November 1982 Print

Elizabethan Catholics and the Mass, Part 2


II. Seminary Priests, Jesuits And Layfolk

Philip Caraman, S.J.

Continued from previous issue

Cardinal William Allen saved the Faith in Elizabethan England. In the teeth of the persecution mounted by Queen Elizabeth to destroy it, seminary priests, Jesuits and lay folk combined gallantly together, suffered and died gallantly together to hold what Allen had saved. Their example is an inspiration to those of us who fight now, as fight we must, to save the Faith of our Fathers, so grievously attacked from within.

Acknowledgments to Christian Order.

It appeared now merely a matter of time before England, like other northern countries, became wholly Protestant. Those who had been small children at the end of Mary's reign were now reaching manhood. They could remember only the new services: and those younger still were brought up on the new catechism which maintained that there was no need for the sacrifice of the Mass since Christ's death on the Cross had done away with all need for further sacrifice. To the question, "Dost thou imagine the bread and wine to be turned into the flesh and blood of Christ?" the children were taught to answer that there was no such change.

The old priests, who held by the ancient teaching of the Church, had now all been deprived; many had died, those that survived lived in private houses or in prison; a few only went about the country saying Mass or hearing confessions in secret. Several were caught and imprisoned. In few parts except Lancashire did the Old Faith prove unassailable. Elsewhere there was now every hope that England would be wholly Protestant before the Queen was much older.

Thus by the middle seventies of the century Elizabeth was in sight of success. She had no liking for violence; in her childhood and youth she had been surrounded by bloodshed and abhorred it. It was her plan to induce the change in religion peacefully. After the removal and death of the old priests she calculated that the new ministers would receive recognition and the new religion would become firmly rooted in the land.


William Allen Saves the Faith

But there was one man she had left out of her reckoning, namely William Allen, a few years older than herself, from Rossall in Lancashire. He had won distinction in England, and had been principal of St. Mary's College, Oxford, then a canon of York Minster under Mary. Two years after Elizabeth came to the throne he left England with many of the leading men at Oxford, and was ordained priest abroad.

It was Allen's vision that saved the Old Faith in England. Before it was too late, he founded a seminary for the training of English priests at Douai, a small fortress town in the Netherlands, then under the rule of Philip II, King of Spain, formerly the consort of Queen Mary. There the King had established a new university with the purpose of combatting heresy. While the English youths, gathered by Allen, lived in the seminary, built and governed on the model of an Oxford College, they were able to attend the lectures on doctrine at the University, and at the same time lead their own religious life.

Year by year more Englishmen came secretly across from Oxford to train for the priesthood at Douai. They were among the best men in England—brave, learned and self-sacrificing. The first of them were ordained priests in 1574; others followed. The year of the first ordinations only four priests were sent back secretly to England; in the following year six; then in the year following that eighteen.

At first the Queen's Councillors despised the puny beginnings of Douai. They thought, and said also, that those who might become priests abroad and re-enter England, would be compelled by want or tempted by gain to accept a benefice and minister in the Protestant churches according to the law and teaching of the State. If there chanced to be any obstinate men among them, they would be able to do nothing for, as they said, what could a few poor and homeless men do against the new Church, which was under the protection of so mighty a Queen and so effectually protected on every side. But the new priests were not cast in the old mould. Soon the Queen began to fear for the success of her policy, as across the Straits of Dover forces gathered for a fierce and relentless struggle to win back the souls of English Catholics to the Old Faith.


Cuthbert Mayne and the Seminary Priests

The first of the Douai priests to be captured and executed was Cuthbert Mayne. Returning to England in 1576, he had worked for twelve months in Cornwall before the sheriff of the county, Sir Richard Grenville, arrested him at the manor house of Golden near Truro, which belonged to a saintly Cornishman, Francis Tregian, who for his crime in sheltering Mayne was imprisoned for the rest of the reign: but his spirit was unbroken. In a poem referring to Mayne's captors, he wrote:

I humbly Thee beseech, O Lord,
Even by Thy blessed blood,
Forgive their guilt, forgive their ill,
And send them all much good:
Turn not, O Lord, Thy face from me,
Although a wretched wight,
And let me joy in Thee all day,
Rejoice in Thee at night.

