Book Review: Our neglected martyrs
Review by Richard Marsden
Upon seeing the front cover of Strangers and Nomads, those familiar with literature on penal times might first think: ‘Yet another short pamphlet-style book of summaries of the English and Welsh martyrs?’ As the author himself acknowledges in his first paragraph, there is no shortage of such publications. To answer this critique, Plunkett argues that his book’s distinguishing feature is the “deliberate intention” of spreading devotion to these martyrs, and also to encourage the seeking of their intercession “for the spiritual needs of contemporary society.” Any reader would find it difficult to deny that he fulfils his aim.
The introductory pages point out the “apparent neglect” of most of the martyrs by the Church today, a Church “so much in need of their help at a time of spiritual crisis.” It is a critique that many priests and lay people alike will recognise. Evidence presented in support of this argument is the apparent absence of any “fanfare” with which the 50 th anniversary of the Canonisation of the Forty Martyrs in 2020 was marked, coupled with the fact that very few of their individual feast days are included in the national liturgical calendar. The author’s observation justifies the importance he therefore places on spreading the cult of these saintly priests, religious and lay people, something he does with great passion. It is a devotion which is grounded in three key foundations of the Catholic faith the martyrs witnessed to: “fidelity to the Pope and to the Apostolic Succession; the centrality of the Mass and importance of the Holy Eucharist at the heart of the Church; and the communion with the saints in heaven, especially with Mary, the Mother of God” (p. 17).
Acts and plots
The title ‘Strangers and Nomads’ is a quotation from Hebrews 11:13 and refers to the descendants of Abraham, who ‘recognised that the earth was not their true home and so longed for a dwelling more glorious and lasting.’ It is a fitting way to describe how the English and Welsh martyrs were treated in their own land, and too, expresses their own longing to be numbered among the saints of heaven.
This slender book is particularly appropriate for those with little prior knowledge of the penal times or the inspiring stories of the martyrs. The first section, ‘Remembering the Martyrs,’ outlines the historical context succinctly and explains the various Acts of Parliament which these saints refused to swear to, as well as the numerous fictitious ‘plots,’ such as one devised by Titus Oates (1678), that led to the death penalty for many of them. Neither does the author assume any previous knowledge of the several brutal ways of torture the martyrs suffered, such as the Scavenger’s Daughter, and the various sites of execution, such as Tyburn, which are explained in detailed footnotes.
The bulk of the text, 85 pages, contains profiles of each of the Forty Canonised Martyrs of England and Wales. Additionally, there are short entries on Saint John Fisher, Saint Thomas More, Saint Oliver Plunkett (who was Irish but who was the last Catholic martyr to be executed at Tyburn). To say the profiles are brief would be an understatement. One or two are barely over half a page long, some are two to three pages in length, another indicator that this is very much an introductory book on the martyrs. Despite their brevity, however, the profiles do characterise well the saints’ mission, faithfulness and glorious witness to Christ. Furthermore, they are arranged according to Feastdays, which makes ‘Strangers and Nomads’ a good book to have on hand to accompany one’s prayers throughout the year. Those featured, who are among the forty canonised by Pope Paul VI in 1970, include:
- Jesuit priests, such as St Henry Morse, who ministered faithfully in London to victims of the plague and also worked as a military chaplain in Flanders, before being eventually hanged drawn and quartered at Tyburn in 1645.
- Secular priests, such as Yorkshireman St Luke Kirby, who travelled to England with St Edmund Campion, but was arrested as soon as he landed. Despite not getting to bring the Mass to the Catholics of England at all, he did manage to celebrate the sacred mysteries in the Gatehouse prison in London, thanks to materials being smuggled in.
- Male Religious, Ss John Houghton, Robert Lawrence, Augustine Webster (Carthusians) and Richard Reynolds (Bridgettine), who were all executed on May 4, 1535, for refusing to take the Oath of Supremacy. They were the first of the Forty, which is why the Feast of the English Martyrs is on this date.
- Laymen, such as St Richard Gwyn, a Welsh schoolmaster, and married father of six, who was forced to attend a Protestant church in chains and rattled them so loudly the preacher could not be heard.
- Laywomen, Ss Anne Line, Margaret Clitherow, and Margaret Ward, who harboured priests, assisted them in their ministry, and provided places for Mass to be said.
Each profile ends with the collects (opening prayers at Mass) relating to each feastday. But perhaps the most intriguing feature of the accounts are quotes of the martyrs’ last words on the gallows. Many of them are at pains to point out that they have no animosity towards the monarch. In fact, what is clear, is that the martyrs love their country. However, each in their own way, pledge their loyalty above all to Christ and the Catholic Faith.
Among the most beautiful closing words, are those of St Edmund Arrowsmith:
“The mercy I look for is heaven… I freely and willingly offer to thee Sweet Jesus, this my death in satisfaction for my sins…I die for the love of thee, for our holy faith, for the support of the authority of thy vicar on earth, the successor of Saint Peter, the true head of the Catholic Church, which thou hast founded and established.” (p. 66)