July 1978 Print

Saint Cuthbert Mayne

English Martyrs

Malcolm Brennan

While the lives of mighty churchmen and the deeds of heroic saints attract our attention naturally, it is still well worth while to try to understand the condition of ordinary Catholics, especially during a time of crisis. Saint Cuthbert Mayne, although his death was spectacular, was in fact a rather simple and ordinary man who lived up to his vocation as a priest.

Before following his story, let us have a look at what life was like in England four hundred years ago. Here is a contemporary account:

Catholics saw their country, the country of their birth, turned into a ruthless and unloving land. All men fashioned their hatred on them. They lay in ambush for them, betrayed them, attacked them with violence and without warning. They plundered them at night, confiscated their possessions, drove away their flocks, stole their cattle. On the same night and at the same hour, now a single town, now several towns throughout the kingdom, experienced the sudden incursion of secret spies: inns, taverns, lodging-houses, bed-chambers were searched with extreme rigour, and any suspected person, unable to give a satisfactory account of himself was put in prison or under guard until morning; or until he could clear himself before the magistrates of the suspicion that he was a Catholic, and, in particular, a Catholic priest.

In London sometimes—I witnessed this myself and listened to Catholics groaning and grieving over it—a report would go round and be confirmed as certain fact, that the Queen's Council had passed a decree for the massacre of all Catholics in their houses on this or that night. Then many people would abandon their lodgings and pass the night in the fields; others would hire boats and drift up and down the river.

These events were not cases of the lawlessness of petty officials or outbreaks of popular religious intolerance. These were, rather, the enforcement of laws designed to wipe out the Catholic faith in England. The persecution of Catholics was an essential and prominent part of Queen Elizabeth's official policy to establish the Church of England. Englishmen did not simply change their religion in the sixteenth century. It was changed for them, by intimidation at first, then by brute force.

During the short reign of the Catholic Queen Mary (1553-1558), most Englishmen thought they had seen the end of the madness of Henry VIII and the fanaticism of Edward VI's protectors. But Mary's return of sanity in religion was not done well, and the disease of heresy had spread further than most people seemed ready to acknowledge.

Elizabeth reversed Mary's policies and far exceeded the novelties of her father and her half-brother. She plundered Church properties as her father had done, she asserted her supreme authority in the Church, she replaced the Mass with a communion service (Cranmer's, though he was dead now), and she provided heavy fines both for those who resisted the innovations and for those who urged resistance.

For example, to encourage a priest to say the old Mass earned a fine of 100 marks (about $500.00) for the first offense, quadruple that for the second, and loss of all goods and chattels and life imprisonment for the third. The penalty for the priest who said a Mass—or for just being a priest within the realm—was death. Even failure to attend the new services was punished, at first rather haphazardly, but ferociously later on.

The English people in general, even thirty years after the events for which More and Fisher gave their lives, could still be called Catholics, but their reaction to the new religion which Elizabeth was fashioning was deficient. Because the prescribed homilies, the new doctrinal formulations, and the new rites of worship were deliberately ambiguous and equivocal in key points, and because the sanctions were not imposed spectacularly at first, men found it easy to temporize, to compromise, to suspend judgment, to postpone decisions, and to imagine that they could cherish the traditional faith interiorly while they conformed exteriorly to the new requirements.

Nearly all the bishops, to their everlasting honor, refused to take Elizabeth's Oath of Supremacy, having learned a lesson from their predecessors a quarter century earlier under Henry VIII, but those who refused were replaced by new men zealous to stamp out the old practices. For instance, the new Archbishop of York, Edmund Grimbal, ordered that:

No person or persons whatsoever shall wear beads, or pray, either in Latin or in English, upon beads, or knots, or any like superstitious thing; nor shall pray upon any popish Latin or English Primer, or other like book, nor shall burn any candles in the Church superstitiously upon the feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary, commonly called Candlemas Day; nor shall resort to any popish priest for shrift or auricular confession in Lent, or at any other time; nor shall worship any cross or image upon the same, nor give any reverence thereto, nor superstitiously shall make on themselves the sign of the cross when they first enter into any church, nor shall say the De Profundis for the dead, nor rest at any cross in carrying any corpse to burying, nor shall leave any little crosses of wood there.

Meanwhile the faithful shepherds, deposed from their sees, languished in exile, or they suffered in prison where many died of disease or starvation.

Thus those who wished to resist the reformation in England were rendered leaderless. Is it a sin to attend the new communion service? Since the bread is only bread, what can be the harm? On these and similar issues good men were divided, but most of all no one spoke with authority. Thus the years rolled by, and thus most men and women came by stages to accept what they had at first only tolerated, their beliefs gradually clouded, their wills progressively weakened. Their outward conformity begot by degrees an inward assent, or a cynical indifference to religious matters.

This part of Queen Elizabeth's persecution, while not the bloodiest, is yet in a way the most vile, because it succeeded in destroying the faith and moral character of millions.