Mayne's was a test case. There existed then no legal ground for his condemnation. But the Queen's Councillors ordered that he should be executed "for a terror to the Papists." He was offered his release if he would go to the Protestant Church. He refused. While he waited execution at Launceston Castle, his cell was flooded with a dazzling light. Two days later he was taken out to the market place and hanged.

Mayne was typical of the new priests. By their preaching and books, by their administration of the sacraments in secret, but, above all, by their example of a holy life, they won many back to the Old Faith. That it was not too late, was due to William Allen. For the majority of Englishmen believed still in their hearts that the Catholic religion was right, but in practice and from fear went to the new Church.

When the Queen's Councillors saw this, and saw that the country, the towns, the inns of court, the universities, and houses of the nobility and even the court itself had in them men and women won back to the religion into which they had been baptized, they began deeply to regret their mistake. By cruel laws, by spreading terror in all parts of the country, by every human means and contrivance, they set themselves to thwart the work of Allen.

Meanwhile the trickle of new priests had become a steady flow. Other seminaries were started. Only a few years after the foundation of Douai a group of men there left to become the first students of a new College in Rome. The Pope, Gregory XIII, the successor of Pius V who had excommunicated Elizabeth, had handed over to Allen an hospice for English pilgrims founded in the holy city by King Alfred: but in handing it over, he laid down as a condition of his gift, that if England again should become a Catholic country, then the building should once more be used as an hospice.


Edmund Campion and the Jesuits

When Allen visited Rome to establish this College he persuaded the Father General of the Jesuits to send back to their own country as missionaries some Englishmen who had joined the Society of Jesus abroad. At this time the reputation of the new Order, from Sicily to Scandinavia, was exaggerated fantastically beyond the merits of the men who composed it.

When finally, after much negotiation, Edmund Campion, disguised as a traveller in diamonds, slipped unnoticed past the Customs officials at Dover in May 1580, and joined his companion, Father Persons, in London, the whole country began talking about "a Jesuit invasion."

Though other priests from the new seminaries possessed equal courage, character and resourcefulness, none could match Campion in his power to express the spirit that fired them all. Hastily, while his horse was being saddled for a journey into the shires he wrote, against the day of his capture, a challenge to the Privy Council, explaining the reasons why he had returned to England. It was so stirring a document that the friends to whom he had given it for safekeeping had it copied immediately and passed round the London prisons.

"My charge is," wrote Campion, "of free cost to preach the gospel, to minister the sacraments, to instruct the simple, to reform sinners, to confute errors—in brief, to cry alarm spiritual against foul vice and proud ignorance, wherewith many, my dear countrymen, are abused."

He demanded a public debate on religion, first with the Lords of the Council, then with the Doctors and Masters of both universities, and, finally, with the men of the law. Aware that his challenge might be interpreted as an "insolent brag," he protested that he was only suing for combat with any or all of them, preferably in the presence of the Queen. His desire was to show his countrymen on what solid ground the Catholic Faith was built. He concluded with an appeal to the Queen herself in words that stirred the whole of England. "Many innocent hands," he wrote, "are lifted up to heaven for you daily by those English students whose posterity shall never die, which beyond the seas, gathering virtue and sufficient knowledge for the purpose, are determined never to give you over, but either to win you to heaven or to die upon your pikes." He declared that all the priests preparing now to enter England were ready to suffer death rather than renounce the struggle. "The expense is reckoned," he said, "the enterprise is begun; it is of God, it cannot be withstood. So the Faith was planted, so it must be restored."


Battle Joined

One night about the time that Campion landed, a young boy from near Lichfield, called Edmund Gennings, who liked to go out on clear nights to watch the stars, saw a great battle joined in the sky. Two armies were ranged against each other: many were slaughtered and some who carried no weapons murdered: and there was an immense stream of blood running everywhere about them.

The child ran back to his mother who was supping with some neighbors. They all bore witness to the sight: and it was seen at the same time in other parts of England. In the same month there occurred in London a great earthquake which put men in fear and amazement. The gentlemen students of the Temple who were at supper ran out with their knives in their hands and a piece of the Temple Church fell down. Also the great clock-bell of Westminster struck of itself without shaking against the hammer.

