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Excerpts, Part 18: The Carthusian Martyrs

The manner in which the clergy of every rank almost vied with each other to take the oath and to comply with Henry's every whim is perhaps the most distasteful episode in the history of English Catholicism.
[Emphasis added.] The bishops had been the leaders in the race to capitulate, spurred on by terror there is no doubt, but contemptible nonetheless. The dean and chapter of St. Paul's, London, did not simply accept the supremacy but described Henry as the one "to whom alone, after Jesus Christ our Saviour, we owe everything." The oath required from the religious orders was even more stringent than that required from the secular clergy. Having acknowledged the chaste and holy marriage between Henry and Anne, they had to swear and promise to preach that the king alone was the supreme head of the Church of England, and "that the Bishop of Rome who, in his bulls usurps the name of pope, and arrogates to himself the principality of the Supreme Pontiff, has no greater jurisdiction given him by God in this realm of England than the English bishops in their own dioceses"; that they renounced forever his laws and decrees, and would recognize only those laid down by Parliament and ratified by the king. Father Constant comments:
Perhaps it was hoped that this intolerable oath would furnish a pretext for the suppression of the religious houses. All such hopes were vain. If the religious orders were looked upon as the permanent army of the papacy, no army every surrendered more easily. 73

These Carthusians with St. Hugo of Grenoble are not the actual Martyrs, but are shown here because they are representative of the simplicity of the Carthusian rule. We regret that we do not have a portrait of the Martyrs. This painting was executed by the Spanish artist, Zubaran in 1633.

Three of the actual Martyrs were put to death with 37 other Englsh Martyrs, called the Forty English Martyrs:
Augustine Webster, Robert Lawrence, John Houghton.



That there was good reason to go in terror of Henry was made clear by the fate of the handful of monks who upheld the jurisdiction of the pope and the unity of Christendom. On 20 April 1535 John Houghton, Augustine Webster, and Robert Lawrence, the priors of the Charterhouses of London, Beauvale, and Axelhome were arrested. 74 They were committed to the Tower which they entered by the Traitors' Gate, and in which they remained in foul conditions. They were soon joined by Dr. Richard Reynolds, of the Brigettine monastery at Syon who was reputed to be "the most learned monk in England". While in the Tower they were subjected to a personal interrogation by Cromwell and the Royal Commissioners who brought with them the Act of Parliament under which it was intended to condemn them if they refused the oath. The priests said that they were ready to consent to all that the law of God permitted. "I admit no exception," said Cromwell. "Whether the law of God permits it or no, you shall take the oath without any reserve whatsoever, and you shall observe it too." The prisoners objected that the Catholic Church had always taught the contrary to what was set forth in the Act of Parliament "I care nothing for what the Church has held or taught," replied Cromwell. "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 prisoners answered that the fear of God would not allow them to disobey or abandon the Church, seeing that St. Augustine says that he would not believe even the Gospel if the Holy Catholic Church did not teach him to do so.
At their trial the monks insisted that the supremacy of the pope had been instituted by Our Lord "as necessary to the conservation of the spiritual unity of the mystical body of Christ." They were cut short by the judge who stated that as the Act had been passed and was law it could not be called into question. Twice the jury refused to condemn priests of such radiant holiness despite threats that if they failed to find in favour of the king they would suffer the same fate as the monks. Cromwell himself then came to intimidate them in person, and they brought in a reluctant verdict of guilty. The four prisoners were sentenced to be hanged, drawn, and quartered at Tyburn. 75 Tuesday 4 May 1535 was the day fixed for their execution. It had rained during the night and the streets were coated with mud. The Martyrs for the faith were dragged by horses to Tyburn, lying on their backs on hurdles, jolting over rough cobbles, their heads beaten against the rough stones, and splashing through puddles of filthy water. St. Thomas More, and his daughter Margaret who was visiting him, witnessed the beginning of the sad procession from the window of his cell in the Bell Tower. Tears came into his eyes as he gazed down upon the scene below, and he said to Margaret: "Lo, dost thou not see Meg, that these blessed fathers be now as cheerfully going to their deaths as bridegrooms to a marriage." As a young man More had aspired to the Carthusian life, but eventually decided that this was not his vocation. In his deep humility the Saint told Margaret that God was calling the monks to everlasting life as a reward for spending their days in a hard, penitential, and painful life, but because of his own unworthiness he was condemned to remain longer on earth.

