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Newman: A Light between the Reformation and Modernity

Friday 6th November 2020

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Newman: A Light between the Reformation and Modernity

Stefan Kaminski

St John Henry Newman’s journey to the Catholic faith remains a powerful testimony to an increasingly-secularised world

Last month, two important anniversaries of English saints coincided. We saw the fiftieth anniversary of the canonisation of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales, and we celebrated the first anniversary of John Henry Newman’s canonisation.

Although the Martyrs and Newman lived and died several centuries apart, they are united by the experience of the protestant Reformation and the ensuing split of the English State’s Church from the Catholic. However, they both experienced this split in rather different ways. The Martyrs experienced it from without: being persecuted and executed for not adhering to the new, Protestant Church. Newman, as a member of that Protestant Church, experienced it from within; from there, finding his way to Catholicism.

Oriel College, Oxford, where St Newman was elected Fellow in 1822.

Although Newman was no longer subject to laws that penalised the practice of Catholicism in England, he was nonetheless ostracised following his public conversion, and lost – at least for a period – many of his friends. A large dose of prejudice and suspicion of Catholics remained from the Reformation era, and in this sense too, his experience was in continuity with the Martyrs. 

However, Newman also faced a prejudice and suspicion from different quarters, which, in our turn, we can identify with too. The philosophical current known as modernity had already taken root by Newman’s day. The “modern” way of thinking rejected the possibility of acknowledging any religious belief to be true. It declared, in the words of Newman, that “revealed religion is not a truth, but a sentiment and a taste; not an objective fact, not miraculous.” Modernity meant that all interpretations of reality were equally valid: meaning that none were ultimately true. In this milieu of an increasingly secular culture and an embedded hostility to Catholicism, Newman found his way to God and to the Church.

The statue of Cardinal Newman in front of the Brompton Oratory, London

It was not, as is often the case, a simple and immediate conversion. Rather, as Pope Benedict XVI observed when he beatified Newman, it consisted of three, distinct phases. The first is, in part, a response to the secular world: it is basically the thought that there exist “two and two only absolute and luminously self-evident beings, myself and my Creator”. In effect, this was a conversion to a properly Christian way of thinking, which we are increasingly alienated from due to the contrary assumptions that secular thinking makes. For “modern man”, reality is defined by the empirical: that which science can tell us. For the Christian, reality is defined by the spiritual: God and one’s soul.

This truth applies not only to our own, physical existence in this world, but also to every person around us and, indeed, to the entire world that surrounds us. It leads to the understanding that the meaning of things is given by God; their existence itself is guaranteed by God, rather than by the laws of nature (which are themselves an expression of God’s will). And so, the second of Newman’s conversions is summed up in his insistence that it is not enough to hold one’s faith as an abstract state of consciousness: Christianity means “’looking to Jesus’ (Heb 2:9) … and acting according to His will.” It is a trusting in the Lord to lead us concretely through along the path of life, perhaps best summed up by Newman’s hymn, “Lead, Kindly Light”.

The third conversion was, in a sense, the most difficult. If there was a stigma attached to the rejection of his own, Anglican Church, it was increasingly counter-cultural to profess adherence to the doctrines of the Catholic Church. As Benedict XVI noted, this step involved giving up his rank, profession and many of his academic and personal ties; and yet Newman resolutely took this step in October 1845. If it was a step that involved a great interior struggle; it was also a step that finally brought a peace to his mind. Despite the corruption, divisions and imperfections that Newman saw vividly in the Catholic Church, he understood that these were not relevant to the question of faith. For in the Church, Newman saw the same objectivity that he identified in God: the reality of the Church as the real and living, Body of Christ. The Church, with its frail and human outward appearance, is the real place of God’s presence, that the Creator made for Himself upon entering into the world. In that Church, Newman “found a power, a resource, a comfort, a consolation in our Lord’s Real Presence, in communion in His Divine and Human Person, which all good Catholics indeed have.”

Contrary to what is sometimes, sceptically, asserted: becoming a Catholic did not involve a handing over of his own powers of thinking and autonomy. Becoming a Catholic meant finding the freedom to be transformed by what is true, and therefore to discover oneself ever more authentically. It is the same freedom that the Martyrs possessed in giving their lives readily for God, the Church and their flock. It is a freedom that appears contradictory to the secular mind, which can only conceive of freedom as pure, unstructured (and therefore meaningless) liberty.

St Newman thus retains an enormous relevance to today’s Christians. He stands as a powerful reminder that authentically seeking God entails neither freedom from the Church nor freedom from religion.

