Eucharist for a Dying King: Meet the Priest Who Cared for a British Monarch’s Soul

On two occasions, Father John Huddleston helped Charles Stuart gain a crown.

L to R: the title page of Father John Huddleston’s personal missal; portrait of Father Huddleston (1608-1698)
L to R: the title page of Father John Huddleston’s personal missal; portrait of Father Huddleston (1608-1698) (photo: National Trust Images/James Dobson; British (English) School via National Trust Images)

LONDON — On March 19, the feast of St. Joseph, a Roman Missal from the 17th century was making news. 

Media outlets in the United Kingdom reported that for sale was a missal that had once belonged to a priest who had helped King Charles II when he was fleeing Cromwell’s soldiers after the Battle of Worcester in 1651. That priest in question was Father John Huddleston.  

The missal, described by the auctioneers as the “prayer book of a priest who helped King Charles II flee to France at the end of the English Civil Wars” was due to be auctioned. Concerning the book, there are only two such in the U.K., so its impending sale, with an estimated sale price in excess of $2,500, was noteworthy. The auctioneer John Crane told the BBC that it was “the first time in 40 years since being an auctioneer I could use the word ‘unique.’”  

How Father Huddleston’s Missale Romanum, believed to have been published in Paris around the year 1623, ended up coming to the world’s attention is certainly unique. A handwritten note inside the missal explained that it was purchased at a used bookstore in Liverpool. In 1950, unaware of its historical significance, Joseph Proctor, visiting the store, bought the missal for a mere sixpence, which even then would have been a derisory sum. Seven years later, while attending a Catholic event, Proctor mentioned to a fellow attendee that he had acquired an interesting book bearing Father John Huddleston's signature. On subsequent examination by an expert, it was confirmed to its new owner that this was more than just an antiquarian book.

And so it was that, on March 31, the BBC reported that the missal had been sold at auction for nearly $9,000. It had been purchased by the British conservation charity the National Trust, with the help of a substantial private donation and with the support of a U.K. organization called Friends of the National Libraries. Sarah Kay, cultural heritage curator at the National Trust, told of how delighted the organization was at having kept such an “important book” from ending up hidden in some private collection. Instead, it is to go on public display at Moseley Old Hall, a stately home, now owned by the National Trust, situated in the English Midlands, where Father Huddleston, the missal’s original owner, had first encountered a fleeing king. Kay added: “Displaying and interpreting the missal will provide a compelling focus and renewed impetus for telling the story of Charles II’s remarkable escape.”

Undoubtedly, this book’s then owner played a significant part in an episode of English history, namely a king’s escape from England to France. But the missal is a testament, also, to Father Huddleston’s presence at another “escape” involving the Stuart king, one that could truly be described as “last-minute.” And this occurred in London on a cold, dank February day in 1685, as King Charles II lay dying.

By 1660, the Stuarts had been restored to the crowns of England, Scotland and Ireland; the unpopular Puritanism of Cromwell’s Commonwealth was ended. From the start, this restoration had been popular, partly because Charles’ political skills were of the first order; but, perhaps on account of this, he was a man of little integrity. This lack of integrity extended to matters of religion. He had to remain Anglican as head of the Church of England, yet secretly he despised the institution while feeling ever more drawn towards the Catholic faith. 

Charles Stuart was, however, a paradox. Despite being so drawn to Catholicism, he was also the ruler who looked the other way when the last Catholic martyr, the then-archbishop of Armagh, Oliver Plunkett, was hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn for his alleged part in the fabricated “Popish Plot.” Nevertheless, as Charles’ own end drew near and his courtiers stood in his bedchamber and watched, his brother, the duke of York (later King James II) leaned over the dying monarch and whispered, asking if he should send for a priest. The reply was vigorous: “For God’s sake do!”

All were ordered from the bedchamber, except for a privileged few, as a familiar face returned: Father John Huddleston. Now, many years previously, it was this same priest who had helped save the young king’s life after the Battle of Worcester. Doubtless it was with this in mind that the duke informed his brother: “Sire, this good man once saved your life. He comes now to save your soul.” The king whispered faintly: “He is welcome.” 

In a short treatise entitled: A briefe account of Particulars occurring at the happy Death of our late Sovereign Lord King Charles II, Father Huddleston would leave a firsthand account of what transpired next. 

“Upon Thursday, the 5th of February, 1685, between seven and eight o’clock in the evening, I was sent for in haste … and desired to bring with me all things necessary for a dying person. … Soon after, I was called into the King’s bedchamber, where, approaching to the bedside, and kneeling down.  … The King then declared, himself, that he desired to die in the faith and communion of the holy Roman Catholic church; that he was most heartily sorry for all the sins of his life past, and particularly for that he had deferred his reconciliation so long.”

The priest then told his monarch of “the benefit and necessity of the sacrament of penance,” and “the King most willingly ... made an exact confession of his whole life with exceeding compunction and tenderness of heart.” The priest then helped the king to make a “short act of contrition” before pronouncing absolution.

Father Huddleston then asked Charles: “And doth not your Majesty also desire to receive the precious body and blood of our dear Saviour, Jesus Christ, in the most holy sacrament of the Eucharist? His answer was: “Pray, fail not to let me have it.”

“As the Blessed Sacrament was brought, the King, raising himself, said: ‘Let me meet my heavenly Lord in a better posture than in my bed,’ [but the priest] humbly begged his Majesty to repose himself: God Almighty, who saw his heart, would accept of his good intention. The King then having again recited the forementioned act of contrition with me, he received the most holy sacrament for his viaticum with all the symptoms of devotion imaginable.”

As life itself was ebbing away, and with the king’s head now sunk back on his pillow, a crucifix was held by the priest before Charles’s eyes: “Your Majesty hath now received the comfort and benefit of all the sacraments that a good Christian, ready to depart out of this world, can have or desire. Now it rests only that you think upon the death and passion of our dear Saviour Jesus Christ. … Lift up, therefore, the eyes of your soul and represent to yourself your sweet Saviour. … Beseech him with all humility that his most precious blood may not be shed in vain for you. … To grant you a joyful resurrection, and an eternal crown of glory: in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.” 

Minutes later, the priest was led away by a courtier along the same passage along which he had come. A short time later, and none the wiser, the court was reassembled in the bedchamber.

As dawn broke, Charles asked for the curtains to be drawn back so he could see the morning light for the last time; later, as the bell rang at noon, he quietly passed away. 

Through the mysterious mercy of Providence, a Catholic priest was present on two occasions in the life of King Charles II. On both occasions, Father John Huddleston had helped Charles Stuart to gain a crown. 

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