May 1979 Print

Saint Alexander Briant

Martyrs of the English Reformation

by Dr. Malcom Brennan

What are the methods of those who attack Holy Church? And what are the methods they use? And how does a good Catholic, who has a lively sense of his own sinful weaknesses, comport himself in such combats? The answers to these  questions are as deep as the mystery of iniquity and the mystery of grace, and they are as varied as the long history of persecution. But the last days of Saint Alexander Briant provide a particularly intimate view of the motives, torments, and consolations that are part of martyrdom.

Born in 1556 to a yeoman family in Somerset, Alexander had become an Oxford scholar by his eighteenth year, 1574. Like so many of Oxford's best sons, and under the influence of Robert Persons and others, he began to find the innovations in religion intolerable, and three years later he was enrolled in the English seminary at Douay. He was ordained to the priesthood in March 1579 and sent on the English mission the following year.

Having landed in England in August 1580, he remained at liberty only until the following April, laboring at first in his native Somersetshire as "a priest of the greatest zeal," where among other things he reconciled Robert Persons's father to the Church, and then in London where he was captured. The ferocity of his captors is due to several causes.

In the first place, the English government felt stung and threatened by the formal and public excommunication of Queen Elizabeth by Pope Saint Pius V. Rome's shrewdest minds had long considered such a delicate diplomatic ploy, and the capitals of Europe had lengthily disputed its advantages and disadvantages—not the least of which latter was the jeopardy into which it might place the Catholics in England. To the distress of many cautious politicians, the saintly Pope with little consultation simply called the situation as he saw it. The woman was a heretic. Nor did he flinch at the full implications of this judgment by the supreme spiritual authority on earth: he declared Elizabeth deposed and Englishmen no longer subject to her civil authority—to say nothing of her pretended spiritual authority. The prudence of his Bull, Regnans in Excelsis, and what might have been accomplished by alternate means, is still in dispute, but it had this great advantage then and in the centuries since, that it told unequivocally and boldly—like Pius V's other great monument, the Roman Missal—what the mind of the Church was. Men in England could be certain now of whether they were in the Church or out, without having to agonize over the comparative weight to give to a pious exhortation here, a diplomatic initiative there, or a theological opinion yonder. And what is a pope for, after all, but to shed Christ's light on such crucial issues? Elizabeth and her government were furious and, although the Bull had been published ten years before, they expected an immanent invasion from Europe's Catholic princes.

In addition to this, there was a great influx of Jesuits and seminary priests beginning in about 1580. Besides the threat which they posed to the new-fangled religion which Elizabeth had established, the government imagined they were spies come to stir up rebellion in anticipation of the invasion supposedly orchestrated by the Pope. Many of the officials who dealt with the missionaries—whether through policy, like Elizabeth and Burghley, or directly, like the rack-master Norton or the master spy Walsingham—were simply unequipped with the mental capacity to take seriously the spiritual, non-political purposes which the missionaries professed.

Thirdly and more immediately, the authorities were in pursuit of Father Robert Persons when they captured Father Briant, and they were convinced that he could lead them to Persons—as indeed he could. They were infuriated by the eloquence of St. Edmund Campion's Brag and Decem Rationes and by the effrontery of Father Persons in printing them and other writings right in England. In following the scent of Father Persons, who was never caught, they netted Father Briant and others.

Father Briant's treatment, then, was the harsher for these multiple motives. He was cast into the Counter, a plain prison not equipped with modern methods of extracting information. A simple method of torture was, therefore, used—starvation. Thinking he would die of thirst, he tried to catch rainwater in his hat, but he could not reach out to the eaves of the building. After six fruitless days he was transferred to the better equipped Tower and there loaded with exceedingly heavy shackles. A history published the following year (by Father Persons) explained that "because he would not confess where he had seen Father Persons, how he was maintained, where he had said Mass, and whose confessions he had heard, they caused needles to be thrust under his nails, whereat Fr. Briant was not moved at all, but with a constant mind and pleasant countenance, said the Psalm Miserere, desiring God to forgive his tormentors; whereat Dr. Hammond [one of the examiners] stamped and stared, as a man half beside himself, saying, "What thing is this?" "Pricking" was a torture usually reserved for witches if they seemed insensible to other pain. This failing to elicit the desired information, he was thrown into the pit, "a subterraneous cave, twenty feet deep, without light", according to a fellow inmate.

After eight days in the pit he was put directly to the rack, where he again revealed nothing, and so was returned to his cell. "Yet the next day following," the early historian records, "notwithstanding the great distemperature and soreness of his whole body, his senses being dead and his blood congealed (for this is the effect of racking), he was brought to the torture again, and there stretched with greater severity than before; insomuch that supposing within himself that they would pluck him in pieces, ... he put on the armor of patience, resolving to die rather than to hurt any living creature, and having his mind raised in contemplation of Christ's bitter Passion. He swooned away, so that they were fain to sprinkle cold water on his face to revive him again: yet they released no part of his pain.

"And here Norton, because they could get nothing of him, asked him whether the Queen were supreme head of the Church of England or not? To this he answered, 'I am a Catholic and I believe in this as a Catholic should do.' 'Why,' said Norton, 'they say the Pope is.' 'And so say I,' answered Fr. Briant. Here also the Lieutenant [of the Tower, Sir Owen Hopton] used railing and reviling words, and bobbed him under the chin and slapped him on the cheeks after an uncharitable manner, and all the commissioners rose up and went away, giving commandment to leave him so all night." After these failures they transferred him to Wales-bourne prison to recover, "where, not able to move hand or foot or any part of his body, he lay in his clothes fifteen days together, in great pain and anguish."