This article draws from a talk given by Dr. Giuseppe Pezzini’s on St Newman for The Christian Heritage Centre. It is accessible at

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Homage to the Martyrs at Deepdale

Friday 2nd October 2020

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Homage to the Martyrs at Deepdale

David Gorman

David Gorman looks back 50 years to when 20,000 flocked to Preston’s Deepdale Stadium for Mass to celebrate the Canonisation of the Forty Martyrs, a quarter of whom came from Lancashire.

The cause for the canonisation of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales, which eventually took place on 25th October 1970, stretches its roots back to the mid-19th Century. 

Following the restoration of the Catholic hierarchy in England and Wales in 1850, Cardinal Nicholas Wiseman and Cardinal Henry Manning led a campaign for the recognition of those who had been Martyred for the faith. 

Just a year previously, in 1849, Frederick William Faber had written the rousing hymn Faith of Our Fathers in memory of the Martyrs. Born and raised an Anglican, Faber converted and was ordained a priest, later becoming an Oratorian Father. 

By 1935 nearly 200 Reformation Martyrs had been beatified, earning the title ‘Blessed’, but only two, John Fisher and Thomas More, had been canonised; both on 19 May 1935 by Pope Pius XI.

Following the end of the Second World War, the cause, which had been largely dormant for some time, was gradually revived and, in December 1960, the names 

the Lancaster Evening Post, 3 July 1961

of 34 English and six Welsh Martyrs were submitted to the Sacred Congregation of Rites by Cardinal William Godfrey, Archbishop of Westminster. All had been Martyred between 1535 and 1679. The list of names was drawn up in consultation with the Bishops of England and Wales and an attempt was made to ensure the list reflected a spread of social status and religious rank, together with a geographical spread and the existence of a well-established devotion.

Of the 40, 33 were Priests (20 religious and 13 secular) and seven were lay people. It is worth noting that around a quarter of these Mar-tyrs came from within the historic boundaries of the County Palatine of Lancashire, a reminder, albeit a poignant one, that the region remained a true stronghold of the faith despite the persecutions and difficulties that brought.

On 24th May 1961, the re-opening of the cause was formally decreed by Pope John XXIII. It was no surprise, therefore, that once the list of 40 names had been submitted, and the decree issued, the Diocese of Lancaster was quick off the mark in organising a rally in support of the cause. The rally took place on Sunday 2nd July 1961 at Deepdale, home to Preston North End, and was attended by more than 20,000 people including over 200 clergy. 

Pontifical High Mass at the Forty Martyrs Rally, Deepdale, Preston

Parishioners, school children, scouts, guides, cubs and brownies all processed through the streets of Preston from their respective churches to the stadium while others, from parishes further afield, arrived by coach. The Lancashire Evening Post reported that: ‘It started back in the parishes where three huge processions based on St Joseph’s, St Ignatius’ and St Gregory’s formed and walked through the streets with banners and bands to converge at Deepdale’.

A ‘Pageant of the Martyrs’ took place with 40 individuals each dressed as a martyr in the colourful costumes associated with the Tudor and Stuart periods. Narrators announced brief details of each martyr’s life and death, and once all were assembled on the dais ‘they presented a huge tableau, strangely set in a modern football stand, of figures who suffered the strife and religious persecution in England and Wales 400 years ago’.

The pageant was followed by Pontifical High Mass celebrated by Monsignor Thomas Eaton, the Vicar General of the diocese, in the presence of Bishop Thomas Flynn of Lancaster. 

For the canonisation to proceed it was necessary for two miracles, granted through the intercession of the 40 as a group, to be recognised. A list of 24 miracles was collated and submitted by the English and Welsh bishops and, after careful examination, two of these were chosen for further scrutiny. The Sacred Congregation for the Causes of Saints granted a special dispensation whereby it was decided, subject to Papal approval, that one of the two miracles would be sufficient to allow the canonisation of all 40 Martyrs to proceed. This was the “cure of a young mother affected with a malignant tumour (fibrosarcoma) in the left scapula, a cure which the Medical Council had judged gradual, perfect, constant and unaccountable on the natural plane”.

On 4th May 1970 Pope Paul VI confirmed the “preternatural character of this cure brought about by God at the intercession of the 40 blessed Martyrs of England and Wales”. The path was now open for the canonisation to take place on a date to be set, and thirty-four English and six Welsh Martyrs were submitted to the Sacred Congregation of Rites by Cardinal William Godfrey, Archbishop of Westminster. All had been Martyred between 1535 and 1679. The list of names was drawn up in consultation with the Bishops of England and Wales and an attempt was made to ensure the list reflected a spread of social status and religious rank, together with a geographical spread and the existence of a well-established devotion.

