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The Troubled History of Catholicism in England (part one)


England was one of the first western nations to embrace the evangelizing efforts of the Roman Church. In the sixth century, Pope Gregory the Great despatched a small mission to the Germanic Angles and Saxons living in Britain.

The Troubled History of Catholicism in England The mission was headed by St. Augustine (not to be confused with the famous Church Father of the same name), who later became the first Archbishop of Canterbury (the Catholic Primate of England). The evangelizing work of the Roman mission in England coincided with the independent efforts of the Scoto-Irish missionaries — led by the spiritual descendants of St. Patrick, the apostle of Ireland).


From Defender of the Faith to Oppressor of the Church

In the Middle Ages, England was a rightful member of Latin christianitas (Christendom). She gave to the Church great theologians and doctors of the Church (St. Anselm of Canterbury in the 12th c.), great crusaders (the legendary King Richard the Lion Heart), and great saints (St. Thomas Beckett, Archbishop of Canterbury, slain on the orders of King Henry II in the 12th c.). The cathedral at Canterbury — the site of St. Thomas’ martyrdom and the repository of his relics — was one of the most popular pilgrimage destinations not only in England but also in all of Western Europe. Pilgrimages to this site prompted Geoffrey Chaucer to write his famous Canterbury Tales in the 14th century, marking the beginning of a truly national Engish literature.

When in 1517 the Reformation began on the Continent, King Henry VIII was the reigning monarch in England. He was highly critical of the teachings of Martin Luther. Not only did he impose a state ban prohibiting (on pain of death) the spread of Reformation ideas in his realm, but he also made a contribution to the struggle against the views of the German reformer. Henry VIII wrote The Defense of the Seven Sacraments, representing Catholic teaching on the sacraments (probably its real author was Henry VIII’s chancellor, the great statesman and humanist, Thomas More). In recognition of the English King’s contribution to the defence of the Church, Pope Leo X conferred on him the official title of Defensor Fidei — Defender of the Faith (a title still used by British sovereigns today, long after the English crown broke with the Roman Church).

King Henry VIII had one abiding desire and one weakness. His desire was to have a son — an heir to the throne; his weakness were his disordered passions. The result of these two things was his love affair with Anne Boleyn, one of the ladies-in-waiting to his wife Catharine of Aragon. Henry VIII sought to have his marriage to Catharine annulled by Rome (he had only a daughter by Catherine — the future Queen Mary I). The Pope, however, was not about to indulge this royal whim.

In consequence, the King of England resolved to grant himself a divorce. In 1534, he broke with the Apostolic See, made himself Head of the English Church and promulgated the so-called Act of Supremacy. The Act demanded that all subjects — including bishops — take an oath of allegiance to King Henry as the “Supreme Head of the Church in England.” A refusal to take such an oath (i.e. remaining in union with the universal Church) was punishable by death.

Until his death, Henry VIII thought of himself as an orthodox Catholic. To his dying day he never denied the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist or the Sacrament of Confession (as did the Protestants). On the other hand, he severely persecuted those who remained faithful to the Successor of Peter. The most visible expressions of the Catholic faith and culture in England — the monasteries and the religious images — were mercilessly eradicated. Such policies led to the destruction of the reliquary of St. Thomas Beckett in Canterbury and the image of Our Lady of Walsingham — the largest Marian shrine in England).

Cardinal’s purple as red as blood

The vast majority of English bishops (led by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, who later became a leading figure of English Protestantism) buckled under pressure and acquiesced in the Supremacy Act. Among those who courageously said non possumus to the King’s whims, two figures stand out: John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, and Sir Thomas More. Both were canonized as martyrs for the faith by Pope Pius XI in 1935.

