English Martyrs

Faith of our fathers still living.
by Matthew Brock, LC | Source: Catholic.net

“Do it, England!” Even William Shakespeare recognized that England was the place to go if you were interested in capital punishment during the 16th and 17th centuries. You could be executed for damaging the shrubbery in public gardens during this period, but a more likely reason for being arrested, imprisoned, tortured, and final hanged, drawn, and quartered at Tyburn was for being a Catholic priest.

Forty Catholic martyrs were beatified or canonized by Pope Paul VI, and the most famous of these was St. Edmund Campion, the Oxford don turned Jesuit. His “Brag” stirred and motivated the recusant English Catholics while infuriating his enemies. “The expense is reckoned, the enterprise is begun; it is of God; it cannot be withstood. So the faith was planted: So it must be restored.”

Many of the Catholic martyrs were killed under the reign of Elizabeth I, in the latter half of the 1500s. But in 1605, after signs that the new king James I might relent toward the Roman religion, Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot ensured that English Catholics would live under discrimination and persecution for the next 200 years. Enforcement of the standing laws differed from decade to decade, with periods of relative leniency followed by bouts of persecution, often caused by the discovery of purported plots. One such episode was the so-called “Popish Plot” in 1678-1679. A spy named Titus Oates had gained admission to Jesuit seminaries in Spain and France, and upon his return to England announced to Parliament that English Catholics were planning to kill the King, massacre Protestants, and install a Catholic (read foreign) government. This utter scam was widely believed, and many Catholics were arrested, tried and executed. The most prominent among these was the Catholic archbishop of Armagh, St. Oliver Plunkett.

Historians have never known exactly how many Catholic priests were arrested and killed during these troubled times, but a large piece of the puzzle has only recently come to light. In early 2008, the court records of the Old Bailey, London’s main criminal court from 1674 to 1913, were placed on the Internet. 

One of the earliest records, hitherto unknown, is that of the 1674 condemnation of a Fr William Burnet. Arraigned in court, he was told “That to absolve, persuade, or withdraw any subject from their obedience to the King, or to reconcile them to the Pope; or to draw them to the Popish Religion, or move them to promise obedience to any other state, or procure, Counsel, or aid them that do it, shall be counted and punished as High Treason." Fr. Burnet acknowledged the charge of proselytism, “Whereupon after a full hearing, debating, and weighing of the matter, the Jury brought him in guilty of High Treason upon the last Indictment, and accordingly on Saturday he received sentence, To be Hang'd, Drawn, and Quartered; which he received with a modest Generosity, saying these words, Gloria in Excelsis Deo.” 

Another unknown trial, this in 1680, in the aftermath of the Popish Plot frenzy, is that of Fr Daniel McCarthy, an Irish priest. His crime was “for having taken Orders from the See of Rome, and coming over into England being Impeached by one Alice Turner who had formerly been his proselyte. And upon Information one Mr. Stiff a Constable in St. Giles's taking with him some other Neighbours, went to Apprehend him, and having entred the House where he was said to lodg, They found him Confessing a Sick Woman, who no sooner seeing them begin roughly to handle her Priest but cryed out, O what will you rob me of my Salvation?” He too was condemned to death, on April 21, 1680.

On the Net:

The trial information for these two martyrs, and probably a whole other cloud of witnesses, can be found at

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