The First Martyrs of the Reformation

by Caroline Nation

In 1534 Henry VIII sets aside the Pope’s authority by an act of parliament in order to justify his unlawful marriage to Anne Boleyn. The Act of Succession makes it a capital offence to deny the validity of this marriage and the Act of Supremacy makes it high treason to refuse or acknowledge the king as ‘the only supreme head on earth of the church of England’. Most of the English martyrs suffered for refusing to accept these two acts. [1] It would only take five months after these acts were passed before the first martyrs would receive their heavenly crown. St. John Houghton, St. Robert Lawrence and St. Augustine Webster, three Carthusian monks, were among the first five to be martyred. When the Act of Supremacy was promulgated the three monks, as they were the priors of their monasteries, went to Thomas Cromwell to ask for their communities to be exempt from making this oath.

Cromwell threw them into prison in response to their request where they were tried and sentenced to death. The common execution at that time for ‘traitors’ was to be hung, drawn and quartered. But before this was to take place the monks were chained by their necks, waist and feet to a pillar in the prison while they awaited their martyrdom. On May 4th they were tied to ‘hurdles’, while still wearing their religious habits, and dragged to Tyburn to be executed. St. Thomas Moore in his own prison cell saw them from his window and described them to his daughter by saying, “Lo, dost thou not see Meg, that these blessed fathers be now as cheerfully going to their deaths as bridegrooms to a marriage.” [2]

Saint John Houghton was the first of the three to win his crown, before being hung he asked to say a final prayer which he took from Psalm 30 praying, “In thee, O Lord, have I hoped; let me never be confounded: deliver me in Thy justice . . . Into Thy hands I commend my spirit; for Thou hast redeemed me, O Lord, the God of truth.”3 He was then hung but the barbarous execution did not end there. They cut the rope he was hung from so that he would not die from the gallows but still be conscious when they embowelled him. As he was cut apart, like a lamb taken to slaughter, he remained meek as he called out and said “Good Jesu! What wilt thou do with my heart?” as his heart was torn from his chest. His companions, St. Robert Lawrence and St. Augustine Webster would be killed in the same way as they were called to their heavenly banquet.

These three saintly monks would be the first of many pious English Catholics who would rather die than to deny their faith and loyalty to the seat of St. Peter. They probably never imagined when they first took their vows that they would end up as martyrs under the same King that the Pope had at one time declared a ‘Defender of the Faith’. The martyrs are a vivid reminder that love is sacrifice and to love Christ is to be willing to be crucified with Him out of love for Him. We may never be asked to give witness to the faith in the way the martyrs did. But we must always be ready to take upon ourselves even the smallest cross that Our Lord honours us with because to Love Him is to imitate Him even to the Cross.

Holy Martyrs of England and Wales, Pray for Us!

[1] “They died at Tyburn” by The Tyburn Nuns

[2] words of Saint Thomas Moore


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