A Martyred Priest and His Lay Companions

During the English persecution of Catholics, it was through the graces of the sacraments that the laity were able to stand up for the Faith, just as it is today and always has been.

A statue of Our Lady of Walsingham with an illustration of Tyburn Tree, site of the execution of a large number of English martyrs.
A statue of Our Lady of Walsingham with an illustration of Tyburn Tree, site of the execution of a large number of English martyrs. (photo: Register Files)

On March 4, 1590, a Catholic priest and two laymen who had assisted him were executed in London. Father Christopher Bales was hanged, drawn and quartered on Fleet Street; Nicholas Horner was also hanged, drawn, and quartered, but at Smithfield, and Alexander Blake was hanged on Gray’s Inn Lane. Father Bales had just been ordained in March of 1587 and had been arrested soon after his arrival in England in November the next year. Richard Topcliffe, Elizabeth I’s unofficial but very active torturer of priests, supervised the questioning of Father Bales. He was finally tried and found guilty of violating the statute which made his presence as a Catholic priest in England an act of treason. He was then sentenced to the death meted out to traitors.

Father Bales asked a question after his sentencing:

This only do I want to know, whether St. Augustine sent hither by St. Gregory was a traitor or not." They answered that he was not . . . He answered them, "Why then do you condemn me to death as a traitor? I am sent hither by the same see: and for the same purpose as he was. Nothing is charged against me that could not also be charged against the saint.

Judge Anderson answered for the Court that times had changed. Although there was a placard on display when he was executed that condemned him “For treason and favouring foreign invasion”, Father Bales told the spectators that his only treason was that he was a Catholic priest. He was about 26 years old.

The two laymen had been found guilty of the felony of aiding a traitorous Catholic priest. Alexander Blake had given Father Bales lodging at his home. The main evidence against Nicholas Horner was that he had made Bales a jerkin (a sleeveless jacket). Horner had been in trouble with the authorities before for aiding priests. During his imprisonment, one of his legs became infected and had to be amputated. He survived that ordeal and authorities released him. When he was arrested again because of his connection to Father Bales, the authorities had no mercy upon him. There are reports that Horner experienced a vision of a crown resting above his head. With this consolation he was able to bear his agonizing death at Smithfield.

These three martyrs were beatified on December 15 in 1929 by Pope Pius XI.


The Lay Martyrs: Protectors of Priests

Among the 137 martyrs Pope Pius XI beatified in 1929, 37 were laymen and three were laywomen. Four of the 37 laymen would be included among the 40 Martyrs of England and Wales whom Pope Paul VI canonized in 1970, as would the three women (Saints Margaret Clitherow, Margaret Ward, and Anne Line). Most of the laymen beatified in 1929 had been arrested because they had been caught attending Mass or assisting a priest. One layman, Blessed Thomas Bosgrave, was arrested because he lent his hat to Father John Cornelius who had just been arrested. That was considered aiding a Catholic priest and so he was hung on July 4, 1594.

Blessed John Roche had assisted St. Margaret Ward when she helped Father William Watson escape Bridewell Prison; Roche exchanged clothing with the priest and rowed him down the Thames to safety. Ward and Roche were arrested; she was tortured for information about the priest’s whereabouts after his escape; they were executed by hanging on August 30, 1588 in one of a series of executions after the failure of the Spanish Armada.

Several of the beatified martyrs were well known in their communities for their recusancy and therefore authorities were charged them often until they could find a legal reason to prosecute them for a felony. Richard Hurst was accused of murder when a pursuivant died of injuries sustained while running across Hurst’s field. King Charles I and his queen, Henrietta Maria, were sympathetic to Hurst’s case, but the local authorities found him guilty of murder. They offered to free him if he abjured his Catholicism and accepted Charles I’s authority over the Church, but he refused, so he was hanged on August 29, 1628.

John Slade and John Bodey were well-educated Catholics and schoolmasters. Bodey had attended New College in Oxford, earning his M.A. and becoming a Fellow of the College until he was deprived of his office because he was a Catholic. He had then studied Civil Law at Douai College, returned to England and married, becoming a schoolmaster. He and Slade remained true to the “Old Faith” and refused to recognize Elizabeth I’s supremacy, so they were arrested and charged with recusancy. As the Catholic Encyclopedia reports, Bodey wrote to a Catholic friend in exile:

We consider that iron for this cause borne on earth shall surmount gold and, precious stones in Heaven. That is our mark, that is our desire. In the mean season we are threatened daily, and do look still when the hurdle shall be brought to the door. I beseech you, for God's sake, that we want not the good prayers of you all for our strength, our joy, and our perseverance unto the end. ... From our school of patience the 16th September, 1583.

They were hanged on November 2, 1583 in Winchester.


What Unites Them All

On November 22, 1987 (on the Solemnity of Jesus Christ the King of the Universe), Pope St. John Paul II beatified another 85 Martyrs of England and Wales, and he commented in his homily on the laymen included in that group:

Among these eighty-five martyrs we find priests and laymen, scholars and craftsmen. The oldest was in his eighties, and the youngest no more than twenty-four. There were among them a printer, a bartender, a stable-hand, a tailor. What unites them all is the sacrifice of their lives in the service of Christ their Lord. ...

The twenty-two laymen in this group of martyrs shared to the full the same love of the Eucharist. They, too, repeatedly risked their lives, working together with their priests, assisting, protecting and sheltering them. Laymen and priests worked together; together they stood on the scaffold and together welcomed death. Many women, too, not included today in this group of martyrs, suffered for their faith and died in prison. They have earned our undying admiration and remembrance.

As much as the missionary priests needed the laity to assist, protect, and shelter them, the English laity needed the priests to absolve them, anoint them, offer the Sacrifice of the Mass, and give them Holy Communion even more. It was through the graces of the sacraments that the laity were able to stand up for the Faith, just as it is today and always has been.