Thursday, 29 December 2011



The second of the two English Martyrs depicted in Durante Alberti’s painting is St Thomas Becket whose feast is kept today, 29th December.

Becket, portrayed in the left side of the painting, was the son of a wealthy Norman merchant. Thomas was born in London in 1118. He became acquainted with the young King, Henry II, and the two became close friends.

The King appointed his friend as Chancellor and, upon the death of Theobald, Archbishop of Canterbury in 1161, Henry pressed him to accept the bishopric. Thomas was not in favour and strongly argued against it but, nevertheless, the King appointed him Archbishop of Canterbury. It has been suggested that the King’s reason for appointing his friend was to have a ‘yes-man’ at Canterbury. If this was the case, Henry had sadly misjudged his friend for Becket was nobody’s flunky! Thomas was genuinely devout and, knowing the King’s mind, warned him; “I know your plans for the Church and that you will put forth claims which I, as Archbishop of Canterbury, must necessarily oppose”.

To be free of all civil ties, Thomas displeased the King further by insisting on resigning his chancellorship. This led to open hostility between the former friends. Because of the Archbishop’s resistance to the “Constitutions of Clarendon”, the King implemented a policy of financial persecution, imposing upon the See of Canterbury huge monetary fines. Realizing the danger he was in, Becket fled to France. All of the Archbishop’s property was confiscated and his family and friends persecuted or exiled.

In 1170, King and Archbishop seemed to have been reconciled and Thomas Becket returned to England. It wasn’t very long before Becket realized that he was in mortal danger. We don’t know the exact words of the infuriated King but Shakespeare’s are the ones most often quoted; “Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?” Whatever the rash words uttered by Henry, four of his knights, perhaps hoping to curry favour with their King, hastened to England to kill Becket. They found him in the cathedral and murdered him at the foot of the altar steps. As the Archbishop lay on the floor and the assassins carried out their foul deed, Becket was heard to say “For the name of Jesus and the defence of the Church, I am ready to embrace death.” The four, Reginald FitzUrs, William de Tracy, Richard le Breton and Hugh de Moreville, fled north to Knaresborough Castle, which was held by de Moreville, where they remained for about a year.

The despicable act was met with shock and outrage. The martyr’s shrine became a place of popular pilgrimage. On 21st February 1173, Thomas Becket was canonised by Pope Alexander III. In 1538, on the orders of King Henry VIII, the shrine was destroyed and the Saint’s relics scattered. A simple candle marks the place where it once stood and a modern memorial marks the place where he was martyred. St Thomas Becket is venerated in both the Catholic and Anglican Churches and - the pilgrims still come!


Monday, 26 December 2011



The English College gained a reputation as a nursery of martyrs. Owing to the number of its martyred students, the custom arose of a student of the college preaching, on the theme of martyrdom, before the Pope on St Stephen’s Day.

On St Stephen’s Day, 1581, Blessed John Cornelius, who had entered the English College, Rome, in April 1580, preached before Pope Gregory XIII. (Pope Gregory XIII is best remembered for producing, with the help of Christopher Clavius S J, the Gregorian calendar.) In his sermon, John called the College the “Pontifical Seminary of Martyrs”. Thirteen years later, on 4th July 1594, John Cornelius was martyred at Dorchester, Oxfordshire. He was beatified by Pope Pius XI in 1929.

On St Stephen’s Day 1642, the recently ordained Welshman, David Lewis, preached before Pope Urban VIII in the Lateran Basilica. He preached in Latin and his sermon, entitled “Corona Christi pro spinis gemmea was on the Martyrdom of St Stephen, the first Christian Martyr. David Lewis was martyred at Usk on 27th August 1679. He was canonised in 1
970 by Pope Paul VI.


St Ralph Sherwin, 1581
St Luke Kirby, 1582
Blessed John Shert, 1582
Blessed William Lacey, 1582
Blessed Thomas Cottam, 1582
Blessed William Hart, 1583
Blessed George Haydock, 1584
Blessed Thomas Hemerford, 1584
Blessed John Munden, 1584
Blessed John Lowe, 1586
Blessed Robert Morton, 1588
Blessed Richard Leigh, 1588
Blessed Edward James, 1588
Blessed Christopher Buxton, 1588
Blessed Christopher Bales, 1590
Blessed Edmund Duke, 1590
St Polydore Plasden, 1591
St Eustace White, 1591
Blessed Joseph Lambton, 1592
Blessed Thomas Pormort, 1592
Blessed John Cornelius S J, 1594
Blessed John Ingram, 1594
Blessed Edward Thwing, 1594
St Robert Southwell S J, 1595
St Henry Walpole S J, 1595
Blessed Robert Middleton, 1601
Blessed Robert Watkinson, 1602
Venerable Thomas Tichborne, 1602
Blessed Edward Oldcorne, 1606
St John Almond , 1612
Blessed Richard Smith, 1612
Blessed John Thules, 1616
Blessed John Lockwood, 1642
Venerable Edward Morgan, 1642
Venerable Brian Tansfield S J, 1643
St Henry Morse S J, 1645
Blessed John Woodcock O F M, 1646
Venerable Edward Mico S J, 1678
Blessed Antony Turner S J, 1679
St John Wall O F M, 1679
St David Lewis S J, 1679

This blog is dedicated to St David Lewis and the Martyrs of the 16th & 17th centuries. The horrific events of yesterday, Christmas Day 2011, are a stark reminder that being murdered for one's religion is, sadly, not a thing of the past. Today, on this feast of the first Christian Martyr, St Stephen, let's remember Christians everywhere who are suffering for their faith. In particular, those who were murdered yesterday in the atrocities across Nigeria.


