water. St. Thomas More, and his daughter Margaret who was visiting him, witnessed the beginning of the sad procession from the window of his cell in the Bell Tower. Tears came into his eyes as he gazed down upon the scene below, and he said to Margaret: “Lo, dost thou not see Meg, that these blessed fathers be now as cheerfully going to their deaths as bridegrooms to a marriage.” As a young man More had aspired to the Carthusian life, but eventually decided that this was not his vocation. In his deep humility the Saint told Margaret that God was calling the monks to everlasting life as a reward for spending their days in a hard, penitential, and painful life, but because of his own unworthiness he was condemned to remain longer on earth.

The painful three mile journey to the Tower halted at the hospital of St. Giles-in-the Fields where, in accordance with tradition, the condemned men were offered a bowl of ale. Together with a secular priest, John Hale, the Vicar of Isleworth, they were hanged, drawn, and quartered as traitors. Hale had been denounced to the authorities for remarks concerning the king’s tyranny and licentiousness made during a private conversation. In an act of unprecedented barbarism the monks were executed wearing their religious habits. Had they truly been guilty of treason or any other capital offence they should have been degraded to the lay state and executed wearing secular clothing. This had been the invariable practice in England.

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