The painful three mile journey to the Tower halted at the hospital of St. Giles-in-the Fields where, in accordance with tradition, the condemned men were offered a bowl of ale. Together with a secular priest, John Hale, the Vicar of Isleworth, they were hanged, drawn, and quartered as traitors. Hale had been denounced to the authorities for remarks concerning the king's tyranny and licentiousness made during a private conversation. In an act of unprecedented barbarism the monks were executed wearing their religious habits. Had they truly been guilty of treason or any other capital offence they should have been degraded to the lay state and executed wearing secular clothing. This had been the invariable practice in England. 


To Blessed John Houghton God was pleased to grant the signal honour of being the first man since pagan times to suffer death in England for being a Catholic. After lovingly embracing the executioner, who craved his pardon, the holy Martyr entered the cart which stood beneath the gallows; and there, in the sight of the multitude, he was asked once again whether he would submit to the king's laws before it was too late. Nothing daunted, he replied: "I call 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." He asked for time to say his last prayer, which he took from the 30th Psalm: "In thee, O Lord, have I hoped; let me never be confounded: deliver me in Thy justice . . . Into Thy hands I commend my spirit; for Thou hast redeemed me, O Lord, the God of truth." Blessed John Houghton was now ready to meet death.
A thick rope had been chosen, for fear he might be strangled and expire too quickly. It was placed about his neck. The sheriff gave the signal. The cart was drawn aside; and the gentle monk, who had done good to many, and harm to none, was hanging like a malefactor from the gallows. Then came the worst part of the business, for no mercy was shown, and the hideous sentence was carried out in all its details. The rope was cut, and the body fell heavily on the ground; but John Houghton was not dead. They tore off his holy habit, and laid him on a plank or platform. The executioner inflicted a long and ghastly wound with a sharp knife, dragged out his entrails, and threw them in a fire prepared for the purpose. The poor sufferer was conscious the whole time; and while he was being embowelled he was heard to exclaim: "Oh most holy Jesus, have mercy upon me in this hour!" When at last the executioner placed his hand upon the heart to wrench it from its place, the blessed Martyr spoke again. A German, Anthony Rescius, who afterwards became auxiliary Bishop of Wurzburg, was close by. He overheard his last words: "Good Jesu! what will ye do with my heart?" The struggle was over at last John Houghton had been faithful unto death, and gained the crown of life. 76
Augustine Webster, Robert Lawrence, Richard Reynolds were all butchered in the same way as the Protomartyr. 77 Each was offered a free pardon if he would renounce his Catholic faith, but each preferred death to apostasy. Insults were heaped upon the lifeless bodies of the Martyrs. John Houghton's heart was rubbed in his face. The bodies were cut into quarters which were thrown into a cauldron of boiling pitch to prevent decay, and then set up in different parts of London as proof positive that the king was indeed the head of the Church in England. These executions constituted a clear and savage warning to every priest and monk in the country of what awaited them if they failed to swear upon oath that they accepted the Royal Supremacy. In order to terrify the remaining Carthusians into submission, John Houghton's severed arm, all bloody from Tyburn, was nailed above the gateway of the Charterhouse. When it eventually fell to the ground it was hidden by the monks and may still be lying where they hid it. This alone suffices to make the London Charterhouse a hallowed place for Catholics. 78

Henry himself, wearing a mask, was said to have been among the many notables present in the huge crowd that witnessed the executions. As one who considered himself to be no mean theologian the king may have recalled those words of Our Lord Who told His Apostles not to fear those who could kill only the body and after that do no more, but rather those who could destroy both body and soul in Hell. It is impossible not to see Divine irony in the fact that three Carthusian priors were among the first five Catholics who shed their blood for the rights of the Church since the Martyrdom of St. Thomas Becket in 1170. This irony derives from the fact that as part of his penance for the death of the archbishop, King Henry II made a vow before the tomb of St. Thomas to build a monastery. The austere Carthusian order stood highest in the veneration of Christendom, and so the king built the first Carthusian monastery in England at Witham in Somersetshire. The third prior of this monastery at the earnest request of Henry II was the great St. Hugh (1140-1200). The king later persuaded him to become Bishop of Lincoln. His tomb in Lincoln Cathedral was second only to that of St. Thomas Becket as a place of pilgrimage and popular devotion. Both tombs were despoiled by Henry VIII.