Into this arid wasteland came, like a bolt of lightening, the 'seminary priests' and the Jesuits—splendid men burning with charity, spiritually formed, liberally educated, learned in Scripture, prudent in spiritual counselling, skilled in preaching and disputation, and determined to root out from their native land the choking weed of heresy.

Cuthbert Mayne was the proto-martyr of the seminary priests. Seminaries were a new idea born of the Catholic Counter-Reformation, promoted by Pope Saint Pius V and decreed by the Council of Trent. The first one was founded at Douai, France, by William Allen (later Cardinal) of Lancashire, and it was staffed by scholars from Oxford and Cambridge, for many of the best university men had chosen to flee their homeland rather than acquiesce in the new religion.

Born in 1544, Cuthbert was raised according to the reformed religion. His uncle was a comfortably beneficed cleric, and he intended his nephew to succeed him. Accordingly Cuthbert was sent to Oxford to prepare for Anglican ordination, which he received, and he began his pastoral duties in that city. However, at Oxford he came under the influence of men who were still staunchly Catholic, particularly Edmund Campion, who later became the epitome of the new Catholic missionaries, and Gregory Martin, who was later the main author of the Douai-Rheims translation of the Bible.

Mayne soon came to understand that he was in the wrong religion, and he was not left long in doubt what he should do about it. A letter to him on matters of the faith was intercepted by the authorities, who ordered his arrest. Cuthbert was out of town at the time, and when his friends got word to him that he was a wanted man, he fled the country. He became one of the earliest students at Dr. Allen's seminary at Douai, and when he finished the rigorous and exhilerating course of priestly formation, he was sent immediately into the vineyard in 1576.

Father Mayne began his ministry as the 'steward' at the country house of Francis Tregian in Cornwall. Here he said Mass, administered the sacraments, and reconciled to the Church many who had fallen into error. Word of his presence went round, but within a year the high sheriff of Cornwall conducted a raid on Mr. Tregian's house. His search was a success, for Catholics had not yet perfected their systems of lookouts and places of hiding for priests and their equipment. The incriminating evidence consisted of such things as an Agnus Dei (i.e., a small plaster disk embossed with the figure of the Lamb of God) and a copy of Gregory XIII's bull concerning indulgences for the Jubilee Year of 1575 (now expired). Mr. Tregian and several other laymen were charged with giving aid and comfort to a priest.

After a most irregular trial Saint Cuthbert Mayne was sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered. "Which sentence pronounced," a contemporary account records, "Cuthbert Mayne, with a most mild and gladsome countenance, lifting up his eyes and hands unto Heaven, only said, 'God be thanked.' "

The laymen were sentenced to forfeiture of goods and life imprisonment.

On the day before his execution, "all the justices of that county, with many preachers of the pretended reformed religion, begathered together at Launceston aforesaid; Cuthbert Mayne was brought before them, his legs being not only laden with mighty irons, but his hands also fast fettered together (in which miserable case he also remained many days before): when he maintained disputation with them concerning the controversy in religion at this day in question, from eight of the clock in the morning until it was almost dark. But their labor was all lost, for they could not with their bitter railing and reproachful speeches, which they poured forth in great plenty, so much as once move him to the least impatience in the world."

Next day he was drawn roughly on a hurdle to the market place where the knives, the fire, and a very high gibbet were prepared. He was required to climb the ladder backwards and was allowed a short speech. He began with a plea for the innocence of his host, Francis Tregian, and the other laymen, but one of the justices quickly interrupted with an order to put the rope on his neck. "And then let him preach afterward." (The magistrate spoke better than he knew, for the execution became a powerful sermon in blood.)

Then he was turned off the ladder abruptly and cut down while his body still swung in wide arc.

He fell in such sort that his head first encountered the scaffold which was there prepared of purpose to divide the quarters, so that the one side of his face was sorely bruised and one of his eyes driven far out of his head.

After he was cut down, the hangman first spoiled him of his clothes . . . and then in a butcherly manner opening his belly, he rent up his bowels and after tore out his heart, the which as a plausible spectacle he held up aloft in his hand. Lastly his head was cut off and his body divided into four quarters, which afterwards were dispersed and set up on the castle at Launceston, one quarter sent unto a town called Bodmin, the most populous town in Cornwall, another to a town called Barnstaple in Devonshire whereabout [Mayne] was born, the third into a town called Tregony, not above a mile distant from Mr. Tregian's house, the fourth into Wadebridge, the most common travelled way in that county.

The holy death of this first of the new breed of priests was broadcast by the heretics themselves. And the government's harsh policy was further confirmed when the high sheriff was granted knighthood for his conduct of the affair (that is, for following the instructions from London on how to conduct it).

The Catholic faith had been well on the way to utter obliteration in England (as happened in Norway, Denmark, and Sweden), except for those champions of Christ led by Saint Cuthbert Mayne, because (in the words of Tertullian) "The more you mow us down, the more we grow: the blood of Christians is the seed.

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