Indeed the coming of Campion was the crisis of the reign. The battle was fully joined: and no quarter was given by the Council.

Now the Queen could seek only to brand the new priests traitors. And in an age when politics were closely interwoven with religion her task was not difficult.


Campion Captured

After fifteen months of missionary travels Campion was captured. Immediately the Queen issued a proclamation in which she spoke of the new priests as worthless ruffians who crept into the kingdom by stealth and in disguise and under false names, in order to encompass her death. By making them odious in the eyes of the people, she thought to make their ministry ineffective.

"They do come into the kingdom," she stated, "by secret creeks and landing places, disguised both in names and persons, some apparelled like soldiers, mariners, or merchants, some as gentlemen . . . and many as gallants," in appearance always unlike what they really are—friars, priests, Jesuits and scholars.

In a desperate effort to maintain that they were traitors, the Council cruelly tortured the priests that fell into its hands. It was hoped that they might confess some degree of complicity in plots about which they knew nothing.

Among the tortures used in the Tower was the rack which, by means of wooden rollers and other machinery, pulled the limbs of the suffered in opposite directions. There was also the Scavenger's Daughter, an iron hoop which brought the head, feet and hands together until they formed a circle, and also the iron gauntlet which enclosed the hand with the most excruciating pain.

When Campion was taken off the rack for the third time and brought back to his cell, he was so numbed that he jokingly compared himself to an elephant which could not rise from the ground; then when he was given bread to eat he took it, not in his fingers but in the palms of his hands, and compared himself to an ape. His companion, Alexander Briant, was so brutally used that Norton, the rack-master, as he was called, boasted that he had made him a foot longer than God had done. Yet, on his last racking, Briant was so wrapped in ecstasy that he felt no pain at all. Indeed he was comforted in a miraculous way as he meditated on the Passion of Our Lord. "Whilst I was thus occupied," he wrote afterwards, "me-thought that my left hand was wounded in the palm, and that I felt blood run out. But indeed there was no such thing." Some thought that he, like St. Francis, had received a hidden stigmata.

When in November 1581, Campion and Briant with Sherwin and others stood their trial in Westminster Hall, the charge against them was not that they had attempted to win the Queen's subjects back from the new religion to the old, but that they had been involved in a plot to invade Ireland in the Pope's interest. This was the legal pretext on which they were condemned. The jury, on no evidence at all, found them guilty. After they had been asked whether they had anything to say, Campion, in the name of them all, protested: "The only thing we have to say is, that if our religion do make us traitors, we are worthy to be condemned; but otherwise we are, and have been, as good subjects as ever the Queen had."

"In condemning us, you condemn all your own ancestors—all the ancients, priests, bishops and kings—all that once was the glory of England, the island of saints and the most devoted child of the Holy See. For what have we taught however you may qualify it with the odious name of treason, that they did not uniformly teach? To be condemned with these lights—not of England only, but of the world—by their degenerate descendants, is both gladness and glory to us. God lives; posterity will live; their judgment is not so liable to corruption as that of those who are now going to sentence us to death."

On 1st December 1581 Campion was executed at the gallows at Tyburn outside London on the west side, along with Alexander Briant and Ralph Sherwin, the first martyr from the Roman College.


No Treason

It is a fact that there were certain bogus plots [false flag operations!—Ed.] fostered by the Queen's agents as perhaps there were a number of authentic attempts against her life; but it is equally true that the priests were not connected with them. Their behaviour on the scaffold, their transparent innocence, their brave and humble speech gave the lie in London and throughout the country to the political charges on which they had been executed.

Ralph Sherwin expressed his clear conscience in a letter written on the eve of his execution to his uncle. "Innocency," he told him, "is my only comfort against all the forged villainy which is fathered on my fellow priests and me. Well, when my high judge, God himself, this false vizard of treason shall be removed from true Catholic men's faces, then shall it appear who they be that carry a well meaning, and who an evil murdering mind. In the mean season God forgive all injustice."

