Prisoners of Conscience in the 16th and 21st Centuries

Castro's horrific torture methods bring to mind Elizabethan England and what Catholic priests, as prisoners of conscience and religion, had suffered in her jails.

The Tower of London, sometime between 1890 and 1900
The Tower of London, sometime between 1890 and 1900 (photo: Photochrom Print Collection, via Wikimedia Commons)

Writing recently on The Wall Street Journal editorial page (“Castro and Human Dignity”, December 5, 2016), Mary Anastasia O’Grady offered the testimony of one of the late Fidel Castro’s victims, describing the use of torture in prison:

“In a 1986 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Armando Valladares, who was a Castro prisoner for 22 years, described the regime’s use of the “drawer cells” in its dungeons. Five or six prisoners would be confined, for days, in these very narrow, 6-foot-long spaces. “They had to sit with their knees against their body. There was no room to move; prisoners had to urinate and defecate right there,” Mr. Valladares explained.

“All torture was used ‘to break the prisoner’s resistance,’ Mr. Valladares said.”

Reading the description of the “drawer cells” in Castro’s jails, I immediately thought of Elizabethan England and what Catholic priests, as prisoners of conscience and religion, had suffered in her jails.

“The Little Ease”

The Tower of London, for example, contained a cell called the “Little Ease”. The prisoner, like St. Edmund Campion, would not be able either to stand or to lie down in the cell, which was only four foot square. Like the Cuban prisoners of conscience, Campion was held in this cell to break his spirit, to make him ready to apostatize and tell him what he knew about the Catholic underground.

After four days in the “Little Ease”, Campion was taken out for real torture, being stretched upon the rack and questioned about whom he knew and where the safe houses were. The authorities leaked “fake news” that Campion had recanted his conversion to Catholicism and revealed everything he knew, hoping to provoke fear in the Catholic community. Several other priests endured the agony of the rack. St. Alexander Briant, for example, arrested and executed with Campion, reported that while he was being tortured, he felt no pain as he meditated on the passion of Jesus.

“The Pit” and “Limbo”

In the interview O’Grady cited, Valladares commented on another method of torture in the Cuban prisons, the blackout cells:

“They're nine feet long, these cells, and four feet wide. On the floor there's a hole. That's the only sanitary facility. The window and door are sealed with steel plates. On one of the plates there are three small holes about the size of your little finger that allow air, but no light. Amnesty International says men in these cells have been in prison for an average of 22 years. And over this time they've been denied food, clothing, clean water, suffered frequent beatings and all types of psychological tortures.”

From reports of the English missions, we know that priests, like Blessed Robert Nutter, OP, were held in a cell called “the Pit” for months at a time, without light, often wearing fetters or other chains. When taken from the Pit on occasion, Nutter was tortured using a device called the Scavenger’s Daughter, which unlike the rack that stretched the limbs of the victim, compressed his head and hands and feet in an iron circle, leading to internal bleeding.

The purpose of recounting these tortures is not to be macabre, but to remind us of what martyrs have suffered in the past for the sake of Jesus and His Church. Blessed Robert Nutter, OP was imprisoned by Elizabethan authorities for 13 years before his martyrdom. He witnessed the execution of his brother, Blessed John Nutter (also a priest), on February 12, 1584, and was even released by authorities in the hope that he might lead them to the Catholic safe houses. Psychological torture is not an invention of the twentieth century. He was finally executed on July 26, 1600.           

“Limbo” is another cell mentioned, where the prisoners were just left without clean water, clothing, or any sanitation. According to Christopher Grene, a Jesuit chronicler of the martyrs, Blessed William Patenson was thrown into Limbo with six condemned felons and was able to convert them to Catholicism before their executions. He was hanged, drawn, and quartered on January 22, 1592; having discovered his success in Limbo, the authorities made sure he was still conscious after hanging so he would experience the agony of evisceration.

“That Filthy Hole”

Perhaps the most extreme example of what Catholic priests suffered at the hands of Elizabeth I’s torturers is the story of St. Robert Southwell, SJ. He was the grandson of one of Henry VIII’s courtiers, Sir Richard Southwell. After studying abroad in the Catholic college at Douai before preparing for the priesthood, returning to England in 1586. Captured after six years of service by Richard Topcliffe, Elizabeth I’s unofficial, but delegated, pursuivant and torturer of priests, Southwell endured great suffering.

Topcliffe was able to work at home, as he had a torture chamber there, before moving Southwell to the Tower. After torture in the Tower, being hanged by his wrists for hours, he was moved to the gatehouse at Westminster Hall. His family found him there in a cell crawling with vermin.

As the 1910 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica notes, “he was so abominably treated that his father petitioned Elizabeth that he might either be brought to tria1 and put to death, if found guilty, or removed in any case from “that filthy hole.” Southwell was then lodged in the Tower, but he was not brought to tria1 until February 1595.” As a poet he is perhaps best known for “The Burning Babe”, his great Christmas Day poem. He was hanged, drawn, and quartered on February 21, 1595.

“The Spirituality of Martyrdom”

Servais Pinckaers, OP, wrote a study of martyrdom in the Church from the early centuries through the ages, focused on the spirituality of martyrdom, both for the martyrs and for those who venerate and remember them. He notes that from the beginning, we have remembered the sufferings of the martyrs, documenting them not for their sordid details but because those who endured the tortures were uniting themselves with Jesus. They were blessed by their sufferings, fulfilling the promise of the Eighth Beatitude in St. Matthew’s Gospel (and the Fourth in St. Luke’s). They are models to imitate and the standard of Christian sanctity; their sufferings are a sign for us:

“Thus all the texts of the Gospel that directly or indirectly presuppose persecution can perfectly well apply to us. They warn us that, even if we enjoy religious freedom outwardly, we cannot interiorly fall asleep, since we are all subject to the opposition and temptation of spiritual combat . . .” (p. 26)

Centuries from now the Church may find out the names of the anonymous prisoners Valladares described, document their sufferings for Jesus and His Church, and proclaim them martyrs. Then we will know their stories as we know the stories of the English martyrs, to love and admire them and rejoice because they were found worthy to suffer for the sake of the name of Jesus.