Parishioners on Skeffington Road, Preston about to leave St Joseph's Church for Deepdale

However, there was concern in some quarters about the effect the canonisation might have on the ecumenical agenda. In November 1969, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Michael Ramsey, had “expressed his apprehension that this canonisation might rekindle animosity and polemics detriment to the ecumenical spirit that has characterised the efforts of the Churches recently”. 

It was clear, however, that the majority of people within both faiths supported the canonisation and, on 18th May 1970, Pope Paul VI declared, during a consistory, that the canonisation would take place on 25th October that year “pointing out, with serene frankness and great charity, the ecumenical value of this Cause, also laying particular stress on the fact that we need the example of these Martyrs particularly today not only because the Christian religion is still exposed to violent persecution in various parts of the world, but also because at a time when the theories of materialism and naturalism are constantly gaining ground and threatening to destroy the spiritual heritage of our civilization, the 40 Martyrs – men and women from all walks of life – who did not hesitate to sacrifice their lives in obedience to the dictates of conscience and the divine will, stand out as noble witnesses to human dignity and freedom”.

Some 10,000 English and Welsh pilgrims, together with the bishops of England and Wales and representative bishops from Scotland and Ireland, were among the large congregation which attended the canonisation Mass at St Peter’s. Special guests included descendants of many of the martyrs, including the Duke of Norfolk, England and Wales’s most senior Catholic layman and himself a collateral descendant of the soon to be St Philip Howard. In recognition of the unique significance of the event for English and Welsh Catholics, the Maestro Perpetuo of the Sistine Chapel Choir, which would normally sing at all canonisation Masses, agreed that the Westminster Cathedral Choir could sing in its place. The Catholic writer, Auberon Waugh, described the canonisation as “the biggest moment for English Catholicism since Catholic emancipation”.

This article is from a series published in the Catholic Voice of Lancaster this month, commemorating the 50th anniversary of canonisation of the Forty Martyrs.

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Henry’s Reformation: England’s defining moment?

Friday 6th March 2020

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Henry’s Reformation stands as the key moment in England’s history

Adam Coates

Every country can point to some event within its past which has played a role in defining the nature of that country, both historically and to the present day. A French person would likely point to the French Revolution in 1789, a German to the fall of the Nazi regime in 1945, a Russian to the arrival of Communism. However, to what might an Englishman point? 

The events of the Second World War are surely an important one. The Civil War in the 17th century is another. A common one that would be brought up, a date seared into the mind of nearly every English person, is the Norman Conquest of 1066.

However, despite all of these, one event which arguably stands above them all is the English Reformation. Beginning, initially, as a political dispute, theological conflicts were brought to the fore with a series of Acts of Parliament, including the Act of Supremacy in 1534, which placed the English Church in Schism. The aforementioned 1534 Act formally declared the King, Henry VIII, as Supreme Head on Earth of the Church of England’.  

This was followed by Henry’s son, Edward, coming to the throne and pushing a more explicitly theologically and liturgically Protestant line. The early death of Edward saw the succession of his half-sister Mary. Her five-year reign reversed her brother’s religious reforms and her father’s schism. However, Mary’s efforts were in vain as she was succeeded by her half-sister Elizabeth who again took the English Church from under the umbrella of Rome, though choosing a theological via media between continental Protestantism and Catholicism. 

Why is this series of events arguably the most important in English history? While it is fun to engage in counterfactual history, wondering what may have happened had the religious changes of the 16th century never taken place, this is not a proper historical task. These religious changes are important, not because of what we can imagine in their absence, but because of what religion is in a human society. The 20th century historian Christopher Dawson, whom TS Eliot described as “the most powerful intellectual influence in England”, was interested in the study of civilisations.

The towering presence of Henry VIII looms large over English history in this portrait by Holbein. Inset, the poetry of Robert Southwell provided spiritual nourishment for the faithful at home

The questions of how and why they rise and fall led to a lifetime of research and writing, producing numerous books, articles and lectures. The great conclusion of Dawson’s works was that religion is one of the key and consistent driving forces of civilisation throughout history. It therefore stands to reason that an event such as the Reformation, where the religious fabric of the country was fundamentally altered from top to bottom, would be of primary importance. 

