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Catholic Heroes . . . The English Carthusian Martyrs

June 11, 2020 saints No Comments

By DEB PIROCH

“Reformation.” “Dissolution of the monasteries.” The words sound so calm and reasonable. As if English Catholicism just faded away when, in truth, it was attacked by a despot who caused such harm to the faith that the people have never recovered.
We speak, of course, of King Henry VIII. What is profoundly sad is that this king, once a faithful Catholic himself, had made the pilgrimage to honor Our Lady of Walsingham, and had even written a defense of the sacraments. For this he was honored with a special title, Defender of the Faith, which British monarchs ironically still lay claim to today.
Prior John Houghton was a man who preferred the quiet life, yet was elected head of the “charter house monks,” the London Carthusians. Their monastery, built in the fourteenth century, is located on the grounds of the largest mass burial ground of plague victims in the city. Some say this is why they chose this location, to pray for those souls.
The Carthusian charism does not focus on community life, but rather they live as “choir monks” or hermits, in cells. Some may be lay brothers. The day is kept silent, with Carthusians speaking only when necessary, and devoting themselves to prayer and study. Silence allows one to perpetually listen, as if to say: “Speak Lord, for thy servant is listening.” The first of the ten Carthusian monasteries in the British Isles was built by King Henry II, as penance for the murder of St. Thomas Becket.
A new proclamation, the 1534 Act of Succession, declared Anne Boleyn must be recognized as queen, her children as future heirs of King Henry VIII. It is simplistic to repeat what Protestant history books repeat: that Henry married only to have a son. Who marries this many times and beheads even his wives if he is not cruel and domineering? Filled with lust, he was a tyrant and as fear of him grew, so did his prideful behavior which brooked no defiance. And he married Anne, though doing so meant excommunication by the Pope, who had told Henry his marriage to Catherine of Aragon would not be annulled.
Carthusian prior John Houghton and lawyer Humphrey Middlemore were arrested for hesitating to agree to the proclamation assenting that Anne was queen. In the end, after a month of thought, a determination was made that the oath could be taken “as far as God permits,” given that royal succession was not crucial to Catholic belief. St. Thomas More himself certainly agreed to it, as well.
Vengeful Henry VIII would not let well enough alone. He declared himself head of the English church with the passing of the Act of Supremacy in 1534, thus dooming Catholics across his kingdom.
The Carthusians prepared spiritually for battle by immediately embarking on a Triduum of prayer.
Then, in a tragic step, John Houghton took it upon himself to seek out Vicar-General Thomas Cromwell, joined by two other priors, Robert Lawrence of Beauvale Charterhouse and Augustine Webster of Axholme Charterhouse. They hoped to plead for exemption, or be allowed to take the oath with the words, “as far as God allows” added. Cromwell threw them all straight away into the Tower of London. There they were joined by Bridgettine monk Richard Reynolds and, at trial, the elderly priest John Haile. Despite their reluctance to condemn, the jury’s fear of Cromwell was greater than their pity for the Carthusians and all were sentenced to death.
These holy men were taken to Tyburn in London May 1545, where they were hung, drawn and quartered. This means they were hung till nearly suffocated, but then cut down, cut open and disemboweled while alive, with their remains generally thrown in a pit. Executions were public, and drew wide audiences.
St. John Houghton was the first Tudor martyr of the Reformation, followed by the others. It is stated that when his heart was torn out, he was still alive and cried, “Oh Jesus, what wouldst thou do with my heart?” The remnants of the men were parboiled and scattered barbarically around London, with Houghton’s arm nailed above the entrance to his former monastery.
Immediately after the first three were gone, the authorities paid another visit to the charterhouse. One monk, Sebastian Newdigate, had been a friend of the king’s at court. Yet three weeks later his “friend” had him jailed, along with companions Humphrey Middlemore and William Exmew. Though it is said Henry VIII showed up in disguise to try and dissuade Newdigate from refusing to swear to the Act, all stood fast and were likewise tried, convicted, and executed in the same manner at Tyburn, a mere 21 days after their brothers in Christ.
Two more martyrdoms followed: Monks John Rochester and James Walworth were hung in chains from the York battlements. What happened next must have been even more painful; 20 of the remaining London Carthusians agreed to sign the Act of Supremacy. Knowing what was to come, this was no doubt out of fear. But it must be recalled that every English bishop would fold to Henry’s will, too, except St. John Fisher. So then there were ten remaining Carthusians, all of whom were imprisoned in Newgate Prison, where they were left to starve to death.
St. Thomas More had seen the first three martyrs going to their death, just as he watched St. John Fisher go to his eternal reward and rejoiced. Two months after the death of the first three English Tudor martyrs, he was himself beheaded. Yet no doubt he interceded a bit when Margaret Clement, More’s ward, bribed a jailor to sneak into Newgate to feed the poor Carthusians.
Despite the massive dread which reigned in England, her own father executed for treason, she did not hesitate to do her best to feed and clean the Carthusians. She even tried to lower food from the roof, but this was too difficult. Impatience grew when the men weren’t dead yet, and the jailer banned her coming anymore for fear of reprisals. Margaret, staunch in her faith, was a scholar like More’s biological daughter, also named Margaret, and kept her father’s hair shirt as a relic.
In the end, all ten died of starvation excepting the last, who, still alive, was taken to Tyburn and executed as were so many others.
All the Carthusian martyrs were beatified in 1886. Houghton, Lawrence, and Webster were canonized by Pope Paul VI in 1970. Their feast day is May 4.
The debauched King would dance on these graves and many others; he’d had wife Anne Boleyn beheaded for treason the year before, then ordered Cromwell beheaded three years later, on the date of his marriage to Katherine Howard, whom he would also subsequently behead. The charterhouse became a remodeled palace for the rich just eight years after its monks died.
And yet . . . Cromwell’s illegitimate daughter, Jane, her husband and daughter, were recusant (staunch underground Catholics) known to agents of Elizabeth I. She, like the family of St. Thomas More and many others, survived. And they looked to the cross, for as the Carthusian motto so aptly states, “Stat crux volvitus orbis. . . . The cross is steady while the world is turning.”

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