Sunday, 25 December 2011


This lovely Christmas Carol was written, in the Huron language, by the French Jesuit, St Jean de Brebeuf who was martyred in Canada in 1649. This version is sung in English by the Canadian Tenors.



Saturday, 17 December 2011


In 1580, Durante Alberti painted “The Martyrs’ Picture” which hangs in the College Chapel. The painting depicts the Holy Trinity with two English Martyrs, St Edmund and St Thomas Becket. A map of the British Isles lies below the crucified Christ and blood from his wounds drops onto the map. Fire springs from the droplets of blood. This echoes the college motto, held by a cherub, “Ignem veni mittere in terram”, “I have come to bring fire to the earth”. (The picture above is a copy which is in the Chapel at Tyburn Convent, London)

Upon receiving news of the martyrdom of one of its alumni, the students began the practice of gathering around the picture to sing a Te Deum. This practice continues still and each year on ‘Martyrs’ Day’, 1st December, the students gather to sing a Te Deum in front of the painting and the relics of the Martyrs, preserved beneath the altar, are venerated by the students.

St Edmund is the English Martyr portrayed on the right. Edmund was King of East Anglia. He was born about 840 and he was a Christian from infancy. Although only about 15 years old when he was crowned, the young King showed himself to be an exemplary ruler, strong in his faith, prayerful, and determined to treat all justly. It is said that he retired to his royal tower at Hunstanton and spent a year in prayer. He learned the whole Psalter by heart so that thereafter he could recite it regularly.

In 870, some say 869, Edmund’s kingdom was invaded by a great Viking army. Edmund marched out at the head of his army and the Danes were repulsed. The invaders soon returned with overwhelming numbers. The King, in order to avert a fruitless massacre, disbanded his troops and he retired towards Framlingham. Unfortunately, he fell into the hands of the invaders. In captivity he was ordered to renounce his faith and become a vassal of the Danes. King Edmund rejected all their wicked demands declaring that his religion was dearer to him than his life!

Infuriated by the King’s fidelity, his cruel captors beat him with cudgels then tied him to a tree where they tore his flesh with whips. Through all his agony, Edmund continued to call upon the name of Jesus. His enraged persecutors next unleashed a hail of arrows upon his tortured body. Seeing that Edmund could not be swayed, they beheaded him.

Edmund’s martyrdom took place in Hoxne, Suffolk, in 870. In 915 his body was found to be still incorrupt and his remains were translated to Bedricsworth, since renamed Bury St Edmunds. His reputation grew and his shrine soon became one of the most famous pilgrimage sites in England. The date of his canonisation is unknown but it is thought to be sometime between 924 and 939. Many churches and colleges were named after St Edmund. He was adopted as the Patron Saint of England and a banner bearing Edmund’s crest was carried at the Battle of Agincourt. Predictably, his shrine was pillaged in 1539 on the orders of King Henry VIII.

Although St Edmund, King and Martyr, has been replaced as Patron Saint of England by St George, this truly English Saint is venerated in the Orthodox, Catholic and Anglican traditions. His feast day, regrettably now relegated to an optional memorial, is 20th November.


Sunday, 11 December 2011


In Penal Times, when Catholicism was outlawed and seminaries closed, it was the intention of the Establishment that Catholicism would die out in this country. They reasoned that if there were no priests to celebrate holy Mass, to preach, and teach the faith, then it would be completely eradicated. Alas, the authorities reckoned without such as Cardinal William Allen!

Cardinal Allen’s solution to the lack of priests in England was to found seminaries on the continent for the education and training of boys and young men from that wounded country. The first of these seminaries was founded at Douai in Flanders in 1568. Then, in 1576, The Cardinal converted the English Hospice in Rome into a seminary and its first students arrived in 1577. Since this was a time of persecution in their homeland, it was expedient that the students assumed an alias. David Lewis entered the English College in 1638, when he was 21 years old, and assumed the alias of Charles Baker. He was ordained there in July 1642.

Many of the students at the English College had volunteered for the ‘English Mission’. After ordination they would return home to minister to their beleaguered Catholic countrymen who, despite Government hopes and penalties, clung resolutely to the Old Faith! The priests undertook this mission in the full knowledge that the rest of their days would be spent in peril, finding shelter where they could and tending to their flocks amid the ever present dangers of betrayal, arrest and execution.

The College produced a long line of priests who, for their faith, suffered imprisonment or exile. More than forty former students were martyred. The first, or protomartyr, was St Ralph Sherwin who was hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn on 1st December 1581. The last alumnus to suffer martyrdom was St David Lewis who was executed at Usk on 27th August 1679. Because of its many martyrs, the College has been known as The Venerable English College since 1818.
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