Sense of Life. Articles in English. The Troubled History of Catholicism in England (Part II).
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The Troubled History of Catholicism in England (Part II)


The martyrdoms of Sir Thomas More, Bishop John Fisher, and the London Carthusians were a powerful individual witness to the Catholic faith. However, 16th-century England did not lack equally poignant collective manifestations of loyalty to the faith of the fathers. The two most important of these were the Pilgrimage of Grace of 1536 and the great Western Rebellion of 1549. While Anti-Catholicism was the work of the State, the defence of Catholicism in 16th-century England was quite literally the work of the common people.

The Pilgrimage of Grace

The rising in the North, in 1536, was the first collective response of the Catholic population to Henry VIII’s destruction of monastic life in Britain. The insurgents, most of them commoners, called their movement the “Pilgrimage of Grace,” thereby stressing that their main purpose was the defence of the Catholic faith. This could be seen in their petition to the King, known as the York Articles. The first article read: “The suppression of so many religious houses as are at this instant time suppressed, whereby the service of our God is not well performed but also the commons of your realm be unrelieved, the which as we think is a great hurt to the common wealth and many sisters be put from their livings and left at large – we believe this to be to a great detriment of common good.”

The oath taken by thousands of insurgents on October 17, 1536 also had the character of collective witness. It went as follows: “Ye shall not enter into this our Pilgrimage of Grace for the commonwealth, but only for the love that ye do bear unto Almighty God his faith, and to Holy Church militant and the maintenance thereof; to the preservation of the King’s person and his issue, to the purifying of the nobility, and to expulse all villain blood and evil councillors against the commonwealth from his Grace and his Privy Council of the same. And that ye shall not enter into our said Pilgrimage for no particular profit to yourself, nor to do any displeasure to any private person, but by counsel of the commonwealth, nor slay nor murder for no envy, but in your hearts put away all fear and dread, and take afore you the Cross of Christ, and in your hearts His faith, the restitution of the Church, the suppression of these heretics and their opinions.”

The insurgents’ banners bore the image of the Five Wounds of Christ, and the first stanza of their song proclaimed: “Christ crucified! / For thy wounds wide, / Us commons guide! / Which pilgrims be, / Through God’s grace, / For to purchase / Old wealth and peace / Of the spirituality”

By early December 1536, almost all of northern England was engulfed by the rebellion. As can be seen from the proclamation, the insurgents naively believed that all the blame for the top-down anti-Catholic revolution could be imputed to the baneful influence of the royal advisers. They believed that the King, upon hearing the voice of the people and not of his flatterers, would accede to their demands and restore the freedom of the Catholic religion in his realm. It was in this spirit that, on December 4, 1536 the insurgents drafted a petition to the King at York. It comprised twenty-four articles, with the central issues being set out in the preamble:

• “Firstly, to have the heresies of Luther, Wycliffe, Hus, Melanchthon, Bucer, Tyndall, Anabaptists, Confessio Germaniae, etc. annulled and destroyed within this realm.

• “To have the care of souls due to the Supreme Head of the Church restored to the See of Rome as before. Also, to have bishop consecrations come thence as well.

• “We humbly beseech our most Sovereign King to have Princess Mary [the daughter of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, whose marriage was the only one recognized by the Church — author’s parenthesis] recognized as the legitimate heiress to the throne.

• “To have the monasteries’ houses, lands, and goods restored to them….

• “To have heretic bishops as well as laymen and the whole sect consigned to fire, and if not — let them face us in battle.

• To have Lord Cromwell and Sir Richard Richie punished as destroyers of the good laws of this realm and as followers of a false, heretic sect….”

The Pilgrimage of Grace eventually disbanded without taking up armed struggle. Henry VIII promised to consider the demands of the pilgrims. In reality, he wished to buy time and discourage them from continuing the uprising. The ploy proved effective. The only positive upshot of the Pilgrimage was that it was not drowned in blood.

The Western Rebellion

Henry VIII’s reckless experiment at preserving the purity of the Catholic faith apart from Rome did not survive him. After his death, the throne of England devolved on his ten-year-old son, Edward VI (from Henry’s third marriage to Jane Seymour). The young King’s advisers, including the Lord Protector Edward Seymour (Edward’s uncle), did not hide their pro-Protestant leanings. The main force behind the introduction of Protestantism to England after the death of Henry VIII was the Anglican archbishop, Thomas Cranmer.

In 1549, by royal assent, Cranmer oversaw the publication of The Book of Common Prayer. Cranmer himself was its principal author. His chief purpose in promulgating the Book was to replace the Roman missals, which Henry VIII had not banned, and which still conveyed the traditional Catholic teaching on the Holy Mass (stressing its sacrificial character and the Real Presence of Christ under the appearances of bread and wine).