Writing a few weeks after these events, Father William Allen of Douay Seminary reported that "he laughed at his tormentors, and though nearly killed by the pain, said, 'Is this all you can do? If the rack is no more than this, let me have a hundred more for this cause.'"

Later during his imprisonment, Saint Alexander Briant had an opportunity to write of these matters. In a letter addressed to the Jesuit Fathers of England, he offered to become a member of the Society, if they would have him, and he explained how this idea had grown in him. "That same day that I was first tormented on the rack before I came to this place, giving my mind to prayer, and commending myself and all mine to our Lord, I was replenished and filled up with a kind of supernatural sweetness of spirit; and even while I was calling upon the most holy Name of Jesus, and upon the blessed Virgin Mary (for I was in saying the rosary), my mind was cheerfully disposed, well comforted, and readily prepared and even bent to suffer and endure those torments, which even then I most certainly looked for. At length my former purpose [to become a Jesuit] came into my mind, and therewithal a thought coincidently fell upon me to ratify that now by vow, which before I had determined. When I had ended my prayers ... I put forth my vow and promise freely and boldly.

"Which act (me thinketh) God himself did approve and allow by-and-by. For in all my afflictions and torments, He of His infinite goodness mercifully and tenderly did stand by and assist me, comforting me in my trouble and necessity; delivering my soul from wicked lips, from the deceitful tongue, and from the roaring lions, then ready gaping for their prey.

"Whether this that I say be miraculous or no, God knoweth. But true it is, and thereof my conscience is a witness before God. And this I say, that in the end of the torture, though my hands and feet were violently stretched and racked, and my adversaries fulfilled their wicked lust, in practicing their cruel tyranny upon my body, yet notwithstanding I was without sense and feeling well-nigh of all grief and pain; and not so only, but as it were comforted, eased and refreshed of the grievousness of torture bypast. I continued still with perfect and present senses in quietness of heart and tranquility of mind; which thing when the commissioners did see, they departed, and in going forth of the door, they gave orders to rack me again the next day following, after the same sort. Now when I heard them say so, it [came into] my mind by-and-by, and I did verily believe and trust, that with the help of God, I should be able to bear and suffer it patiently. In the meantime (as well as I could) I did muse and meditate upon the most bitter passion of our Saviour and how full of innumerable pains it was. And whiles I was thus occupied, me thought that my left hand was wounded in the palm, and that I felt the blood run out, but in very deed there was no such thing, nor any other pains than that which seemed to be in my hand."

Saint Alexander offered the account of these events as evidence that his vocation to the Jesuits was a true one, seeing that the consolations came as he vowed to join the Society, but he asked for the judgment of wiser heads. "As I am not ignorant that the snares and wiles of our ancient enemy are infinite, for he is the sly serpent which lieth in the shadows of woods, winding, whirling and turning about many ways; and with his wiles and subtle shifts he attempts marvelously to delude and abuse the souls of the simple which want [i.e., lack] a faithful guide; insomuch that it is not without cause that we are admonished to try the spirits if they be of God. To you, therefore, because you are spiritual, and accustomed to this kind of conflict, I commend all this business."

Although Saint Alexander did not live long enough for his request to be acted upon, it has long been customary in the Church to call him by the name he longed for, Jesuit.

The great manhunt for St. Edmund Campion and Father Persons continued apace while St. Alexander spent his days in a dungeon or on the rack—so that Norton boasted about having made him a foot longer than God had made him—and the hunt continued to capture other priests. In mid-June Campion was taken, and he, Briant, and six other priests were indicted together. They were charged with the treason of conspiring to foment rebellion. Few details of St. Alexander's treatment from early summer until his trial on November 17. For the trial he contrived to make a little wooden crucifix, small enough to be covered by his hand, on which he had drawn in charcoal a figure of Our Lord. He was punished for this impertinency. Also he cut away the hair on the crown of his head and by rough tonsure proclaimed his orders. He was tried with the second group of priests but execution was with the first. He was  tied to  a hurdle with Ralph Sherwin and dragged from the Tower to Tyburn through mud of that nasty December day behind the hurdle of St. Edmund Campion. He  watched the execution of his two companions. When he stood in the cart beneath the gallows  with the rope about his neck, "he spake not  much, being urged more than the other two to speak what he thought of the Bull of Pope Pius V,  he did believe of it as all Catholics did, and the Catholic faith doth. He then went on," a modern biographer reports, "with an expression of great joy in his fair innocent face, to say what exciting happiness it gave him that God had chosen him and made him worthy to suffer death for the Catholic faith, and especially in company with Edmund Campion whom he revered with all his heart. Then, as he was saying Miserere mei, Deus, the cart was drawn from under him, and he was, with his two fellow martyrs, left hanging until he was dead, though from the negligence of the hangman adjusting the rope, he suffered more pain than either of the others."

Saint Alexander Briant, Jesuit, was canonized by Pope Paul in 1970.

Dr. Brennan is Professor of English at The Citadel in Charleston, S. Carolina.