Gallows Went Up in London in August 1588

The Elizabethan regime celebrated the defeat of the Spanish Armada by building new gallows in London and executing two large groups of Catholics.

Statues of St. Margaret Ward and Blessed John Roche in St. Ethelreda’s Church in London
Statues of St. Margaret Ward and Blessed John Roche in St. Ethelreda’s Church in London (photo: Register Files)

Although bad weather and poor tactics, not the English fleet, had defeated the Spanish Armada, the people of England celebrated their victory. Because storms prevented the Spanish ships from reaching England it seemed that God had saved them and thwarted the Catholic invasion. The Elizabethan regime celebrated their deliverance by building additional gallows in London and executing two large groups of priests and the laity who had assisted them on Aug. 28 and Aug. 30. They were divided up and hanged or hanged and quartered at Mile End, Lincoln's Inn Field, Islesworth, Clerkenwell, and near the Theatre, all places much frequented by Londoners.


Father and Son: The Feltons

On August 28, five priests were hanged and quartered: William Dean, William Gunter, Robert Morton, Thomas Holford, and James Claxton. Two laymen were merely hanged to death: Henry Webley and Hugh More or Moor. The sixth man who suffered that day was Thomas Felton, a Franciscan whose father, John Felton, had been hanged, drawn, and quartered earlier in Elizabeth I’s reign because he published—by tacking it to the door of the Bishop of London’s palace—Pius V’s Papal Bull “Regnans in Excelsis” in 1570.

John Felton was a wealthy man whose wife had grown up with Elizabeth I and had been a maid-of-honor to Mary I. He and his family lived on the former Bermondsey Abbey grounds near Southwark. Although his family had taken advantage of the suppression of the monasteries during Henry VIII’s reign, John did not accept the religious changes introduced by the Church of England as established by Parliament when Elizabeth came to the throne. He obtained copies of the Papal Bull while in Calais, France and gave one to a friend William Mellowes at Lincoln’s Inn, one of the London schools of law. After John placed the Bull on display early on the morning of the Feast of Corpus Christi, authorities found Mellowes’ copy. They tortured him and he told them that John Felton had given him the document.

Authorities then arrested John and tortured him on the rack after he had confessed to posting the Bull, trying to force him to reveal who gave him the copies. He was condemned to death for treason on August 4 and then hanged, drawn, and quartered on August 8, 1570. His daughter Frances reported that John uttered the name of Jesus before he died.

His father’s fate did not dissuade Thomas Felton from pursuing his religious vocation on the Continent. Born in 1567, Thomas studied at the English College in Reims, France and then in 1583 entered the Order of Minim Friars, which had been founded by St. Francis of Paola in the fifteenth century. He was not able to conform to the Minim vow of a Lenten way of life which included never eating meat or dairy products. So Thomas returned to England, recovered from the austerities he’d tried to endure and was arrested as he tried to leave England, hoping to continue his preparation for the priesthood. He was released, tried again to leave, was arrested again—and repeated the process one more time.

After that final arrest, Thomas was tortured for information about Englishmen studying for the priesthood at Reims and in Rome. During his trial he was asked whom he would fight for if the Spanish invaded and he said he would fight for England. He was also asked if he accepted the Queen’s supremacy over the Church in England and Thomas said he could not. Thus he was found guilty of treason, just as his father had been, and sentenced to the death of a traitor, just as his father had been—and his sister Frances had seen both suffer and die.

Father and son were beatified in 1886 by Pope Leo XIII. The others who suffered on August 28 were beatified by Pope Pius XI in 1929 or by Pope John Paul II in 1987.


St. Margaret Ward and Companions

The government executed more Catholics on August 30: one priest (Richard Leigh); four laymen (John Roche, Edward Shelley, Richard Martin, and Richard Lloyd), and one laywoman, Margaret Ward.

Margaret Ward is one of the three women canonized by Pope Paul VI among the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales (St. Margaret Clitherow and St. Anne Line are the others). In the dioceses of England and Wales, they share a feast on August 30. Like Clitherow and Line, she was arrested on suspicion of aiding a priest. She helped Father Richard Watson escape from Bridewell Prison, visiting him at first to bring him food and drink and eventually gaining enough trust from the jailer that he didn’t search her before she saw the prisoner. Thus she was able to sneak a rope into the Father Watson and he used it to lower himself down the outside wall of the prison.

Things did not go well for Father Watson—the rope was too short and he fell, leaving the rope behind. Two men helped him escape, even though he’d broken a leg and an arm, by getting him into their boat on the Thames, but he knew that Margaret would be in danger. The jailer accused her of helping the priest and she admitted to the crime. She was scourged as the authorities asked her where Father Watson was hiding after his escape. John Roche, one of the men who had helped the priest was also arrested because he was wearing Watson’s clothing and the jailer recognized it.

At trial, St. Margaret Ward was offered a pardon if she would just renounce her Catholic faith and attend a Church of England service. She refused and was condemned to death by hanging. John Roche was offered the same deal and also refused. The story of St. Margaret Ward and Blessed John Roche doesn’t say what happened to Father Richard Watson after his perilous escape and terrible injuries. St. Margaret Ward rejoiced that she had saved him from certain death and helped him continue to serve Catholics in England.

The others who suffered martyrdom on August 30, 1588 were beatified by Pope Pius XI in 1929.

Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Christopher Wray testifies Tuesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee at the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.

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