The Martyrs of England and Wales

Once upon a time I was asked to render the phrase a militibus hereticis interrumpti, found in the Necrology or Memorial Book of the Dead of the English Benedictine Congregation, in rather less polemical terms than ‘murdered by heretical soldiers’, the translation we had been using hitherto. I settled on ‘killed in time of persecution’, a paraphrase rather than a translation, but which had the merit of not causing apoplexy among visiting members of other Churches. Accusations of murder and heresy do not go down well when praying for the dead. The fact that the original translation was thought to be unacceptable illustrates something of the sea-change that relations between the different Churches have undergone in this country during the past half century or so.

Today the Catholic Church in England and Wales commemorates the forty canonised martyrs and 242 recognized beati of the Reformation period. The feast used to be kept on 25 October, the date on which in 1970 Pope Paul VI canonised them, but was later transferred to today, the feast of St John Houghton and the Carthusian martyrs of whom Maurice Chauncy wrote so moving an account. It seems to me appropriate and in keeping with a more generous appreciation of the complex nature of the Reformation and the religious disputes of those times. If you have read Chauncy’s account, you will have been struck by the serenity with which the monks prepared for death, their lack of rancour and their love of Jesus which spurred them on. Sometimes martyrs are made ‘likeable’ only by their martyrdom. The rest of the time they appear to us difficult and even disagreeable. Not so the Carthusians. The manner of their death was entirely consistent with the manner of their life, and it is a glory for us who come after them.

Of course, the canonised saints and beati represent only a fraction of those who, during the Reformation and subsequent Penal Times, remained steadfast in the Faith, paying the price (literally) of their refusal to conform. Our Free Church friends are sometimes surprised when told that Catholics too were ranked among Dissenters and suffered similar disabilities until the unpopular Roman Catholic Relief Act of 1829 removed some of the most infamous. Suspicion of Catholics lingered long. During my childhood I can remember my father remarking of a certain golf club that it admitted neither Jews nor Catholics!

So, how do we celebrate the feast today in these ecumenical times, when the Churches desire to stand together in all things lawful and apart only when necessary and always with charity? To me, celebrating with thanksgiving those who have gone before is not a difficulty. Humanly speaking, I owe my own faith to the fidelity of Englishmen and women who clung to their Catholicism through thick and thin. Some were martyred; many more were fined or had their lands confiscated, were made to attend Anglican services and subjected to petty and not so petty regulations (e.g. they couldn’t keep good horses or attend the universities). My community of profession traces its history back through the centuries to the time when Englishwomen had to go abroad to become nuns. Indeed, one of my kinswomen, D. Anselma Anne, was among the four English Benedictines who died in prison at Compiègne during the French Revolution. I think we can celebrate such a history with gladness and rejoicing, praying that we ourselves may show a like fortitude if necessary. At the same time we must pray that Christians may never again be persecutors of one another. The long centuries of religious discrimination in this country are not ones of which we can be proud.


13 thoughts on “The Martyrs of England and Wales”

  1. I’ve always felt very conflicted over the terrible things Protestants and Catholics did to each other during the Reformation period. For a time I was a novice Anglican nun, living in a monastery stolen from Catholic nuns by Henry VIII and eventually ‘returned’ to the Church of England by a private benefactor who shortly afterwards became Catholic herself. I am part of a Church descended from schism and responsible for such terrible martyrdoms of holy men and women whose only crime was constancy to their faith. Of course this was not one-way aggression, but every time I step into a pre-16th century Anglican church in Britain I am all too aware that this building too was stolen from those who loved God enough to build it. I wish so much that the Reformation had ended with the Counter-Reformation but here we are, still divided, and all the poorer in spirit and love because of it. I confess I am rather in love with the Anglican church as she is today, but I have to avoid looking too closely at where she came from.

    I found a PDF copy of Maurice Chauncy’s account here if anyone wants to read it online :
    Don’t be put off by the scary Latin URL 🙂

  2. What an admirable phrase, ‘killed in time of persecution’. It allows me to contemplate the historic specificity of this memorial and to call to mind other historic and also contemporary events. Writing as one descended from those who fled the Low Countries in time of persecution, I thank you for this.

