Lessons From the English Martyrs

I’ll never forget an experience on the recent pilgrimage to England I conducted with biographer Joseph Pearce. We were visiting Oxborough Hall — the 15th-century moated manor house owned and occupied by the recusant Bedingfeld family.

The house has a famous “priest’s hole” — an ingenious hiding place for Catholic priests to escape Elizabeth I’s internal security police. The secret chamber was built into the walls of the tower in the ancient house. The access was through a trap door built beneath a latrine, down a narrow tunnel and up into a tiny, low room, with built-in seats just big enough for two men.

Joseph and I huddled there in awestruck silence. Without a doubt, priests had sat in that very place, holding their breath and waiting for the dreadful moment of discovery that would lead to imprisonment, torture and the gruesome fate of being publicly hung, drawn and quartered. 

We recited the Lord’s Prayer, and Joseph said, “Let’s sing the Salve Regina.” So we sang together that sweet Catholic hymn with tears in our eyes; and after we clambered out, we found a dumbstruck audience. The other tourists and pilgrims had heard us singing and whispered, “That was amazing! A chill ran down my spine!”

As we visited the “bare ruined choirs” of the destroyed abbeys, celebrated Mass at Tyburn, Canterbury and Walsingham, the lessons from the ravages of Henry VIII and his cruel daughter Elizabeth were hammered home. Furthermore, the comparisons to our own country and contemporary culture were inescapable.

It should be remembered that England at the end of the Middle Ages was considered the most devoutly Catholic country in Europe. Called “Mary’s dowry,” the English were respected across Europe for their deep faith.

Within a few short years, however, everything was reversed. The English authorities became deeply and rabidly anti-Catholic.

The United States today is likewise famously religious, with a higher proportion of believers and church-going Christians than any other developed country. The English example is a reminder that things can shift very quickly. Political exigencies can cause a once deeply religious nation to do an about-face.

The persecutions in England were harsh, but they were not sudden. Under Henry VIII, Thomas Cromwell simply started to “investigate” the monasteries, with the intent of closing those that were small and bankrupt, consolidating and making things more efficient. The propaganda was subtle. The suppression of monasteries was presented as an attempt at reform — cleaning up corruption and abuse. Henry VIII continued to despise Protestantism. He was going to stay Catholic, but without the pope. 

We should also remember that Henry’s “reforms” were incremental, liberal and generous. At first, the Oath of Supremacy, acknowledging Henry as head of the Church in England, was only required of court officials and others in legal or administrative positions. Even then, however, an accommodation was allowed. One could take the oath affirming Henry’s supremacy with the added loophole phrase “insofar as the law of God allows.” Therefore, those who were worried about denying their Catholic faith could take the oath with their fingers crossed. Most did.

Then the oath was extended to include all priests, teachers and minor officials. Eventually, the loophole phrase was removed, and those who had taken the oath had to swear again. Those who had already compromised took the next step, their consciences having already been seared.

Elizabeth’s persecutions were similarly gradual. Ascending the throne, it seemed at first that she would tolerate or even endorse Catholicism, allowing each of her subjects to enjoy religious freedom in their worship choices. As the political pressure increased, however, her persecution of Catholics became more draconian.

The Oath of Supremacy was extended to everyone. Attendance was taken at the state church. Attending Mass was an offense in itself. Offenders were fined heavily and then had property and lands confiscated; finally, they were imprisoned. Catholic priests were under automatic sentence of death, and to shelter a priest was a capital crime.

Could the persecution of Catholics become that bad in the United States in the 21st century? One hopes not, but we can observe certain parallels. 

Government pressure on Catholics to go against their consciences and provide abortion and contraception as part of health care is a reality, and the conscience clauses that provide loopholes feel uncomfortably like the elbow room of “insofar as the law of God allows” in Henry VIII’s oath. Note that after Catholics accepted the loopholes and made the oath, the accommodation was rescinded.

Could Catholics in the United States have their property confiscated and suffer pecuniary fines for not conforming to the wishes of the state?

In the recent debate on same-sex “marriage” in the Supreme Court, Justice Antonin Scalia asked the advocates of same-sex unions if approval could lead to a “Bob Jones situation.” (He was referring to the case of Bob Jones University being deprived of its tax-exempt status because it held that interracial dating was contrary to its religion.) The advocate admitted, “That is a possibility.”

Now that same-sex “marriage” has become the law of the land, a Catholic school, charity or apostolate that refuses to comply could lose its tax-exempt status. This not only means it would have to pay taxes. Additionally, donors would no longer receive tax benefits, and such organizations would be classified as businesses not charities — thus incurring huge costs to comply with all business regulations and requirements. This would amount to pecuniary fines by stealth.

Could Catholics actually be imprisoned, tortured and martyred for their faith in today’s America? It’s difficult to imagine how things could become that bad, but, then, English Catholics at the beginning of the 16th century would never have dreamt that within 50 years priests would be tortured, garroted and gutted simply for being priests.

We shouldn’t be deluded. Given the right circumstances and conditions, these horrors can happen anywhere.

The steadfastness of the English martyrs — like Sts. Thomas More and John Fisher — is a bright light within a tumultuous history. We do well to learn about them, remembering that those who don’t remember the horrors of history are doomed to repeat them.

Follow Father Dwight Longenecker’s blog Standing on My Head and browse his books at DwightLongenecker.com.