Fisher was virtually the only English bishop who, in the time of trial, stood uncompromisingly by the truth and paid the supreme price. Accused of treason for remaining loyal to the successor of St. Peter, he was locked up in the Tower of London where he awaited trial and execution. While there imprisoned, he learned that Pope Paul III had raised him to the rank of cardinal as a sign of recognition amd approval of his uncompromising stance. In John Fisher’s case, the cardinal’s purple was not only a symbolic reminder of the blood of martyrs but also a portent of things soon to come.

A delegation of three bishops, who had already sworn on the Act of Supremacy, went to Fisher at the Tower and tried to persuade him to do likewise. He is said to have answered them the following: “Methinks it had been rather our parts to stick together in repressing these violent and unlawful intrusions and injuries dayly offered to our common mother, the holy Church of Christ, than by any manner of persuasions to help or set forward the same. […] We are besieged on all sides, and can hardly escape the danger of our enemy. And seeing that judgment is begone at the house of God, what hope is there left (if we fall) that the rest shall stand! The fort is betrayed even of them that should have defended it.”

Sentence was passed on June 17, 1535. The court found Cardinal Fisher guilty of high treason and condemned him to death by ‘hanging, drawing, and quartering.’ In his last address to the judges, Fisher said: “And now to tell you plainly my mind, touching this matter of the King’s supremacy, I think indeed, and always have thought, and do now lastly affirm, that His Grace cannot justly claim any such supremacy over the Church of God as he now taketh upon him; neither hath (it) been seen or heard of that any temporal prince before his days hath presumed to that dignity; wherefore, if the King will now adventure himself in proceeding in this strange and unwonted case, so no doubt but he shall deeply incur the grievous displeasure of the Almighty, to the great damage of his own soul, and of many others, and to the utter ruin of this realm committed to his charge.”

Cardinal Fisher’s execution took place on June 22, 1535. The King graciously commuted the sentence to beheading, which was carried out immediately. Mounting the scaffold, the Cardinal said the Te Deum and the psalm In te Domine speravi. He was beheaded on the feast day of St. Alban — the first English martyr for the sake of the Faith. According to some accounts, before the martyr’s head was exposed on Tower Bridge (the customary practice in the case of traitors), it was shown to Anne Boleyn. Upon seeing it, she is supposed to have said: ‘Is this the head that so many times spoke against me? It will do no harm any more!’ And she slapped the head of the martyr. In so doing, she cut one of her fingers. The cut would not heal for many days, and the scar could still be seen on the day of her death in 1536, when, on the orders of Henry VIII, she herself mounted the scaffold in the Tower for the crime of adultery.

St. Thomas More: the fidelity of an intellectual

On 1 July 1535, the death penalty was pronounced on Sir Thomas More. Like the cardinal martyr before him, Sir Thomas also spoke courageously at his trial. He stated his conviction that the Act of Supremacy was a de facto act of treason — an arbitrary illegal act, a radical breaking not only with the Church but also with England’s past.

When the judges (among whom were Thomas and George Boleyn, the father and brother of Anne Boleyn) observed (correctly) that all English bishops almost without exception (the exception being Cardinal Fisher) had sworn on the Act of Supremacy, Sir Thomas replied: “If we support our opinions with proofs, testimonies and arguments, my opinion will be much stronger than yours, because on my side is the rest of Christendom.” He also reminded them that the Church was made up not only of the present living generation, but also the Church Triumphant, the witness of all the saints, all the Councils, the whole history of the Church in England.

In his final address upon being sentenced to death, More stated his conviction “that no temporal prince can presume by any law to take upon himself a spiritual preeminence given by Our Lord to St. Peter and his successors in the See of Rome; and that a small part of the Church, is not to make a particular Law disagreeing with the general Law of Christ’s universal Catholic Church, no more than the City of London, being but one Member in respect to the whole Kingdom, might enact a Law against an Act of Parliament, to be binding to the whole Realm.” He added that England’s disobedience to the Bishop of Rome was comparable to the disobedience of a child to its natural parent.