One might reasonably argue that the traditional English stiff upper lip is a result of the more restrained Protestant approach to worship when compared with the rich ceremonies of the Mass. Charles Darwin observed that “Englishmen rarely cry […]; whereas in some parts of the Continent the men shed tears much more readily and freely”. G. K. Chesterton would write that ‘those countries in Europe which are still influenced by priests, are exactly the countries where there is still singing and dancing and coloured dresses and art in the open air. Catholic doctrine and discipline may be walls; but they are the walls of a playground’. The implication is clear; there are cultural differences between Protestant England and the Catholic countries of continental Europe that are the result of religious doctrine and practice. Even though these countries are quickly shedding their religion, those cultural differences remain

Religious changes brought about mass cultural changes. The religious houses of England were supressed in what the historian Professor George W. Bernard has described as “one of the most revolutionary events in English history”. 

The dotted remains of ruined abbeys and priories, their stone remains jutting from the ground like the bones of a long extinct beast, are eloquent testimony to the radical change of the suppression. These religious reforms, naturally, affected everyone. Some, such as those in Lincolnshire and Yorkshire, responded by open rebellion. Others secretly kept their Catholicism while attending Anglican services. Some refused to attend Anglican services and practised their Catholicism secretly. 

A consistent desire among wealthy Catholic families who continued in their Catholicism was that of seeing their children educated as Catholics. Stonyhurst College, on whose estate the Christian Heritage Centre has its home, is one such school. Beginning life at Saint-Omer in 1593, it provided a Catholic education for English boys in the then Spanish Netherlands. Within centres like this, a distinctly Catholic and English culture could remain and, indeed, flourish in relative safety behind the barrier of the English Channel. These sanctuaries were to produce saints and martyrs who were to die in England for preaching the Catholic faith. 

One such figure, Robert Southwell, a product of the English College at Douai, was to provide spiritual nourishment for the faithful at home. One way he did this was through his corpus of poetry. One poem, New Heaven, New War, speaks of the coming of Christ at Christmas. God invades the Devil’s abode to defeat him: ‘This little Babe so few days old, Is come to rifle Satan’s fold; All hell doth at his presence quake, Though he himself for cold do shake; For in this weak, unarmed wise, The gates of hell he will surprise’.

God, in having taken on flesh, will defeat Satan. 

Verse such as this must have been a great comfort to English Catholics who thought themselves once again in ‘Satan’s fold’; Christ’s victory against these powers is inevitable. 

It is precisely on this topic that the Christian Heritage Centre will be hosting an academic conference on Saturday, 28th of March. Led by Professors Peter Davidson and Gerard Kilroy, the conference will examine the cultural interactions between Protestant England and the Catholic part of Europe. 

St Robert’s poetry, such as that quoted above, represented a vibrant Catholic and English culture in exile that sort to provide comfort to those at home. The conference will be providing a fresh look at these cultural contributions that demonstrate, despite its persecution, a vibrant, living body of faith. 

Adam Coates is the Educational Assistant, The Christian Heritage Centre

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Stained glass of a Yorkshire Martyr finds a home in Lancashire

Friday 6th July 2018

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Stained glass window of a Yorkshire martyr finds a home in Lancashire

Margaret Clitherow provides a fine example of a woman strong in her faith

The white rose of Yorkshire will find a special place in the red rose county of Lancashire with a beautiful new piece of stained glass commissioned for Theodore House at the Christian Heritage Centre at Stonyhurst, which tells the story of York’s great martyr, St Margaret Clitherow, and recording the memory of her unborn child.

The Jesuit poet, Gerard  Manley Hopkins SJ – who walked and worked in the Stonyhurst grounds of the Christian Heritage Centre and Theodore House – was deeply touched by the story of ‘the Pearl of York’ and left an unfinished poem Margaret Clitherow dedicated to ‘God’s daughter Margaret Clitherow’, paying tribute to her faith and courage in the face of a cruel death.

The new stained glass depicts  St Margaret holding an unopened bud of a white rose, representing Margaret’s unborn child, crushed to death with her. It also depicts the Shambles in York, where Margaret lived, and Stydd chapel, near  Ribchester, where many believe she was laid to rest in an ancient chapel.

The trustees of the Christian Heritage Centre charity hope this beautiful commission will inspire visitors to celebrate the lives of mothers and their unborn children – particularly in a country where one baby in the womb is aborted every three minutes, 20 every hour, 600 every day. Traditionally and locally made in Padiham, near Burnley, the window is a replica of a piece of work for  the Ribchester parish of St Peter and St Paul, near Stydd, and made possible through the generosity of the family of John Kennedy KSG.