The introduction of The Book of Common Prayer was followed by other reforms spearheaded by Archbishop Cranmer, including the banning of Latin from the liturgy of the Anglican Church. His next measure was to remove the altars from the churches and replace them with wooden tables. Next, the Blessed Sacrament ceased to be kept in the churches. Holy Communion was distributed under both species, and the celibacy of priests was abolished.

Just as the people had opposed Henry’s innovations in 1536, so did they reject Cranmer’s reforms. In 1549, England’s western counties (Cornwall, Devon, and Essex) mounted a popular insurrection. The immediate cause was the publishing of The Book of Common Prayer. The major force behind the Western Rebellion was the rural population. Although members of the gentry and the clergy who still professed the Catholic religion also took part in it, the Rebellion was above all a popular manifestation in defence of the traditional Catholic religion, which the reformers were so mercilessly dismantling.

The insurgents formulated sixteen articles and addressed them to Edward VI. The following are some of the key demands:

• “We will have all the general counsels and holy decrees of our forefathers observed, kept, and performed, and whosoever shall gainsay them, we hold them as heretics.

• “We will have the Mass in Latin, as was before, and celebrated by the priest without any man or woman communicating with them.

• “We will have the Sacrament hang over the high altar, and there to be worshiped, as it was wont to be.

• “We will have the Sacrament of the Altar, but at Easter delivered to the laypeople; and then but in one kind.

• “We will have our priests administer the Sacrament of Baptism without cease, on days of the week as well as on feast days.

• “We will have wafers and holy water distributed on every Sunday, and palms and ashes at the times set aside for this. We will have images of saints placed again in every church and have all the ancient ceremonies of our Holy Mother Church restored.

• “We will not receive the new service because it is but like a Christmas game [i.e. nativity play]; but we will have our old service of matins, Mass, evensong, and procession in Latin, as it was before.

• “We will have every preacher in his sermon and priest during Mass make mention of, and pray for by name, the souls suffering in Purgatory, as our fathers were wont to do.”

The State’s response to these demands was to quell the rebellion by force. At the battle of Sampford Courtenay in Devon, the Western Rebellion stood no chance. The insurgents suffered a crushing defeat, and about 4000 of them perished.

The price of fidelity

The reign of Henry VIII’s younger daughter, Elizabeth I (1558-1603), began a new chapter in the martyrology of English Catholics. Merely to profess and practise the Catholic religion now became a capital offence. Death also awaited those who celebrated Mass or took part in it. Hundreds of English priests and laymen paid with their lives for remaining loyal to the Church. One of these, Jesuit Father Edmund Campion, would be canonized by Pope Paul VI in 1970. Born in 1540, Campion was one of the leading intellectual lights of the Elizabethan Era. (He began his studies at the ancient College of St. John’s in Oxford at the age of seventeen). He was a loyal subject of Queen Elizabeth I and a member of the Anglican Church, where he was ordained deacon in 1568. To his dying day, he would profess allegiance to his Queen. However, under the influence of a close friend, Gregory Martin, who had gone to France to enrol in the English Catholic seminary at Douai, Campion began to question whether he as an Anglican indeed belonged to the One Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. Intensive theological study and above all prayer led him to the conclusion that to swear the Oath of Supremacy to Elizabeth as Head of the Church in England would be to embark on the wrong path.

Campion executed an abrupt about-turn. After making a Catholic profession of faith at the English Seminary at Douai, he was ordained subdeacon in 1573. During a subsequent pilgrimage to Rome, he became acquainted with the Society of Jesus. There he joined the Order of St. Ignatius of Loyola and was ordained to the priesthood at the Jesuit Seminary in Prague in 1579.

Soon afterwards, the Order dispatched Campion and his confrere, Robert Persons to England to work for the catacomb Church. Before leaving the Continent, as if sensing what awaited him in England, he wrote: “As far as I am concerned, everything is over. I have made a voluntary sacrifice of myself for the glory of God’s Majesty — both in life and death. For this is all that I desire.”

Father Campion reached Dover on June 25, 1580. For a year, he celebrated Mass for English Catholics living in hiding. He wrote his Decem Rationes in defence of the Catholic faith against the usurpations of the English state authorities. He was arrested in 1581, after saying his last Mass in Leford Grange near Oxford. For his act of treason, he could expect but one punishment — torture and death.

Before the sentence was passed, the English Jesuit addressed the judges and the public in words that spoke for all the English Martyrs: “In condemning us, you condemn all of your own ancestors — all the priests and bishops of old, and all that was once the glory of England, the island of Saints. God lives; his posterity will live. Their judgment is not liable to corruption as is the judgment of those who are going to condemn us to death.”

The sentence was carried out on December 1, 1581, at Tyburn, the place of martyrdom of so many English witnesses for the Faith. Before commencing with the butchery, the executioner gave the prisoner one last chance to beg forgiveness of the Queen. Edmund Campion replied, “Wherein have I offended her? In this I am innocent. This is my last speech; in this give me credit — I have and do pray for her.”

Grzegorz Kucharczyk

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