4 May: English Carthusian martyrs

In 1535 King Henry VIII decided to break away from the Roman Catholic Church. He forced his English subjects to recognize in him the head of the Church in England. Many of them accepted. Others managed to flee the country in order to remain loyal to the Pope. Still others suffered martyrdom. This is the case of saints John, Robert, Augustine and their companions, martyrs whom we remember today. They are commemorated in the Order with the «rite of twelve readings». We offer below eight of these readings. In them, the Carthusian Father Maurice Chauncy, who managed to escape from England, recounts the martyrdom of his brothers in the Order.


In the beginning of the year 1535 it was settled by the King, and enacted by the celebrated Act of his Parliament, that all should renounce the authority and obedience they owed to our lord the Pope, or any other superior in other countries, and should acknowledge under an oath, the King himself as supreme head of the Church, in spiritual things as well as in temporal things, under penalty of being held guilty of high treason, and punished with death. Then the three venerable father priors, John, Augustine and Robert, reflecting that the anger of the King was like a messenger of death, resolved together that they would endeavour to mitigate it (leaving the result to the judgement of God), and would anticipate and preoccupy the time of the expected arrival of the King’s councillors by going to Thomas Cromwell, the King’s vicar, to implore him to help them as far as he could to get them exempted from the King’s decree, or to obtain some mitigation or relaxation from the tenor or rigour of it, in regard to taking the oath. Having then approached him and laid before him their wishes and supplications, he not only denied their petition, but ordered them to be sent to the Tower as rebels.


After remaining in the Tower for several days suffering many inconveniences, but standing with great constancy against those who oppressed them, the order for the execution of the three father priors arrived. This was the manner of their death, if manner it can be called, where beyond all human example, the barbarous cruelty of the worst tyrants was surpassed. On being brought out of prison they were thrown down on a hurdle and fastened to it, lying stretched out on their backs; and so lying on the hurdle, they were dragged at the heels of horses through the city until they came to Tyburn: a place where, according to custom, criminals are executed, which is one league distant from the prison. Who can relate what grievous things, what tortures they endured on that whole journey, when one moment the road lay over rough and hard places, at another through wet and muddy ones, which exceedingly abounded. On arrival at the place of execution, our holy father was the first loosened, and then the executioner, as the custom is, bent his knee before him, asking pardon for the cruel work he had to do. O good Jesus! who would not weep to see the servant of Christ undergoing such suffering? Who could behold the benignity of so holy a man without being saddened; how gently and modestly he spoke to his executioner, how sweetly he embraced and kissed him, and how piously he prayed for him and for all the bystanders.


On being ordered to mount the ladder to the gibbet where he was to be hanged, our father meekly obeyed. Then one of the King’s council, who stood there with many thousand people who came together to witness the sight, asked him if he would submit to the King’s command and the Act of Parliament, for if he would he should be pardoned. The holy martyr of Christ answered: “I call upon Almighty God, and I beseech you all on the terrible day of Judgment, to bear witness that being here about to die, I publicly declare that not through any pertinacity, malice, or rebellious spirit, do I commit this disobedience and denial of the will of our lord the King, but solely through fear of God, lest I should offend his Supreme Majesty; because our holy mother the Church has decreed and determined otherwise than your King with his Parliament have ordained; wherefore I am bound in conscience and am prepared, and am not confounded, to endure these and all other torments that can be inflicted, rather than go against the doctrine of the Church. Pray for me and have pity on my brethren, of whom I am the unworthy prior.” And having said these things, he begged the executioner to wait until he had finished his prayer, which was, In you, O Lord, I take refuge… down to Into your hands I commend my spirit, inclusive. Then when a sign was given, the ladder was turned, and so he was hanged. Before his holy soul left his body, one of the bystanders cut the rope, and so falling to the ground, he began for a little bit to throb and breathe.


Our father was then dragged to another adjoining place, where his garments were violently torn off and he was again extended naked on the hurdle. Then the bloodthirsty executioner laid impious hands on him. Having ripped open his belly, he completely eviscerated him, tore out his heart and entrails and threw them into the fire, during which time our most blessed father not only did not cry out on account of the intolerable pain, but on the contrary, while they were tearing out his heart, prayed continually and bore himself most patiently, most meekly and tranquilly, so much so, that not only the presiding officer, but all who saw these things wondered. Being at his last gasp and nearly disembowelled, he cried out with a most sweet voice: “Most lovable Jesus, have mercy on me at this hour.” And, as trustworthy men have reported, he said to the executioner, while in the act of tearing out his heart: “Good Jesus! what will you do with my heart?” And saying this, he expired. Lastly, his head was cut off and his body divided into four parts. In this manner, Reverend Father, your holy son was found faithful till death. He passed from this world to the Lord, on the fourth day of May, 1535, in his forty- eighth year, and the fifth year of his priorate, like a good shepherd who gave his life, not only for his sheep, but for justice, and the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ. Our holy father having been thus put to death, the two other venerable fathers, Robert and Augustine, with another religious named Reynolds, of the Order of Saint Briget, being subjected to the same most cruel death, were at the same time deprived of life, one after another.


