Catholic Heritage in an Anglican Country
There is a great deal of history in England-traditionally known as “Mary's Dowry” for its wealth of churches, monasteries, and shrines-to attract the Catholic traveler.
The rich Catholic heritage to which this nickname refers might better apply to northern regions of England, where adherents to Roman Catholicism fared better in the wake of the Reformation than those nearer London. Yet it is in the Southeast, within a roughly 200-mile radius around the Reformation's epicenter, that a Catholic traveler may find some of England's most edifying destinations and be inspired to hum London Bridge while gazing upon the real thing.
The Tower of London
The roll of martyrs who gave their lives for Christ and his Church here evokes familiar names: More, Campion, Fisher, Southworth, Howard, and others less famous but no less brave. One could make a busy pilgrimage in this city alone.
After you check into your $50-a-night breadbox-sized bed & breakfast room (shared bath down the hall), take the tube down to Tower Hill where you will emerge at roughly the same spot where St. Thomas More was executed in 1535 for refusing to recognize the validity of Henry VIII's marriage to Anne Boleyn, and the king's subsequent claim to headship over the Church in England. Squinting past a brass monument (to the technological discoveries of mankind, not the saint) and scores of preening teenage tourists, the view of the sprawling Tower complex closely resembles the last thing More saw before the executioner's ax fell.
If you can brave the hordes of daytripping schoolchildren to follow an entertaining tour given by one of the Tower's Yeoman Warders (known commonly-and to this day, inexplicably, as “Beefeaters"), you'll find that the Tower of London is hardly that. Rather, it's a hodgepodge of dozens of towers, walls, gates, chapels, and houses dating from different periods of the last millennium.
Built along the Thames River, which afforded easier access to London than the dangerous roads, the Tower (900-years-old in its most ancient sections) has served as the official royal residence, as well as prison, fortress, and safety deposit box for the Crown Jewels, and execution spot for a very privileged few of Henry's disfavored wives and enemies.
The Beefeaters can be surprisingly frank, even cheery, as they relate the Tower's history of confinement and torture. Most visitors have heard the story of Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, and the rest, but the Yeoman Warders (who following tradition still live within the walls of the complex) re-tell it as a medieval soap opera-ignoring (or perhaps ignorant of) the tragic sundering of Christendom that it sparked.
But in dealing with the Catholics imprisoned there for more than a century after the Reformation, they are respectful even oddly reverent, praising Thomas More as a man who “kept his faith,” and pointing almost apologetically to a painting in the Tower's St. Peter's Chapel showing Henry gesturing to his son Edward VI, who stands triumphant before a sad-looking pope weighed down by the words “idolatry and superstition” on a stole draped around his neck.
Many of the major towers at one time or another housed Catholics imprisoned for clinging fast to the old faith, but most notable might be the Salt Tower, in which Jesuit Sts. Edmund Campion and Henry Walpole were held (although the location of the “cell of little ease,” where Campion was kept, in which it was possible neither to stand, stretch nor lie down, is not known), and from which another “Douay” Jesuit, John Gerard, escaped in 1594.
In this and some of the other towers can be seen carvings in the walls made by condemned prisoners, sometimes names but more often simple phrases and sketches testifying to faith in Christ and his Church. Unfortunately, the Bell Tower, where Thomas More spent the last year of his life, is officially part of the Queen's residence and thus accessible to the public on only a handful of dates throughout the year, and then only by special permission. In Beauchamp (pronounced “Beecham”) Tower is an information desk, with a loose-leaf binder containing a list of the prisoners of the Tower (right up to Nazi spy Josef Jacobs in 1941), their crimes and punishments.
The list from mid-6th through the 17th century contains hundreds of prisoners guilty of being “a Catholic,” a “recusant Catholic,” a “popish priest,” and the fates they suffered: most were executed, some banished, a handful “renounced Romanism.” A certain poor Thomas Harding was put to death in 1578 for being “probably a Catholic.”
Many of the major towers at one time or another housed Catholics imprisoned for clinging fast to the old faith.
Martyrs at Tyburn
Most of those executed met their fates not within the Tower walls (this was reserved for a fortunate few), though. Many of them died a few miles away at a part of London called Tyburn, an ancient execution spot for criminals where more than 100 witnesses to Christ gave their lives on huge triangular gallows from 1534 to 1681. Prisoners were bound and dragged by horses to the site, where most met death by simple hanging. But some of the more illustrious and annoying “papists”-Father Campion, for instance, convicted of a spurious treason charge-were drawn and quartered also, their entrails displayed throughout the city as a warning to all “recusants.”
The Tyburn site lies near the Marble Arch tube station, by the north end of Hyde Park. The exact spot falls, sadly, on a concrete traffic island dividing a busy corner (note: in crossing to see where the martyrs died, remember to look right, lest you join them before your time), and is marked by an inconspicuous cross rendered more so by the soap buckets of enterprising wind-shield-washers who work the congested intersection.
West a bit up Bayswater Road, however, on the north side, sits the Tyburn Convent, inhabited by the Tyburn Benedictine Sisters, a semi-contemplative order which looks after a small crypt housing relics and memorials to the English Catholic martyrs, most of them hanged at the “Tyburn Tree.” More than 1,000 people visit the crypt annually to see and pray before a piece of Thomas More's hairshirt, bone fragments of Edmund Campion, John Southworth, Philip Howard, and others, and paintings, statues, vestments, coats-of-arms, and other memorials of the Tyburn martyrs.
Tour times are seasonal and sporadic, but the sisters seem glad to oblige visitors at other hours, too. The sisters offer an informative booklet called “They Died at Tyburn,” which offers a history of the spot and brief biographies of each of its victims. Also, at the north-most corner of Hyde Park, one can find Speaker's Corner, site of regular Sunday debates conducted earlier this century by apologist Frank Sheed's Catholic Evidence Guild, and still a place for public theological disputes- during my visit between two Muslims and a Seventh-Day Adventist.
The Other Westminster
After you fight your way through the crowds at (Anglican) Westminster Abbey in the shadow of Big Ben, visit Westminster Cathedral, the chief church of the Archdiocese of Westminster. Built in the heart of London between 1895-1903, following a period of greater freedom for Catholics in the mid-19th century, the cathedral mixes a Byzantine interior with a neo-Renaissance exterior of Siena-red brick (or bricks; more than 12 million of them).
True to its form, Westminster houses gorgeous mosaic work and Eastern-style crucifixes. One highlight of Westminster Cathedral also draws on the post-Reformation English legacy: the body of priest and martyr St. John Southworth, hanged and dismembered at Tyburn in 1654. His body was smuggled to the Continent, and then lost during the French Revolution, not to resur-face until 1926. Brought to the cathedral in 1930, Southworth's memorial features the saint's body laid out in priestly vestments, his silver-gilded face and hands visible. The cathedral, a short walk from Victoria station, is open daily 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m., with several daily and Sunday Masses, plus Sunday Benediction and daily Vespers.
Next week: Oxford, Canterbury, and elsewhere.
Todd Aglialoro recently visited England.
- January 25, 1998