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Catholic Heroes . . . St. John Houghton, Protomartyr

July 19, 2022 Our Catholic Faith No Comments

By DEB PIROCH

The Carthusians were a medieval order that King Henry II brought over to England as part of his penance for the martyrdom of St. Thomas Becket. They were widely esteemed and when St. Thomas More was discerning his way in life, and studying law and passing the bar, he spent four years of his life living with the Carthusians. This informed his habits and conscience beautifully, rising at 2 a.m. and praying an adapted Liturgy of the Hours, in addition to the Divine Office, and the Psalms.
Likely much of this carried into his secular life, where he built a chapel as soon as he was able, ending days with family prayer, and secretly wearing a hair shirt most of his life. After four years he left them, having decided to marry, but this evidence serves to show the high regard in which he held the order.
And also the hatred with which King Henry and his minions would behold them. John Houghton (1486-1535) was a priest four years before joining the London Charterhouse (monastery). A graduate of Cambridge, he had degrees in both civil and canon law, and joined the Charterhouse progressing to sacristan, procurator (administrator), prior (head) in Beauvale, in Nottinghamshire, then prior in London. The Carthusians were already targeted in 1533, when the government sent officials to ask if the charterhouse agreed with the Act of Succession.
The Act merely specified that Anne Boleyn was the lawful queen and her heirs would inherit the throne. Houghton asked for an exemption, saying: “It pertained not to his vocation and calling nor to that of his subjects to meddle in or discuss the king’s business, neither could they or ought they to do so, and that it did not concern him who the king wished to divorce or marry, so long as he was not asked for any opinion.”
He was arrested with his procurator. After a month in the Tower, the men took an oath saying they agreed, “so far as the law of God permits.” They were allowed to go home. But the next year came the Act of Supremacy, far more serious, declaring Henry VIII head of the Church in England. No Catholic could acquiesce in it, and Houghton gathered the monks together, telling them they faced a possible choice between martyrdom or apostasy.
In a holy fashion, he declared a Triduum of prayer, in preparation for the upcoming trial. The first day was given over to prayer and meditation, the second Confession and reconciliation with one another, and the third a Mass of the Holy Ghost. Butler’s Lives states that on the third day some felt “a soft whisper of air, which some perceived with their bodily senses, while all experienced its sweet influence on their hearts.”
Michael Davies writes that the oath given to others, even secular religious, was much weaker than that which was given to religious orders. In England, they would have had to swear “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,” and that all rules and edicts ever given by the Holy Father were now null and void unless passed by the king and Parliament.
John would not have taken the oath with or without the addendum. Along with his successor at Beauvale, Robert Lawrence, and Augustine Webster, prior of the charterhouse at the Isle of Axholme, he went to appeal to Thomas Cromwell, of all people, hoping for mercy or some exemption. Cromwell was at the beckoning of the king and a cruel, evil tyrant. He threw them into the Tower before anyone besides Houghton had said a word. In prison with them was a Richard Reynolds, a Bridgettine monk, who would be tried with them.
When the time came, the men gave no defense. Some say this was in honor of their Carthusian practice of maintaining silence. The jury twice refused to condemn the men, finally doing so only because they were threatened by Cromwell. All were to be hanged, drawn, and quartered at Tyburn.
The four men were drawn there on hurdles, wearing their habits. Such a sanctioned execution had never happened in memory — perhaps in pagan times. One wonders, were they singing? Praying? St. Thomas More saw them being dragged to the place of execution from the Tower. Did he know these Carthusians? He knew many of them. He said to his daughter: “Lo, dost thou not see (Meg) that these blessed fathers be how as cheerful going to their deaths, as bridegrooms to their marriages?”
Once they arrived, St. John embraced and forgave his executioner. He was the first martyr of the Reformation, or “protomartyr,” as well as the first Carthusian martyr. He and his companions were offered the chance of a reprieve if they would take the Oath of Supremacy, which they would not. And all four were hanged, cut down and still conscious while disemboweled. John murmured at one point, “Oh most holy Jesus, have mercy upon me in this hour!”
Then St. John witnessed his heart being pulled from his body, and his last words were witnessed by a German, Anthony Rescius, who later became the auxiliary bishop of Wurzburg: “Jesus, Jesus, what will you do with my heart?”
After his death, the butchers rubbed his heart in his face and cut him up into pieces. His head was stuck on a pike on Tower Bridge, his arm nailed up above the Charterhouse. In essence, Henry VIII was saying, “Death to true Catholics!” Some say Henry, in disguise, was in the crowd witnessing the torturous death of these noble men.
Besides Houghton and his two companions, 15 more Carthusians would die for the faith. Henry had nine starved to death. They survived longer than they were supposed to, because a ward of St. Thomas More, named Margaret Clement, would sneak into prison and feed them. When officials became curious why the men were still alive, she was banned and the men truly starved. Sadly, other Carthusians took the oath.
The Devil cannot stand the sight of holiness. Perhaps that is why the light of these men shining in the darkness was so offensive. Henry VIII saw every one as a personal insult he was determined to stamp out.
St. John has a feast in his own diocese, as do the others, plus a feast day among the Carthusians, plus he is now one of the 40 martyrs of England and Wales. His universal feast is October 25.
The message of St. John’s life is poignant and relevant today. May we always render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, but to God, that which is God’s. Before he died, his executioners gave St. John Houghton time to recite part of Psalm 30:
“In thee, O Lord have I hoped, let me never be confounded: deliver me in thy justice. Bow down thy ear to me: make haste to deliver me. Be thou unto me a God, a protector, and a house of refuge, to save me. For thou art my strength and my refuge; and for thy name’s sake thou wilt lead me.”

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