Those three saints having been thus put to death, certain men of low condition, and not worthy to be named, came within the next three weeks to Cromwell, vicar of the King, asking authority to make sport of and maltreat other Carthusians. This request having been readily granted, they came to us in a noisy manner and carried off three other venerable fathers, our remaining officers, namely, father Humphrey Middlemore, then being the vicar, and previously procurator of our house; father William Exmew, who had become procurator on removal from the vicariate, and father Sebastian Newdigate, a priest and monk of our house. These three were led off ignominiously to a most filthy prison, where for two whole months they were bound and fastened tightly with iron chains around their necks and thighs, and were cruelly made to stand erect against the posts and pillars of the house, without any relief or relaxation for any purpose whatsoever. At the end of these weeks, they were brought together before the Council and questioned on the same article on which our father had been put to death, and the same proposals were made to them that were made to our father.


As these three fathers constantly professed that they would not go against the decrees and practices of holy mother Church, they were condemned to the same punishment, torture, and death, and within ten days, they suffered the same things as their father. These three were young in regard to age, but mature in mind, full of grace and virtues, and of illustrious family – one of whom, father Sebastian, had been brought up in the King’s house. All were especially learned and of great constancy; boldly alleging from the Sacred Scriptures, before the judges, that the King could not arrogate to himself, as a right and by divine authority, that supremacy of the Church, which Jesus Christ our Lord gave to the Pope and to priests. And they went to death, as to a banquet, accepting it with the greatest meekness, and patience of heart, alacrity of body, and joyful countenance, in the hope of eternal life, the 19th of June, 1535. From the death of these holy brothers of ours, two years elapsed before others were imprisoned, but not without great tribulation to us.


The enclosure was divided: one part followed Jeroboam, who made Israel sin; the other adhered to the house of David, mindful of the justice of the one God, which it had learnt from its youth. One part of the community, seeing how straitened they were, the imminent danger of the overthrow of the house, that they could gain nothing by resisting, and that all the world had followed the King, these, overcome by weariness, committed themselves to the divine mercy, and consented to the royal will, yet not without great pain to their consciences, and many tears. But the rest of the community were not willing to regard the preservation of the house of stone as more precious than themselves, but at once preferring the salvation of their souls to the material house, freely gave up all they had for the sake of their salvation, and would not accept deliverance through any pretence, but with constancy opposed the King, that they might find a better resurrection and a house not made with hands in heaven.


The number of these last was ten, all professed of our London house: three priests, Richard Bere, Thomas Johnson, and Thomas Green; one deacon, John Davy; and six converse Brothers: William Greenwood, Thomas Scryven, Robert Salt, Walter Pierson, Thomas Redyng, and William Horn. All of these, on the fourth of the calends of June, 1537, were thrust into a very foul prison in the city, called Newgate, where all, except one, in a short time died of the filth and foulness of the prison. The King’s vicar was greatly vexed at their deaths in this manner, swearing with a great oath that had they lived, he would have treated them more severely. The survivor, William Horn, a converse Brother, remained safe in prison for three years. Brought forth at length to death, on the fourth of August, 1540, he suffered like our venerable father, and finished his life with like cruelties. So the son followed the father, maltreated most harshly and for a long time, preferring to be put to death for the love of Jesus Christ, and for the faith of his spouse, the Catholic Church, rather than to speak falsely or to perjure himself.

Prayer: All-powerful God, You sanctified by martyrdom John and his companions because of their fidelity to the Pope. Following the example of their unshakeable attachment to the unity of the See of Peter, may we be able thus to serve You in peace. We ask this through Christ Our Lord. Amen.

Tyburn Tree (London – UK)

Source: The History of the sufferings of 18 Carthusians in England, Burn and Oates, 1890, p.47-70. In: Lectionary for Maitins – Year A – 4 May – Readings 1-8 (Saint Hugh’s Charterhouse 2021)