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Catholic Heroes . . . The 40 Martyrs Of England And Wales

May 25, 2021 saints No Comments


There’s a special reason we’re focusing a year late on the 50th anniversary of the canonization of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales, on October 1970 by Pope Paul VI. COVID, as we know, has thrown a spanner in the works everywhere. Last year there was to be an exhibition featuring relics of these blessed martyrs but, since it had to be canceled, the exhibit still opted to continue, albeit a year delayed, in virtual form.
Not only is this riveting to behold, but I highly recommend you share this with your friends and family, as well.
Search online under “How Bleedeth Burning Love,” and you will be directed to the exhibit at the UK Jesuits’ website. This display represents but a portion of those who suffered under the Reformation. As the exhibit points out, in 1960 the bishops of England and Wales were asked to select forty promising candidates among the great many who died over a century’s time under several English rulers who persecuted Catholics. These have come to be celebrated on May 4, along with 284 canonized or beatified others of England, Scotland, and Wales. Six new Welsh saints were assigned another separate feast day, October 25, as well.
In this exhibit you will experience witness relics carefully hidden and treasured for centuries.
Three women, all of them mothers, are among the martyrs. Two were hanged and Margaret Clitheroe, perhaps the best known for her refusal to plead guilty, was pressed to death by the weight of stones which broke her back. All men but three were hanged, drawn, and quartered. This meant of course that they were hanged till nearly dead, then cut down and disemboweled while still alive.
Executions at this time were public spectacles and even minors attended. After the crowds left, often relics were salvaged or handkerchiefs dipped in the blood of martyrs as relics, used as testaments to the faith and in healing. Bodies were generally — though not always — discarded unceremoniously; for instance, at Tyburn, in a bloody pit. Sometimes heads were impaled on spikes as warnings to other “wayward” Catholics.
Those represented besides laypersons and 23 diocesan priests include: ten Jesuits, three Benedictines, three Carthusians, two Franciscans, one Augustinian, and one Brigittine. Recall, though, this is surely but a small sampling of the true number of those who suffered and died during the UK’s own “terror.”
It is terribly sad to realize that among all the bishops, only one, John Fisher, remained faithful in opposing Henry VIII. Made a cardinal by the Pope, which increased the king’s anger, Fisher would give his head for the faith. While not one of the designated “Forty Martyrs” on May 4, his feast day occurs on June 22.
One of John Fisher’s relics, a ring in the custody of Stonyhurst College, is included in both the virtual exhibit above and was featured in a tour of the United States five years ago. Stonyhurst is the oldest of the UK’s Catholic schools and the Jesuit institution also holds the country’s largest collection of relics. This includes a bit of Fisher’s bone, and piece of his walking stick, used by Fr. Thomas More, the last living descendant of the St. Thomas More family.
One wonders what became of his hairshirt, which he — like More — handed off to be smuggled out of the Tower before their executions.
Henry VIII caused tremendous death and destruction under his reign. At his door must be laid over 800 monasteries that were destroyed during the dissolution and thousands upon thousands who died during his tenure as sovereign. To that, add all those who lost their religion since. One cannot help but rue deaths of those heinously executed without due process, guilty of no crime. And yet, as one of the later martyrs featured in the exhibit, Blessed Thomas Whitbread, SJ, once stated in a famous homily addressed to Jesuits in formation in Liège:
“Can you endure the rack? Can you be brought to the bar and hear yourself falsely sworn against? Can you undergo a hard persecution? Are you content to be falsely betrayed and injured and hurried away to prison? Can you suffer the hardships of jail? Can you lie in chains and fetters? Can you endure the rack? Can you be brought to the bar and hear yourself falsely sworn against? Can you patiently receive the sentence of an unjust judge condemning you to a painful and ignominious death, to be hanged, drawn, and quartered? We can. Blessed be God.”
Those who embraced the life of a Catholic took their lives in their hands like water. Not to attend Protestant services assumed one was Catholic and required the payment of a fine. To attend Mass was illegal. To be a priest or to harbor priests was a capital offense. Refusing the Oath of Supremacy denied the king or queen was the head of the Church and was highly dangerous.
Even more astonishing was the sheer volume of vocations to the priesthood! To return to England and Wales after Ordination on the Continent meant pretty much certain death. Some trained years for the priesthood, only to land and find themselves sometimes immediately arrested, jailed, and executed for nothing more than being a priest. Approximately 300 priests would graduate from the English College at Douay, 158 of whom were martyred. As news would reach the college of a death, a Te Deum would be sung. Eighty were beatified by the Pope in 1929 alone.
One of the most poignant examples of heroic faith is witnessed in the biography of St. Edmund Campion. He had begun his studies at Douay, later traveling to Rome and then Prague, where he would be ordained a Jesuit. Called to join fellow priests after teaching a few years, to serve secretly as a mission priest in England, he had a vision that he would die a martyr.
At age 38, the night before his departure back to England, a Jesuit father wrote above his door these words in chalk: “Edmundus Campianus Martyr.”
Campion, another of the “Forty,” managed to exist barely a year before being caught in England, when he was betrayed by a man pretending to be a recusant. Imprisoned and racked in the Tower, he did not betray fellow Catholics. Nor did he take advantage of offers to save himself by abandoning Catholicism.
His witness resulted in the conversion of his jailor, and Saints Philip Howard and Henry Walpole, the last two being also among the “Forty Martyrs.” Howard had seen the tortured Campion debate Anglican ministers during his trial, while Walpole was splashed with the saint’s blood when watching his execution.
Stonyhurst retains the rope used in Campion’s hanging, which has a special place on the altar at his feast-day Mass. Perhaps there they also sing the Te Deum, as Campion did when he and his fellow prisoners were sentenced to death.
May they all now enjoy the same beatific vision St. John Fisher authored in a prayer he addressed to God in the Tower:
“What is this world but a miserable exile, full of perils and evils far unlike that glorious country where thou art resident. . . . There thou art clearly seen to all thy blessed angels and saints of thy most highly triumphant court. They be there ever present before thy blessed face and behold thy Majesty continually face to face.”

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