  3. In the Church of England, today is the “English Saints and Martyrs of the Reformation Period”, with the proper collect:
    “Merciful God, who, when your Church on earth was torn apart by the ravages of sin, raised up men and women in this land who witnessed to their faith with courage and constancy: give your Church that peace which is your will, and grant that those who have been divided on earth may be reconciled in heaven and share together in the vision of your glory…”

  4. I’m sure many are familiar with the phrase “If we forget the past we are doomed to repeat it.” So, too, if we water down the truth, sugar coat events of the past, and some of that not so distant, we conspire to promote untruths. Sometimes this is done in a misguided spirit of ecumenism, on other occasions simple ignorance. There are also ways of phrasing, as you have done, Sister, which tell the truth but keep rancor out of it, a manner of informing without playing forward hatred.

    My husband’s family, descendents of an English Martyr, “turned” and became Anglican at the time, however 300 years later, he corrected the situation,
    bringing our family back into the Faith, and we added four more members over recent years. Needless to say this has created some friction with other family members who remain C of E, who can’t/won’t understand the the R.C. faith and who view the Reformation as “a cultural thing”. Having grown up in Canada, they view WW2 in the same light, blaming the Jews for their fate.

    Religious persecution is not so remote a threat with the growing reality of secularism – no need to look too far into the news to read about what is going on in Europe and North America. Christians will have to pull together as our martyred ancestors did, hopefully we won’t have to give our lives in return for defending the truth of the Faith, but the stakes are higher now than ever. We honour our Martyrs, ask for their intercessory prayers, recalling Jesus’ words “When the Son of Man returns will He find faith on earth?”

  5. A timely message from Pope Francis at Mass “Fighting evil with meekness and humility”, can be found at the Vatican website NEWS.VA in which he speaks of the hatred for and persecution of Christians by the evil one.

  6. Thanks for your excellent and thoughtful post. As I’m writing as a British Mennonite ‘how do we celebrate the feast’ is a pertinent question. The Anabaptist-Mennonite story is marked by early centuries of martyrdom and migration – a deeply embedded spirituality of suffering. In the UK there are currently probably less than a hundred Mennonites – a legacy of the extermination of Anabaptism in the 16th C.

    It is a very fine line to walk between ahistorical niceness and polemics. This is an especially difficult balance where a tradition is virtually unknown, outside of awkward footnotes to the 39 Articles. I am for remembrance but wary of the ideological use of martyrdom:

    Perhaps a colloquy would be an appropriate response to our martyr histories? I learned a good deal I didn’t know from you post. Perhaps there is also something of the early Anabaptist experience which will resonate.

  7. I can remember as a Catholic boy, being educated in polemic terms about the English Martyrs and I’m aware that being brought up with that sort of education, we/I had an inherent prejudice against what we disparagingly described as Non-Catholics! I’m not proud of that history and it was something long since rejected as a both mistaken and inappropriate.

    When I became an Anglican, I learned the other side of the story, but tempered with charity and love and the perspective of time and distance from those events. And of course, the Anglican Church had it’s own Martyrs as well.

    I agree with Dame Catherine that we need to remember and to pray for all who suffered persecution during the reformation, and particularly all of those Christians who are persecuted today, whose very life and existence is at the mercy of those who oppose their beliefs and practices.

    We only need to look to the middle east, Africa and some Far Eastern Countries to see Christians being persecuted, killed or injured or driven from their homes by fear and violence or discrimination. We need to be their voice through prayer and action, whatever our particular denomination.

  8. I think what you have to say in this post is important. Before this thread fades into the middle distance, I believe there is good reason to carry on the conversation. For the first moment in my lifetime I believe it may be possible to revisit the polarized post-Reformation landscape with a sense of hope and movement. It might not seem promising ground to talk about martyrdom, but it’s an honest place to start. Any responses?

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