Margaret Clitheroe stained glass
The stained glass of St Margaret Clitherow, in Theodore House

On many levels, St Margaret’s story speaks powerfully into our own times. Her practical support and hospitality towards outlawed priests; the tolerance practiced within her own family; her spirituality, courage and fortitude act as a stirring rebuke to our half-heartedness. Canonised in 1970 by Pope Paul VI, Margaret was crushed to death – peine forte et dure – in York, on Good Friday, 25th March 1586, for harbouring Fr Francis Ingleby, a Catholic priest. The York assizes had ordered her to be stripped naked; to be laid on a sharp rock; and for an immense weight of stones and rocks to be placed on a door. This was placed on top of her, crushing the life from her body. After an earlier arrest, her third child, William, had been born in prison. Now pregnant with her fourth child, and aged 30, she was executed on Lady Day. Her body was thrown on a dung heap. Her last words had been “Jesu, Jesu, Jesu, have mercy on me.”

Stydd Chapel in Ribchester, where St Margaret's remains may lie

The story has it that six weeks later a group of Catholics recovered the body, embalmed it, and had it taken to a secret place. Margaret’s right hand was removed from her body and is today kept at York’s Bar Convent. The location of her grave is an unsolved mystery but visitors to Theodore House can go to Stydd chapel where many believe she is buried. Stydd is close to the village of Ribchester – a one-time Roman garrison town complete with baths and temple.

In 1789, it was here, before emancipation in 1829, that Catholics built a small barn church, dedicated to St Peter and St Paul. But it is the nearby chapel of St Saviour, with its Saxon origins, and a structure dated to the mid-12th century – and beautifully restored by its Anglican guardians – that holds the clues to the possible whereabouts of St Margaret.

Originally the chapel was part of a small priory of Knights Hospitallers of St John – skilful herbalists and healers, caring for lepers, the sick, and pilgrims. St John’s holy well,  aid to have healing waters, is close by. The knights were here for 300 years, until Henry VIII confiscated their houses.

Legend has it that Margaret’s posthumous journey to Stydd began when Fr Francis Ingleby, the priest she took into her home, arranged for her body to be taken west to a relative. Ingleby was related to the Catholic Hawksworth family of Mitton, near Ribchester. Missionary activity in the area was centred on Bailey Hall, in the parish of Mitton and it is believed that  Margaret’s body was first taken to Bailey Hall.

But in 1716, after the Catholic Shireburn family supported Bonnie Prince Charlie, the Hall was forfeit and to ensure that the body was not desecrated it is said to have been removed to Stydd. In 1915 some students from Stonyhurst College excavated the ruins of a burial crypt next to the Hall and found the mausoleum empty.

Yorkshire’s Catholic Vavasour family have an oral tradition that Margaret “was taken a horse’s journey at night and was buried; there she will
remain until the Church is restored to its own.” That Catholics held Stydd to be especially holy ground is borne out by the request of Fr Sir Walter Vavasour – a Jesuit whose missionary work was based at Bailey Hall, and who died in 1789 – to be buried there. Two other Catholic priests – Fr Charles Ingolby and Fr Richard Walmsley – made the same request. More intriguing still is the white marble gravestone of Bishop Francis Petre.

It must be unique for a Catholic bishop – and Apostolic Vicar at that – to request burial in what had become an Anglican chapel. The Latin inscription on his tomb translates as follows: ‘Here lies the most Illustrious and Reverend Lord Francis Petre, Of Fithlars, of an illustrious and ancient family in the county of Essex, Bishop of Amoria and Vicar Apostolic of the Northern District; which he governed with discernment and care for 24 years, being its patron and ornament by his kind acts and apostolic virtues;
then full of days and good deeds, after bestowing many alms, he died in the Lord on the 24th December of the year 1775, aged 84. May he rest in peace.’

The Shambles in York. Photo by Peter K Burian - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

The other interesting gravestone, dating from 1350, has a lovely floriated design and buried here are the Knight Sir Adam de Cliderow and his wife, Lady Alice Cliderow. Next to Bishop Petre’s grave is a simple cross and it is believed by many that this is where Margaret Clitherow lies. But, regardless of whether this is her final resting place, the Trustees of the Christian Heritage Centre believe her life and death should inspire us today. 

