On Oct 25, the Catholic Church honors 40 Martyrs of England and Wales. Their canonization represents those martyred as a result of the English Reformation (1535-1679) after Henry VIII broke ties with Rome, was excommunicated by Pope Clement VIII, and established himself as Head of the Church of England.
My high school English & Humanities teacher gets all the credit (or the blame) for my interest in York & Tudor England after introducing me to Shakespeare. In college I signed up for three semesters of Early British history (and another on Shakespeare), further developing a fascination with King Henry VIII, his wives, and Queen Elizabeth I, among others.
As a student, I found the Tower of London and the beheadings of political opponents a chilling narrative. However, it was decades later, standing inside the formidable Beauchamp Tower viewing 450-year old religious icons chiseled into gray stone walls, that I grasped the magnitude of those martyred for their Catholic faith.
Tower of London
The Tower of London holds a vast and storied history dating back a thousand years. William the Conqueror ordered a castle stronghold built near the Roman city walls which were constructed around 55 BC. William’s “Great Tower,” located in the center of the present complex, is now called the White Tower. Its dungeons imprisoned religious men under horrific conditions and used brutal torture devices on many of the 40 Martyrs.
Just west of the White Tower, across Tower Green (where three former Queens were beheaded), stands Beauchamp Tower added in 1281. My daughter and I climbed 700-year old stone stairs, squeezed through narrow passageways, and entered a moderately large room semi-circled around a fireplace. Narrow windows offered scant sunlight. Most inscriptions carved into the stone walls are simply a name, phrase, or image, left as a lasting testament to their lives. Wandering through the room, I felt a sudden connection to the humanity of these characters in the great tableau of Tudor-Stuart history. These were brothers and sisters in Christ, true to their faith even when facing torture and the horrific traitor’s death.
That night in my journal, I wrote
“Beauchamp tower full of wall graffiti carved by Catholic prisoners during the Reformation – really brought to mind the terrible times. We study from current perspectives – identifying with the victors. Henry VIII broke with the church, but it was subsequent generations that suffered. Queen Mary tried to return to Catholicism, but Elizabeth’s reign endured and was brutal towards Catholics.”
St. Etheldreda’s Church
The next day, my daughter and I attended Sunday Mass at St. Etheldreda’s in Ely. Outside of Westminster Abbey, it is the only surviving church built during St. Edward the Confessor’s reign (1239-1307) and is the oldest (and first) pre-Reformation shrine restored to Catholicism. This restored medieval church includes a post-World War II Blitz roof and magnificent stained glass.
Statues in the upper church commemorate the martyred men and women of the district, including Margaret Ward and John Roche, hanged at Tyburn in 1588. The great west window at the back of the church is dedicated to the Christian martyrs. Three Carthusians, St. John Houghton, St. Robert Lawrence and St. Augustine Webster, along with St. Richard Reynolds and Blessed John Haile, refused to take an oath declaring King Henry VIII the head of the Church.
According to St. Etheldreda’s website:
“The monks were bound to wicker hurdles and dragged from the Tower of London to Tyburn Gallows for execution, still wearing their religious habits, something previously unheard of in England. The monks had been sentenced to a traitor’s death. They were made to stand in a cart, which, when driven away, left them hanging until half dead, and then cut down whilst still alive – their hearts and intestines were torn out and burned in front of them; then their bodies were beheaded and quartered.”
After Mass, my daughter and I walked to the northeast corner of Hyde Park, marked by a great Marble Arch. We climbed an 82-foot temporary “Marble Arch Mound” and looked down upon an ordinary triangular street island containing three small oak trees. This busy intersection is the historic location of Tyburn Gallows, the public execution site where half the 40 Martyrs of England and Wales were killed. Laypersons were hanged until dead, but priests and monks suffered the traitor’s death. Only a small non-descript plaque, looking very much like a manhole cover, commemorates the place of execution – if anyone walking by cared to look.
Prior to my London trip, I hadn’t given much thought to English martyrs beyond St. Thomas More, who was beheaded on Tower Hill. (Ironically, this site is just across the street from the Tube station entrance, overshadowed by the War Memorial for Merchant Marines and Trinity Square Gardens.) The Tudor reign may have shaped modern Britain and be among the most “popular” or well-known monarchs. But my travels to London stripped away the rose-colored glasses, exposing tales of torture and death. In their martyrdom, the 40 Martyrs of England and Wales showed grace and bravery that remind us our faith is worth dying for.
Images: All photos by Shelly Kelly, 2021