“I want to take you on a journey. Without leaving this site, I want to take you back 400 years,” Mother Superior begins. Her words grasp the immediate attention of her audience.
We were visitors to Tyburn Convent's monthly “monastic afternoon” where the public are invited to spend three hours learning about the history of Tyburn and the life of the nuns who live there.
The building is just five minutes' walk from the west end of Oxford Street, past Marble Arch, and the site of the gallows where England's martyrs were hanged. Outside the convent is a life-sized wooden crucifix that overlooks the never-ending stream of traffic that flows along one of London's busiest streets. Nearby is Park Lane, once known as Tyburn Lane, and Oxford Street, formerly called Tyburn Road.
In days gone by, Tyburn was not a popular word in fashionable London society. But today, for Catholics all through Britain and beyond, it represents prayer and adoration and brings to mind the holy martyrs who died for their faith.
Pilgrims and visitors who step in off the street enter what seems like another world. The roar of traffic tearing down Hyde Park Place to converge with other main roads at Marble Arch recedes to a distant hum. Even the occasional rumble of an underground train passing directly underneath cannot disturb the calm and silence of the convent.
Inside the church, simple cast iron gates separate the sanctuary and the nuns' choir from the public chapel. All eyes are drawn to the two sisters who kneel in quiet adoration before the Blessed Sacrament housed under a canopy decorated with symbols of the Holy Trinity. The whiteness of the walls is broken only by the simple black veils hanging over their white choir cowls and the row of brightly colored shields near the ceiling. These are the family crests of the martyrs who laid down their lives during the times of persecution in England.
Once again, silence pervades. It is interrupted only by the gentle single chime of a bell every half-hour to signal the changing of the honor guard, as two nuns leave and two others arrive to continue the adoration. Their prayer is for the conversion of England, the salvation of souls, the successor of Peter, and in memory of the martyrs.
This year, the nuns—the Benedictine Adorers of the Sacred Heart of Montmartre—whose home this is, celebrate the 100th anniversary of their foundation as a religious congregation. It was founded by a French woman from Burgundy. March 4, 1898, Cardinal Richard, archbishop of Paris, canonically erected the new congregation. Adele Garnier, who became known in religious life as Mother Mary of Peter, was devoted to adoration of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Blessed Sacrament. When the French Basilica of the Sacred Heart was being built on Montmartre, she had petitioned the archbishop to institute perpetual adoration there. So it has happened, the Sacrament of the Altar has been adored there day and night—even through two world wars.
The Killing Fields
But let us return from Paris to the west end of London. Tyburn Fields had been a place of execution since the 12th century. When Henry VIII, by the Supremacy Act of 1534, claimed it high treason to refuse to acknowledge the king as “the only supreme head on earth of the Church in England,” the blood of the Catholic martyrs began to flow over Tyburn Fields.
May 4 of that year, the first to die for refusing to take the oath of supremacy were three Carthusian priests from the London charterhouse, along with two other priests. St. Thomas More, from his cell in the Tower of London, saw the Carthusians in their white habits stretched onto the wooden frames that would drag them to Tyburn and commented to his daughter Meg that they went “as gladly as to a marriage feast.”
At the monthly “monastic afternoon”—or on any other day—visitors may make a guided tour of the crypt chapel of the martyrs. The altar of the crypt lies under a scale model of the infamous gallows. The actual gallows were so large that eight people could be hanged on each of the three arms.
As Reverend Mother shows you around, the torture and deaths of those Catholics loyal to Rome become apparent. Although the collection of relics is small, the sisters are very knowledgeable of the history of each of the martyrs that an hour's tour barely touches the surface—but books and pamphlets are available for further reading.
The nuns are devoted to keeping the memory of the martyrs alive and hallowed. Thus you may see a piece of the bloodstained shirt worn by St. William Howard when he was martyred in December 1680 and a relic of the venerable Father Thomas Holland, hanged at Tyburn in July 1616. Also there is a fragment of the venerable Father Edward, whose heart had leapt out of the fire into which it was thrown after it had been plucked from his body. The largest single relic is an entire arm bone of Blessed Father Thomas Maxfield.
To investigate further let us make a slight detour—less than half a mile away.