Three more monks of the London Charterhouse were arrested three weeks later and imprisoned in Newgate prison in conditions of the utmost barbarity for seventeen days:

Standing bolt upright, tied with iron collars fast by the necks to the posts of the prison, and great fetters fast rived upon their legs with great iron bolts; so straitly tied that they could neither lie not sit, nor otherwise ease themselves, but stand upright, and in all that space (of time) were they never loosed for any natural necessity.

The three monks, Blessed Humphrey Middlemore, Blessed William Exmew, and Blessed Sebastian Newdigate, were tried on 11 June and executed on 19 June in the same barbaric manner that their fellow Carthusians had died on 4 May. 79 Death must have come as a merciful relief to these holy Martyrs. In his Life of Sir Thomas More (written circa 1557), Nicholas Harpsfield described the Carthusians as follows:
The Carthusians, I say, men of so singular integrity and virtue, men of so hard and so penitential and of so spiritual and so contemplative life, that they might seem rather angels appearing in men's bodies than very men. 80

73. Ibid., p. 131.
74. The Order of Carthusian monks was founded by St. Bruno in 1084 at La Chartreuse in the Dauphine Alps, about fifteen miles north of Grenoble. The name "Charterhouse", given to the nine Carthusian monasteries in England at the time of the Reformation, is derived from Chartreuse. The liqueur with this name is still made exclusively by the monks. The rule is the strictest of all monastic orders and requires perfect mortification and complete renunciation of the world. The monks are vowed to silence, and each one lives in his own little house (referred to as a "cell"). In the London Charterhouse each self-contained cottage had its own small garden. There was a workshop on the ground floor, and on the first floor the cell proper, furnished with a stall and prie-dieu for saying the office and other devotions, a bed, study table, and book-shelves. It also served as a refectory for meals which were generally taken in solitude. The Carthusian diet is extremely severe and excludes all flesh meat On Sundays and certain feast-days the monks ate together in the monastery refectory. The monk left his cell three times in each twenty-four hours, first for the Night Office, for Mass in the morning, and Vespers in the afternoon. The night office resulted in sleep being broken for three hours each night A hair shirt was always worn. Once a week the monks took a three and a half hour walk together. The Carthusian habit is white of undyed wool, with a large cowl and a leather belt with a large rosary attached to it The head was shaved completely but for a very narrow corona (the rim or band of hair left round the head when tonsured). It was said: "If there could possibly be men living on earth and yet like Angels in Heaven they would be found in the London Charterhouse."
75. The site of the Tyburn gallows ("Tyburn Tree" or "The Triple Tree"), where so many Catholic Martyrs died, is marked by a brass plaque set into a traffic island at the Marble Arch. The gallows at Tyburn consisted of three upright posts, at the top of which there were three beams meeting and forming a triangle large enough for fifteen or twenty people to be hanged together. The condemned persons would stand in carts with ropes around their necks, and when the signal was given the carts were driven away. Within a minute's walk of the Tyburn site there is now, at 8 Hyde Park Place, a convent of contemplative Benedictine nuns (Tyburn Convent) with perpetual exposition of the Blessed Sacrament The sisters allow visitors to see their extensive collection of relics of the English Martyrs.
76. L. Hendricks, The Carthusian Martyrs (London, 1931), pp. 18-20.
77. The four Martyrs were canonized by Pope Paul VI on 2 October 1970 together with 36 other Martyrs of the Protestant Reformation (i.e. the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales). Their Feast Day is 25 October.
78. The gateway to the Charterhouse still stands as do other portions of the original monastery such as the chapterhouse which has been converted into a chapel for the 30 to 35 brothers who live there. They must be elderly Protestant gentlemen who have fallen upon hard times. Most of the monastic buildings were pulled down within 20 years of the seizure of the monastery by Henry VIII in 1537. Tours of the Charterhouse take place at 2:15 each Wednesday from April to September. CharterhouseSquareiswithinaminute's walk of the Barbican Underground Station on the Circle Line.
79. The three Carthusians are among a group of 65 martyrs beatified by Pope Leo XIII on 29 December 1886 and 13 May 1895.
80. N. Harpsfield, The Life and Death of Sir Thomas More (OUP for Early English Text Society, 1963), p.210.


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