St Henry Walpole (April 7)
Henry Walpole (1558-95) was one of the English Jesuits martyred under Queen Elizabeth I.
He was born at Docking in Norfolk, the eldest of five sons and four daughters of Christopher Walpole by his wife Margery née Beckham. His family connections in later generations therefore include not merely the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole (1676-1745), but also, quite possibly, David Beckham the footballer.
Though Henry’s parents were outwardly Protestant, there was evidently a strong Catholic strain in his family; three of his brothers would become Jesuits. Henry was educated at Norfolk Grammar School and after some years at Peterhouse, Cambridge, entered Gray’s Inn, a haunt of Catholics, in 1578.
Three years later Walpole stood beneath the scaffold at the ghastly execution of Edmund Campion. Some of the martyr’s blood splashed down on to his clothes. Thereafter, it seemed, Walpole could scarcely live with himself until he had suffered a similar fate. He published a fine poem – “Why do I use my paper, ink and pen?” – on Campion, and was only saved from discovery as author because the printer bravely refused to betray his identity.
In 1582 Walpole escaped England and next year was received into the English College at Rome. Early in 1584 he became a probationer in the Society of Jesus, spending two years at its college in Verdun before being ordained in Paris in 1588. Meanwhile the Jesuits had formed a staff of army chaplains to minister to soldiers serving under the banner of Spain in the Netherlands. Walpole, a gifted linguist, proved just the man for the job.
In 1589, however, he fell into the hands of the English garrison at Flushing, enduring great privations until ransomed by his brother Michael.
Subsequently he was sent to Seville, where in 1592 he met Robert Persons, who was in charge of the Society’s English missions. Walpole thirsted for this work, and was duly appointed to a mission intended for East Anglia.
In July 1593 he was received by King Philip II at the Escorial. But when he departed for England that November the ship was blown off course and set him down at Bridlington in Yorkshire Within 24 hours Walpole had been seized. Imprisoned in York Castle, he readily admitted that he was a Jesuit priest, and in debate with Protestants acquitted himself with dangerous brilliance.
Early in 1594 he was taken to London and placed in the Tower, where he was held, along with Robert Southwell, under the supervision of the psychopathic Richard Topcliffe, chief torturer to the Elizabethan court.
Despite appalling sufferings Walpole did not compromise any Catholic in England. Sent back to York for “trial” , he was hanged, drawn and quartered there on April 17 1595.