The sentence these priests underwent was the cruellest on the statute book, a penalty reserved for traitors. While common criminals, like murderers, cattle-thieves, coin-clippers and highwaymen, were hanged and left to die by the rope, the priests, as traitors, were hanged, drawn and quartered. They were permitted to hang only until they were half-suffocated, when a fellow squatting on the crossbeam of the gallows cut the rope, and dropped the body to the ground. The shock of the fall frequently brought the priest back to consciousness. In that state he was dragged to the executioner's block where he was held down while his heart was drawn out. Then the executioner, taking the priest's heart into his hand, held it up before the crowd, with the words, "Behold, the heart of a traitor," The people were expected to reply, "Aye, aye," but in the execution of priests this response was seldom heard.

Afterwards the body was cut into four quarters; each quarter was placed on a pike and displayed in some city thoroughfare for a warning against treachery.


Wales Remains Catholic

Meanwhile Wales remained for the most part Catholic. The new religion of Englishmen was suspect to a nation that had been subject for only a few hundred years to a foreign crown. In the hills and villages priests were busy. Mass was said with little secrecy. The shrine of St. Winifred at Holywell in Flintshire still drew crowds as it had done in Catholic days. When Welshmen were forced to send their children to the new church for christening, they had them baptized a second time at home by a priest. Under cover of night they carried out their own burials according to the Catholic rites. Both gentry and peasants stayed devout, showing much reverence for the old practices—they still burnt candles in the churches, told their beads, kept vigils on the eve of Our Lady's feasts. Even after the ancient shrines were pulled down, they continued to pray in the places where they had once stood.


Richard Gwyn

The preachers, though active, were ineffective. The first to suffer for the faith in Wales was Richard Gwyn, a schoolmaster in the county of Denbighshire. A married man with six children, a poet and a spokesman of his people, he appeared altogether eight times before the Assize Judges. On one occasion he was carried heavily shackled to the Protestant church at Wrexham but rattled his chains so loudly below the pulpit that the minister could not make himself heard; on another when a red-nosed parson asserted that the keys of heaven had no more been given to St. Peter than any Welsh minister, he answered, "The keys you yourself have received are manifestly the keys of the beer cellar."

After Richard's condemnation at the Wrexham Assizes, his wife with her infant baby was brought into court and cautioned not to emulate her husband. "If you lack blood," she answered the judge, "then you may take mine as well as my husband's!" On 17 October 1584, as he left prison for execution in the market place, he told the sorrowing crowd, "Weep not for me. I do but pay the rent before the rent-day." For his bearing and bravery Richard Gwyn has been described as the Thomas More of Wales.


A New Bill

Since it was now impossible to pretend that such men were executed for treason—for in no instance had it been proved against them—a new Bill was passed in the year following Gwyn's execution. It was the first piece of parliamentary legislation against the men from Allen's Colleges and became law on 29 March 1585. Entitled "An Act against Jesuits, Seminary Priests and Other Such Like Disobedient Persons," it made it high treason for a priest born in England and ordained overseas to return to the Queen's dominions and a felony for anyone to receive or assist him in any way whatsoever. Under this act more than two hundred men and women, priests and laypeople, suffered martyrdom. The last of them was the Welsh Jesuit, David Lewis, who was executed at Usk on 27 August 1679.

It was hoped by means of this law to drive out the priests from their places of hiding and round them up in the inns and on the highways, and then ship them back to the continent and thus once and for all rid England of the Mass.

Less than a month after the passing of this law, some of the leading Catholic laymen met secretly at Hoxton, outside London, and there decided that all priests should shift for themselves, for no man, only God, could command any person to take a priest into his house at the price of his own life.

One poor priest, John Brushford, who came over about this time, found everyone so full of fear that none would receive him into his house. So with another priest he hired a chamber in a poor cottage in a wood, near Tottenham High Cross, and there remained for six or seven weeks, sending a poor man into the city to buy food for them.

During the following summer, therefore, priests visited houses only when asked for by the people.


Days Full of Suffering

The days that succeeded the Parliament were full of suffering for Catholics. Many were captured. The crisis was described by a priest who lived through it. "Catholics," he wrote, "now saw their own country—the country of their birth—turned into a ruthless and unloving land. All men fastened their hatred on them. They lay in ambush for them and betrayed them, attacked them with violence and without warning. They plundered them at night, confiscated their possessions, drove away their flocks, stole their cattle....In the common thoroughfares and at crossways watchers were posted, so that no traveller could pass peacefully on his way or escape the most stringent scrutiny. On the same night and at the same hour, now a single town, now several throughout the kingdom, experienced the sudden incursion of secret spies. Inns, taverns, lodging houses, bed-chambers were searched with utmost vigor, and any suspected person, unable to give a satisfactory account of himself, was put in prison or under guard until the next morning."

