The Protomartyr of the English Reformation: St. John Houghton

At Tyburn Tree, St. John Houghton embraced his executioner and sang the first verses of Psalm 31: ‘In thee, O Lord, do I seek refuge’

Francisco de Zurbarán, “Saint John Houghton”, 17th Century
Francisco de Zurbarán, “Saint John Houghton”, 17th Century (photo: Public Domain)

On May 4, 1535, five men were drawn on hurdles from the Tower of London to Tyburn Tree. Three were Carthusian monks, one a priest of the Brigittine order, and the fifth a parish priest. St. Thomas More saw them leaving the Tower for their excruciating deaths as traitors (drawing, hanging, and quartering) and commented to his daughter Margaret:

Lo, dost thou not see (Meg) that these blessed fathers be how as cheerful going to their deaths, as bridegrooms to their marriages? Wherefore thereby mayest thou see (mine own good daughter) what a difference there is between such as have in effect spent all their days in a strait, hard, penitential, and painful life religiously, and such as have in the world, like worldly wretches, as thy poor father hath done, consumed all the time in pleasure and ease licentiously. For God, considering their long-continued life in most sore and grievous penance, will not longer suffer them to remain here in this vale of misery, and iniquity, but speedily hence take them to the fruition of his everlasting deity: whereas thy silly father (Meg) that, like a most wicked caitiff, hath passed forth the whole course of his miserable life most pitifully, God, thinking him not worthy so soon to come to that eternal felicity, leaveth him here yet, still in the world further to be plunged and turmoiled with misery.

At Tyburn Tree—a small plaque and three trees mark the spot today near Marble Arch in London—spectators had gathered to witness the deaths of Fathers John Houghton, Augustine Webster, Robert Lawrence, Richard Reynolds, and John Haile. Some sources even suggest that Henry VIII was there, disguised in the crowd. At least two of them, Houghton and Reynolds, were acclaimed throughout England for their holiness and learning. All five had rejected Henry’s claim to be the Supreme Head and Governor of the Church in England. They were still wearing their religious habits, and Houghton was wearing a hair shirt under his.

“Jesus, Jesus, what will you do with my heart?”

If the spectators wanted to see a man die bravely, fulfilling their expectations of a noble death in such ignoble circumstances, Father John Houghton offered them more: a holy death united with Jesus. At Tyburn Tree, he embraced his executioner and sang the first verses of Psalm 31:

In te, Domine, speravi; non confundar in æternum: in justitia tua libera me. Inclina ad me aurem tuam; accelera ut eruas me. Esto mihi in Deum protectorem, et in domum refugii, ut salvum me facias: quoniam fortitudo mea et refugium meum es tu; et propter nomen tuum deduces me et enutries me. Educes me de laqueo hoc quem absconderunt mihi, quoniam tu es protector meus. In manus tuas commendo spiritum meum; redemisti me, Domine Deus veritatis.

[In thee, O Lord, do I seek refuge; let me never be put to shame; in thy righteousness deliver me. Incline thy ear to me, rescue me speedily. Be thou a rock of refuge for me, a strong fortress to save me. Yea, thou art my rock and my fortress; for thy name's sake lead me and guide me, take me out of the net which is hidden for me, for thou art my refuge. Into thy hand I commit my spirit; thou hast redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God.]

As he had prayed the Divine Office every day of his life as a priest and monk, Houghton had made these words his own. The executioner hanged him from one of the branches of Tyburn Tree and then cut him down before he was dead.

Houghton was still alive after the executioner disemboweled him and as the man grasped his heart, preparing to cut it out of his chest, Houghton cried out, “Jesus, Jesus, what will you do with my heart?” After he was beheaded and quartered, his body parts would be distributed: his head on a pole above Tower Bridge; his arm nailed to the door of the Charterhouse in London. The other martyrs suffered the same strangulating and bloody death, and then the crowds dispersed.


Heroic Constancy

As the historian and Benedictine monk Dom David Knowles describes St. John Houghton, who was canonized as one of the 40 Martyrs of England and Wales by Pope Paul VI in 1970, he was a great exemplar for his order and for all the martyrs who would follow him. In Saints and Scholars: Twenty-Five Medieval Portraits, Knowles says of Houghton that in him “the strict monastic life brought to blossom for the last time on English soil a character of the rarest strength and beauty—a last flowering, a winter rose” of monasticism. 

Referring to the record of Houghton’s leadership of the Carthusian Charterhouse in London, written by a monk who did not follow his master’s path to martyrdom, Knowles comments that he was “a man capable not only of inspiring devoted attachment, but of forming in others a calm judgment and a heroic constancy equal to his own.”

Besides his two companions, 15 more Carthusians would suffer martyrdom because they would not acknowledge Henry VIII’s attempt to make himself the Vicar of Christ in England. Nine of them, lay brothers and choir monks, starved to death in Newgate prison in 1537. They were chained so that they could not move but survived longer than expected because Margaret Clement, one of St. Thomas More’s wards, managed to visit them, feed them and give them water. Once her efforts were discovered, she was not allowed to visit them again. One of the ten originally imprisoned in Newgate finally met Houghton’s fate at Tyburn in 1540.

As Knowles continues his profile of St. John Houghton, he comments that he taught his Carthusian brothers “to fear neither sharp pain nor material want, and to be true, through all extremes of suffering and desolation, to the purpose of their profession.” On May 4, the dioceses of England honor all the martyrs who suffered and died under the Tudors and the Stuarts with a liturgical Feast day. This protomartyr gave an example that they all followed, to their salvation and their glory and for our inspiration and our devotion.