The execution of Sir Thomas More took place on July 6, 1535. According to eyewitness accounts, Sir Thomas remained cheerful to the very end. On his way to the scaffold, he held a red cross in his hands — the sign of Christ’s Passion and the traditional sign of crusaders.

The martyrdom of the London Carthusians

Even before Bishop Fisher and Sir Thomas More were arrested for treason, it had come to light that the Carthusians — a monastic order of austere comtemplatives — also represented a “deadly threat” to the realm. Why should these monks who lived in cells and did nothing but pray and engage in ascetic practices, be considered enemies of the King of England? Like Sir Thomas More and the Bishop of Rochester, they refused to take an oath recognizing Henry VIII as the “Supreme Head of the Church in England.”

On April 20, 1535, the King’s enforcers arrested John Houghton, Augustine Webster, and Robert Lawrence, the priors of charterhouses in London, Bauvale, and Axelhome. Imprisoned in the Tower of London, the monks firmly refused to take the oath demanded of them. Fear of God, they said, prevented them from renouncing their Church. The punishment meted out to the Carthusians for remaining loyal to the Universal Church was indeed horrible. Like thousands of other English martyrs, they had to endure the full measure of torments reserved in those days for traitors to the state.

The condemned monks were dragged to their place of execution in Tyburn (three miles from the Tower) on hurdles pulled by horses. An eyewitness to the execution, which took place on May 4, 1535, wrote: “A thick rope had been chosen, for fear John Houghton might be strangled and expire too quickly. The cart was drawn aside; and the gentle monk, who had done good to many, and harm to none, was hanging like a malefactor from the gallows. Then came the worst part of the business, for no mercy was shown, and the hideous sentence was carried out in all its details. The rope was cut, and the body fell heavily on the ground; but John Houghton was not dead. They tore off his holy habit, and laid him on a plank or platform. The executioner inflicted a long and ghastly wound with a sharp knife, dragged out his entrails, and threw them in a fire prepared for the purpose. The poor sufferer was conscious the whole time; and while he was being disembowelled he was heard to exclaim: ‘Oh most holy Jesus, have mercy upon me in this hour!’” When at last the executioner reached for his heart, to wrench it from the chest cavity, the Blessed Martyr spoke again. A German, Anthony Rescius, who would later become Auxiliary Bishop of Würzburg, stood close by. He overheard his last words: ‘Good Jesu! What wilt thou do with my heart?’

The executioner then proceeded to rub the heart in Blessed John Haughton’s face. Blessed Augustine Webster, Robert Lawrence, and Richard Reynolds all died in the same way. Each of them witnessed the hideous tortures to which his predecessor was subjected. Each of them was offered a pardon if only he would swear allegiance to Henry VIII as the “Head of the Church in England.” So little — one would think — was demanded of them. A few words. But as the Scriptures say, „What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world, yet suffers the loss of his own soul?” (Matthew 16: 26).

In order to make every priest in England understand what awaited those who stubbornly clung to “papist errors,” the quartered bodies of the Carthusians were sent to the four corners of the realm. And to terrify the remaining London Carthusians into submission, Blessed John Houghton’s bloody severed arm was nailed to the charterhouse gate. Only when it had fallen off the nails did the royal authorities allow Haughton’s brethren to bury it.

But this was not the end of the Carthusians’ matyrdom. Soon after the execution of their prior, the authorities arrested another three monks in London. These were Blessed Humphrey Middlemore, Blessed William Exmew, and Blessed Sebastian Newdigate. Imprisoned at Newgate, they languished in conditions of utmost barbarity: they were fettered to the wall (with iron collars around their necks and legs) in such a way that they could neither lie nor sit nor stand straight. They died in the same manner as their prior on June 19, 1535.

Three years later, on December 17, 1538, Pope Paul III promulgated a bull (drafted in August of 1535) excommunicating Henry VIII and placing all of England under an interdict. (To be continued in the next issue)

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The article was published with the permission from "Love One Another!"

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