To instill worse fear into priests and their protectors, the government spread rumors that a general massacre of Catholics was planned in London. Whenever, during this summer, the reports gained credence, Catholics would leave their homes and lodgings, or pass the night in the fields outside the city: or they would hire boats and paddle all night up and down the river. As one priest remarked, it appeared that the prophesy of Our Lord was then fulfilled: "They will put you out of the synagogues and whoever killeth you, will think that he doth a service to God."

At this time, the example of a Catholic lady of York inspired men and women far and beyond her own city to even more heroic loyalty to the Mass.


Margaret Clitherow

Margareth Clitherow was the daughter of a wax chandler and the husband of a prosperous butcher. Two or three years after her marriage she had returned to the Old Faith. Her home in the Shambles—it can be seen today—became a refuge for homeless and impoverished priests. She cared for them, hid them, answered their Mass, clothed and fed them. Several times she was imprisoned. Finally she was brought to trial on the charge of harboring priests. To the amazement of the court she refused to plead, because, had she done so, her own children would have been forced to witness against her. She was condemned, therefore, to the penalty of peine forte. The sentence was read: "You must be stripped naked, laid down, your back upon the ground, and as much weight laid upon you as you are able to bear, and so to continue for three days: and on the third day to be pressed to death."

The Protestants of York had described Margaret as a fanatic, but her speech to the judge after he had passed sentence proved them wrong. Simply and without emotion she spoke like any loving wife and mother. "You charge me wrongfully," she said. "I die not desperately nor do I willingly procure my own death: for not being guilty of such crimes as were laid against me, and yet condemned to die, I could but rejoice, for my cause is also God's quarrel. Neither did I fear the terror of the sentence of death, but I was ashamed to hear its shameful words spoken in this audience, such as to strip me naked and press me to death among men, which I thought for womanhood they might not have uttered. As for my husband, know you that I love him next unto God in this world and I have care over my children as a mother ought to have: I trust I have done my duty to them to bring them up in the fear of God, and so I trust now I am discharged of them. And for this cause I am willing to offer them freely to God that sent them me rather than yield one jot of my faith. I confess death is fearful and flesh is frail. Yet I mind by God's assistance to spend my blood in this Faith as willingly as ever I put my paps to my children's mouths."

In prison Margaret sewed a loose shift, for she was determined not to die naked. On Lady Day, 25 March 1586, she was taken from prison. The sentence was not extended over three days: she was permitted to wear her shift. She was a quarter of an hour dying, but her body was left for about six hours in the press near the toll booth on the bridge over the River Ouse.


Gallant Lay Catholics

Margaret was typical of the lay Catholics of Yorkshire who were prepared to make any sacrifices for the Mass. Many of them were simple people, bricklayers, tailors, bakers and weavers. When they were brought before the courts for not attending the Protestant services all knew and could express the reasons for their refusal. Some said they would not go to church because there was neither priest, altar nor sacrifice there; others simply protestated that things were not as they ought to be or had been hitherto.

The most eloquent declaration came from Lady Cecily Sonor, who had been Campion's hostess at her home near Henley-on-Thames. She was an elderly woman and declared to the judges: "I was born in such a time when Holy Mass was in great reverence. In King Edward (VI)'s time this reverence was neglected and reproved by such as governed. In Queen Mary's time it was restored with much applause, and now in this time it pleaseth the state to question them, as now they do me, who continue in this Catholic profession....I hold still to that wherein I was born and bred, and find nothing taught in it but great virtue and sanctity, and so by the grace of God I will live and die in it."


Elizabethan Catholics And The Mass

III. It Was the Mass that Mattered

will be continued in these pages next month. Father Caraman will show that Catholics under Elizabeth suffered and died—and won! The Old Mass was never driven out of England by the persecution she raised against it.

Part III