Remembering the 40 martyrs of England & Wales

by Archbishop George Stack

On 25 October 1970 I was privileged to be in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome for the celebration of the Canonization of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales by Pope Paul VI. It was an awe-inspiring occasion, not least to see and hear that great church filled with English speaking people from all over the world. The liturgy was solemn and splendid. In something that was unique all those years ago, the music was not sung by the Papal Choir of the Sistine chapel but by the choir of our own Westminster Cathedral. Little did I know that thirty years later I would be responsible for them during my time as Administrator of Westminster Cathedral! The cover of the souvenir booklet marking that historic occasion is reproduced on this page. All the bishops of England and Wales were present, led by Cardinal John Carmel Heenan. Greeting them at the beginning of his homily, Pope Paul said: “We greet our brother bishops of England and Wales and of all the other countries who have come here for this great ceremony. We extend our greetings also to the priests, religious, students and faithful. We are filled with joy and happiness to have them near us today. Thanks to them, we are celebratingChrist’s glory made manifest in the holy Martyrs of England and Wales”.

All through my student days, and still today, I had a great devotion to St. Edmund Campion and St. Margaret Clitherow. Having the privilege of the shrine to St. John Southworth at Westminster Cathedral added another devotion. Campion, a Jesuit priest, was the outstanding scholar of his age and a favourite of Queen Elizabeth I. He sealed his fate by the publication of “Campion’s Brag”. In an open letter to the Government he wrote:

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”.

Margaret Clitherow, a Yorkshire wife and mother, was sentenced to death by being crushed with stones for the crime of sheltering Catholic priests. She wrote:

“If God’s priests dare venture themselves into my house, I will never refuse them”.

Her house still stands in a street called ‘The Shambles’ in York. It is now a chapel and is a great place of pilgrimage.

John Southworth came from Lancashire, but for many years he ministered as a priest in plague ridden London. He was arrested on three occasions and imprisoned for many years. Finally, he was executed at Tyburn in London the age of 62 in the year 1654. Before being hanged he said to the onlookers:

“This is the third time I have been apprehended and now being to die, I would gladly witness and profess openly my faith for which I suffer”.

Then, looking up at the gallows he said:

“This gallows I look on as His cross which I gladly take to follow my dear Saviour”.

Here in Wales we have our own members of those “Glorious Martyrs who surround Thy Throne, O Lord”. They are Richard Gwyn, John Jones, John Roberts, Philip Evans, John Lloyd and David Lewis. I cannot omit a seventh name, that of John Kemble whose relics are honoured in shrines at our churches in Hereford and Monmouth. The grave of St. David Lewis is in the Anglican churchyard at Usk, and a beautiful new shrine has just been created in his memory in the Catholic church at Usk.

There is a particular devotion in Cardiff and the surrounding area to the memory of two ‘local heroes’ who were martyred at Gallows Field which is now better known as the northern end of Richmond Road in the city. A blue plaque marks the site of their execution. Philip Evans was the jolliest of all the Welsh martyrs. He was playing tennis when told of his execution the next day. So happy did the news make him that he went on with the game. His Jesuit provincial wrote “He possessed a wonderful frankness of disposition, and a pleasant, unclouded countenance, with a brow ‘always free from furrows’”.

John Lloyd, born in Brecknockshirshire, was arrested at the same time as Philip Evans during the madness of the Titus Oates plot. They were imprisoned in the same cell in Cardiff Castle and were executed on the same day, 22 July 1679. John Lloyd had to watch whilst his friend and fellow martyr was hanged, drawn and quartered knowing that this would be his own fate too. Speaking of the witness of Philip Evans, John Lloyd said to the crowd:

“My fellow sufferer has declared the cause of our death, therefore I need not repeat it. Besides, I never was a good speaker in my life. I shall only say that I die in the true Catholic and apostolic faith, according to these words in the Creed, I believe in the holy Catholic Church; and with those three virtues: faith, hope and charity”.

Although the cell of Philip Evans and John Lloyd is not generally open to the public, the authorities at Cardiff Castle are allowing me to celebrate Mass there on 25th October in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of their canonization. Since the cell is small, the congregation will be small as well with representatives of the parishes dedicated to their name as well as pupils from the two schools named after them. Together, we shall remember the words of the great saint of the 2nd century “The Blood of the Martyrs is the seedbed of the Church”.