Saturday, 18 February 2012


St John Houghton, the protomartyr of the English Reformation, was born in Essex in 1487. It is believed that he graduated from Cambridge University with degrees in civil and Canon Law. His minor gentry parents had arranged a very good marriage for him but John felt drawn to the priesthood. Because of their opposition to his choice, John had to go into hiding to pursue his vocation. He was prepared for ordination by a pious priest with whom he took lodging.

After ordination John served as a parish priest for several years then he entered the Carthusian novitiate in London. About 1516 he was professed at the Charterhouse in London. For a short time John was prior of Beauvale Charterhouse in Northampton and then prior of the London Charterhouse.

Storm clouds gathered when, in 1534, King and Parliament decreed that all had to take an oath upholding the King’s marriage to Anne Boleyn and swearing that his marriage to Catherine of Aragon had been invalid. This was known as the Act of Succession because it obliged the oath-taker to acknowledge that Anne’s children would be the rightful and sole heirs to the throne. John Houghton refused to take the oath and he was arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London. When the words “so far as it is lawful” were added to the decree, John felt able to take the oath, though still with some misgivings.

The situation worsened in 1535 when King Henry and Parliament introduced the Oath of Supremacy, which declared Henry to be the Supreme Head of the Church in England. Not to take the oath was deemed High Treason! For various reasons, (mostly terror of the tyrant King) some other orders and clergy acquiesced to this demand. Augustine Webster and Robert Lawrence, the Carthusian Priors of Axholme and Beauvale Charterhouses, travelled to London to discuss this state of affairs with John. Following three days of prayer, they contacted one of the King’s toadies, Thomas Cromwell, seeking exclusion, for themselves and the monks under them, from having to take the oath. The three were ordered to take the oath but they refused outright. On 20th April 1535 they were arrested and conveyed to the Tower, via Traitors’ Gate.

Under interrogation by Thomas Cromwell, John Houghton and his companions said that they were ready to consent to all that the law of God would permit. Cromwell, wanting total submission, declared; “I admit no exception. Whether the law of God permits it or no, you shall take the oath without any reserve whatsoever, and you shall observe it too.”

When the Carthusians pointed out that the Act was contrary to what the Catholic Church taught, Cromwell replied; “I care nothing for what the Church has held or taught. 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 fate of the faithful monks was sealed!

The priests came to trial and twice the jury refused to condemn them, despite threats that if they failed to find in favour of the king they would suffer the same fate as the priests. It was only when Cromwell himself came in person and intimidated them that, for fear of their own lives, the cowed jury returned a guilty verdict against John Houghton and his companions. They were sentenced to be hanged, drawn, and quartered, the usual sentence for those convicted of High Treason.

On Tuesday, 4th May 1535, the condemned priests were dragged to Tyburn. John Houghton was the first of the *five to suffer, making him the protomartyr of the Reformation in England. The executioner begged his pardon and John embraced him. As he stood on the cart below the gallows, John was asked again to submit to the king before it was too late. The holy monk replied; “I call on Almighty God to witness, and I beseech all here present to attest for me on the dreadful danger of judgement, that, being about to die in public, I declare that I have refused to comply with the will of His Majesty the King, not from obstinacy, malice, or a rebellious spirit, but solely for fear of offending the Supreme Majesty of God. Our Holy Mother the Church has decreed and enjoined otherwise than the king and Parliament have decreed. I am therefore bound in conscience, and am ready and willing to suffer every kind of torture, rather than deny a doctrine of the Church. Pray for me, and have mercy on my brethren, of whom I have been the unworthy Prior.”

The barbaric sentence was carried out in full. The rope was placed around the martyr’s neck, the cart pulled away and he was left to hang but briefly. Then still alive and fully conscious, he was cut down and disembowelled. He was heard to exclaim; “Oh most holy Jesus, have mercy upon me in this hour!” Still alive as the executioner tried to rip his heart out, it was reported that the victim was heard to murmur; “Good Jesu, what will ye do with my heart?” John Houghton was then decapitated and his poor body quartered. His head was displayed on a pike on London Bridge and his quarters were hung in prominent places as a deterrent to any who would be so foolish as to question the wicked king and his contemptible Parliament. One quarter, including an arm, was suspended above the gate of the London Charterhouse. It was a most grisly and potent warning of things to come for, although John Houghton was the first, many more would follow.

On 9th December 1886, John Houghton was beatified by Pope Leo XIII. Eighty-four years later, on 25th October 1970, John Houghton was canonised by Pope Paul VI as one of the FORTY MARTYRS OF ENGLAND AND WALES.

*John Houghton and the two other Carthusian Priors, Augustine Webster and Robert Lawrence, were executed with Bridgettine monk, Richard Reynolds and secular priest, John Hale, who also refused to take the Oath of Supremacy.

Monday, 13 February 2012


Hannah over at that excellent blog, THE CWM JESUIT LIBRARY AT HEREFORD CATHEDRAL, has another post which all readers of LAST WELSH MARTYR will find extremely interesting.

Just click here for some very exciting news.

Saturday, 11 February 2012


Who are the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales? They are a group of Catholic martyrs executed by the authorities during the Reformation. More than 600 Catholics, priests, laymen and women, are known to have died during the persecutions of the 16th and 17th centuries. Some offences were so trivial as to be almost unbelievable to us today. For instance, there were those who were executed for obtaining a papal license to marry. Then there was one Thomas Bosgrave. Bosgrave met on the road a priest named John Cornelius who was being taken away by the priest hunters. The priest had been hastily dragged off and was bareheaded. Thomas Bosgrave offered his cap to the priest and for this he was immediately arrested. Several months later Thomas Bosgrave was executed - for offering his cap to a priest!

The Forty Martyrs of England and Wales were selected from the hundreds who gave their lives for the Catholic Faith. As early as 1642 the first steps were taken to initiate the canonical process but owing to the ongoing persecutions the process had to be suspended. After the restoration of the Catholic Hierarchy in England and Wales in 1850 the Cause was resumed. Eventually, on 15th December 1929, Pope Pius XI beatified 136 of the martyrs. At last, after long and careful investigation and deliberation, three Carthusians, one Brigittine, thirteen secular priests, ten Jesuits, three Benedictines, two Franciscans, one Augustinian, four laymen and three laywomen were canonised by Pope Paul VI on 25th October 1970. Collectively, they are known as the "Forty Martyrs of England and Wales".

Before concluding this post, I think it right to remind ourselves that this unfortunate period of English history was a time of great upheaval in the country. It was a time of turmoil, suspicion, mistrust and of fear. In the 16th and 17th centuries, Protestants, Catholics and Non-Conformists all suffered for their religious beliefs, depending on who was in power at the time. Under Catholic Queen Mary hundreds of Protestants were burnt at the stake. Her father, Henry VIII, executed all who had the temerity to oppose him, notwithstanding their religious beliefs! Thank God we live in saner times, at least in this country. Surely it behoves us to pray for those who live in countries where to be a Christian still marks one out for persecution and death.
Related Posts with Thumbnails