One of the best-loved parishes in London is known as St. James's Spanish Place, where the Spanish embassy once stood. During the terrors of the English Reformation, Mass continued to be offered within the confines of the embassy. During the waves of executions carried out, particularly on priests who refused to deny the primacy of the papacy, the Spanish ambassador would send people out at night to salvage what relics they could from the site.
Faith's High Price
After whatever torture they had endured in prison in the months and weeks before their deaths, convicted Catholics would then be dragged on a hurdle through the streets of London to the gallows at Tyburn. There they would be hanged and cut down before they died. While still conscious they would be sliced open and disemboweled, their hearts being torn from them and cast into a fire. They would then be quartered, their limbs hacked off, and beheaded; some of these parts would be displayed as a deterrent to others, the rest of their remains being dumped into a pit near the gallows.
The first to be martyred, May 4, 1534, was the prior of the London charterhouse. St. John Houghton had been cut down from the gibbet while still conscious and it is reported that he bore the butchery inflicted on him with great meekness. As they tore his heart from his breast he cried out, “Good Jesus! What wilt thou do with my heart?”
The last words of Blessed Henry Health, a Franciscan priest martyred at Tyburn April 17, 1643, were, “Jesus, convert England. Jesus, have mercy on this country. O England, be converted to the Lord thy God.” Today those words are engraved on the gibbets of the replica gallows standing above the Altar of the Martyrs in Tyburn crypt.
St. Ralph Sherwin, a companion of Oxford scholar and Jesuit priest Edmund Campion, who was also a Protestant deacon before his conversion, was reported to have, in December 1581, “kissed with great devotion the blood of Campion dripping from the hands of the executioners.”
Four years later, in 1585, and speaking of the death of Father Campion, Father Gregory Gunne said, “The day will come that you shall see a religious house built there [the site of the gallows] for an offering.” Father Gunne was betrayed and later at his trial he repeated his prophecy that one day there would be a religious house at Tyburn in memory of the martyrs. (He himself was not hanged but sentenced to exile.)
Let us once again return to Paris at the beginning of this century. In 1901, only three years after the canonical founding of the Adorers of the Sacred Heart, the French government passed its law of associations. The nuns fled to London. The Oblates of Mary Immaculate had also taken refuge in London.
One day in 1901 Cardinal Vaughan, archbishop of Westminster, received a letter from an Oblate priest asking the cardinal's help or advice about a house for these French nuns. By coincidence (some would say Providence), in the same day's mail the cardinal also received a letter from a Catholic layman, a lawyer who would know that the cardinal was well aware of the “Gunne Prophecy” made more than three centuries before. The lawyer told the cardinal that a house had come on the market at Tyburn. The cardinal held the two letters together and said, “Let these nuns get this property.”
Tyburn is now the National Shrine of the Martyrs of England and Wales. This year, Cardinal Basil Hume will offer Mass there in thanksgiving for 100 years of the Benedictine Adorers of the Sacred Heart of Montmartre.
Tyburn Convent is today the motherhouse of the Congregation. They now have other houses of prayer and adoration in Scotland, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, and Peru. While so many modern religious congregations seem to be dying out, it is a source of comment in England that Tyburn, with its “real nuns”, seems to be thriving.
A Silent Procession
In 1996 on her first visit to England to address the “Faith of Our Fathers” rally, Mother Angelica (EWTN) visited Tyburn. Addressing 2,500 Catholics in Westminster Central Hall, she spoke of the glorious heritage of the English and Welsh martyrs. And each year on the last Sunday of April, hundreds of Catholics retrace the route of the martyrs to Tyburn, starting from the central criminal courts at the Old Bailey, site of the ancient Newgate Prison. The procession, organized by the Guild of Ransom for the Conversion of England, proceeds in silence, the only visible signs being the rosary beads in the walkers' hands and the crucifix, which precedes them.
On arrival at the convent, benediction of the Blessed Sacrament is given by a bishop from a balcony of the convent to the assembled crowds below now kneeling on the normally busy traffic routes. The prophecy of Father Gunne comes to mind and silent prayers of thanksgiving are made for the lives of the Tyburn nuns and England's holy shrine of the martyrs.
Jim Gallagher writes from London, England.