At a ceremony in London last week Catholic and Anglican prelates united in memory of four monks, executed for their faith
in the 16th century. Simon Caldwell reports on a new spirit of ecumenism inspired by the blood of the martyrs On 4 May 1535 St John Houghton gave a last homily. But his congregation had not come to hear him preach but to watch him perish. Instead of a church pulpit the Prior of the London Charterhouse spoke from an openbacked cart positioned beneath Tyburn tree, the triangular gallows that once stood at the point where today Bayswater Road, Oxford Street and Edgware Road meet.
He had a noose around his neck and he knew that very soon the horse attached to the cart would be spurred into a gallop and he would be left hanging – not to die, but to choke before he would be cut down, castrated, disembowelled and chopped into quarters.
“I am bound in good conscience and am ready and willing to suffer every kind of torture than deny a doctrine of the Church,” he told his onlookers. And suffer he did: he was alive until his heart was plucked from his chest and held in front of his face.
It is this man whom Anglican Bishop Richard Chartres of London, of his own volition, honoured last Wednesday when he presided over an ecumenical service at the London Charterhouse. The ceremony involved the unveiling of a stone memorial to the 18 Carthusians killed by King Henry VIII.
Bishop Chartres, joined by Catholic auxiliary Bishop George Stack of Westminster, led almost 100 guests on to the enclosed square where the priory church once stood. A small model of the Tyburn tree was placed on the site of the high altar and as the guests circled around, James Thomson, Master of Charterhouse, recounted the acts of St John Houghton and his four companions. The language used by Mr Thomson was uncompromising.
“A series of spurious examinations did not change the priors’ stand for what Mother Church had always taught,” he said. “They were falsely found guilty of treason and sentenced to death.” As the names of all the Carthusian martyrs were read out, 20 members of Sutton’s Hospital community at the Charterhouse each placed a red rose, representing a Carthusian martyr, plus two other priests who died with them, into the model gallows. The service, held 470 years to the day of St John’s execution, concluded with the sung Russian Contakion of the Dead.
It represented the second time that Bishop Chartres has honoured Catholic martyrs; the first was in January last year when he unveiled a plaque in memory of St John Fisher in the Tower of London.
As a convinced Anglican, he perhaps may be the first to admit that his actions might surprise some people. But, as the Bishop explained, it was natural for any reasonable person to honour the “courage and discernment of those who said ‘no’ to tyranny”.
What is important about this event is that Bishop Chartres has shown himself willing to engage in the kind of ecumenical dialogue rooted in truth rather than sentimentality – a triumph because this is an area that has often been avoided precisely because it starkly addresses questions of truth.
The problem for ecumenists is that conflicting “truths” pose obstacles to agreement and therefore to unity, and it cannot be ignored that Catholics and Anglicans revere martyrs who believed in different things. Unless it is accepted, therefore, that truth is relative rather than objective, it is difficult to resist concluding that both positions cannot be right. Who will admit they are wrong?
Bishop Chartres has looked beyond these obstacles to acknowledge the moral truth common to all humanity, the very truth that Jesus Christ promised “will set you free”.
“We are honouring the martyrs who deserve to be remembered with thanksgiving by the whole Church,” he said. “Those willing to stand by the Cross and have eyes to see the values worth dying for and living for.” Besides a number of clergymen, prominent Catholics such as Lord and Lady Guthrie and the Church historian Dr Eamon Duffy, the Bishop’s audience also included academics from the University of London and the medical colleges of St Bartholomew’s Hospital that now occupy the site of the monastery.
They may not have been aware that the Bishop’s words reflected those of Pope John Paul II in Veri The Carthusian martyrs commemorated in the west window of St Etheldreda’s, Ely Place, London tatis Splendor, the 1993 encyclical on Catholic moral teaching, or even that such a document existed.
John Paul wrote that “martyrdom, accepted as an affirmation of the inviolability of the moral order, bears splendid witness both to the holiness of God’s law and to the inviolability of the personal dignity of man, created in God’s image and likeness... by their eloquent and attractive example of a life transfigured by the splendour of moral truth, the martyrs, and in general, all the Church’s saints, light up every period of history by reawakening its moral sense. By witnessing fully to the good, they are a living reproof to those who transgress the law [of God].” Bishop Stack also echoed the words of the great encyclical when he told the guests that Christians were called upon to give consistent daily witness in spite of suffering and hardship.
The supreme witness of the martyrs of the Charterhouse began just yards from where the two bishops made their addresses.
It was in the priory church that St John celebrated a Mass of the Holy Spirit to seek guidance from God after the Act of Supremacy had come into force. The Act made it high treason to deny that the King was the supreme head of the Church of England.
It also compelled all adult subjects to give their assent under oath. No one had died for the faith at that point, but after the Mass it was said that a number of monks understood, interiorly, that they were destined to suffer.
The next day St John presented himself to Thomas Cromwell, the King’s chief secretary. With him was St Robert Lawrence, Prior of Beauvale, Nottinghamshire, and St Augustine Webster, Prior of Axholme in Lincolnshire.
St John asked for an exemption from the oath. Cromwell declined and told them they must take the oath without reservation. They refused and were committed to the Tower of London.
Henry was deliberately attacking the holiest men in the Church. It followed that if the most learned and pious of all the Catholic leaders submitted to Henry’s will there would be few left in England who could offer opposition to the legitimacy of his marriage to Anne Boleyn and his claims on spiritual as well as temporal authority.
To signify the seriousness of the King’s intent the three priors, along with St Richard Reynolds, a Bridgettine monk from Syon Abbey, Kew, and Blessed John Haile, an elderly secular priest from Isleworth, who had also refused the oath, were dragged on hurdles to Tyburn in their priestly vestments, acts unprecedented in English history.
Their departure from the Tower was witnessed by St Thomas More, who turned to his daughter, Margaret, and said: “Lo dost thou not see, Meg, that these blessed fathers go as cheerfully to their deaths as bridegrooms to their marriage?” After the five were hanged, drawn and quartered, Henry ordered that one of the arms of St John be nailed over the main entrance of the Charterhouse as a warning to others.
Also martyred on the same day was Blessed John Haile, the elderly vicar of Isleworth, who had been accused of uttering slanderous remarks against King Henry and Queen Anne.
A further three Carthusians would die at Tyburn that June, three days before the beheading of St John Fisher on Tower Hill. Within two years Henry was enjoying some success on account of his brutality: a total of 19 monks had capitulated and had sworn the oath. But 12 continued to hold out. Of these, two were executed at York in 1537 and nine were chained to posts by their necks in Marshalsea Prison, London, and starved to death.
The last Carthusian executed by Henry was Brother William Horne who died at Tyburn in 1540. St John Houghton’s martyrdom was depicted by the Spanish artist Francisco Zurbaran a century later. It is a simple, bloodless portrayal that is shocking in its impact because it shows lucidly a triumph of love over evil.
The saint stands in clean vestments rather than under the knives of his butchers. A noose dangles loosely around his neck but it is he, not his executioner, who holds out his heart. The painting suggests that he has passed over the threshold from life to eternal life and is directly addressing Our Lord.
This is made explicit in the title, “Good Jesus, what will you do with my heart?”, said to have been the saint’s last words.
Today the picture hangs in the Cadiz Museum of Fine Arts, Spain. There are at least two copies in London.
Fittingly, one is kept in the martyrs’ crypt at Tyburn Convent, close to the spot where St John gave his life in witness to God’s law, and the other is in the London Charterhouse, the place where for 20 years the saint worked, studied, prayed and lived – as a simple, ordinary Christian.