Hers is the story of a courageous woman whose family had to make sense of the religious conflicts of the day. A Catholic convert, and married to John, an Anglican, who lovingly stood by her throughout her ordeals. She became renowned for her personal holiness, gaining her strength by praying daily for an hour-and-a-half and fasting four times each week. Her story reminds us of the Christians who suffer persecution, death, and torture on a daily basis all over the world; it speaks about the need to respect difference. It recalls the wanton destruction of innocent unborn life.

On arrest, Margaret refused to plead – since a plea would  incriminate her family and her servants and she said that she wished to spare the jury’s conscience. She knew that the penalty for refusing to enter a plea was death by crushing. Her only statement was “Having made no offence, I need no trial.” This, then is a story about conscience – reminding us of the price paid by contemporary women, like the Glasgow midwives who lost their jobs after refusing to be complicit in the taking of the lives of children in the womb.

The new window, and a room, in Theodore House commemorating Margaret Clitherow will be a fitting tribute to a great northern woman. Visitors to The Christian Heritage Centre will take her story to their hearts.

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The witness of St Edmund Campion: a heroic story of faith

Friday 8th June 2018

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The witness of St Edmund Campion: a heroic story of faith

Graham Hutton

Last month we thought about the martyrs for the faith associated with the Tower of London, all of whom suffered under Henry VIII and who will be commemorated by the Christian Heritage Centre when Theodore House opens at the end of the summer.

Sadly, as the story of St Edmund Campion reminds us – and whose life and death has so many associations with our project – in the reign of Elizabeth I, the Tower would once again be adorned with the presence of many confessors for Christ, most of whom paid the supreme penalty.

The first of these was Blessed John Felton, imprisoned and tortured on the rack three times before being hanged, drawn and quartered at  Tyburn for having affixed a copy of Pope St Pius V’s Bull of excommunication of Elizabeth, Regnans in Excelsis, to the gates of the Bishop of London’s palace near St Paul’s Cathedral. Others included St Ralph Sherwin, Protomartyr of the English College, also racked in the Tower and then executed at Tyburn, and St Philip Howard, who left an inscription on the wall of his cell in the Beauchamp Tower which reads ‘The more suffering with Christ in this world, the more glory with Christ in the next’.

Of all these glorious martyrs, however, the one who is closest to the heart of the CHC is St Edmund Campion. When in 1564 Queen Elizabeth visited Oxford University, where Campion was a fellow, his learning was such that he was chosen to give a Latin oration in praise of the Queen. His oration won great praise and earned him powerful  patronage at Court. Ordained as a deacon in the Church of England he would undoubtedly have risen to high office in that Church had he not gradually became convinced by the claims of the Catholic Church.

This led him to renounce the brilliant career which lay ahead of him and to leave England for the continent where he was reconciled with the Church of Rome.

Portrait of St Edmund Campion

At first he studied at Douai but in 1573 left for Rome to join the Society of Jesus. It was quickly decided that he should join the Austrian Province
of the Society and in 1573 he travelled first to Vienna and then on to Brunn and finally to Prague where he remained for six years. Here he was Professor of Rhetoric and Philosophy and Latin preacher. In 1580 it was decided that the Society of Jesus which, until then, had provided no priest for the mission to England, would send two, and Campion was chosen to be one of them. He returned first to Rome and from there made his way through France with Robert Persons, and a lay brother, to St Omer. On 24th June 1580 Campion set foot in England for the first time in nine years; he knew that he was returning to almost certain death.

Campion’s mission was to the Catholics of England. It was now 21 years since the second break with Rome and few of the old priests ordained under Queen Mary I remained alive. The Mass had been proscribed by a law which imposed a fine of 100 marks and 12 months’ imprisonment for the hearing of it in addition to the large fines which were imposed on so-called recusants for failing to attend the services of the state Church.

The Tower of London's White Tower. Photo by Bernard Gagnon - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

Nevertheless, many remained loyal to the Church, and  Catholicism was particularly strong in some of the great aristocratic households of the Thames Valley and the Sacred County of Lancashire. It was to these houses, with their secret Catholic chapels and holes in which the sacred vessels and vestments (as well as the priests themselves in time of emergency) could be hidden, that Campion went to minister. In disguise he travelled  extensively ‘through the most part of the shires of England’ (Persons) hearing confessions and saying Mass for the faithful who would have had no access to the sacraments for many years and yet who had kept faith.

During this time Campion wrote Decem Rationes defending the claims of the Church against those of the state church. This document was widely circulated and led to an increase in the government’s

determination to track down Campion. Betrayed by a spy at one of the Catholic houses, Lyford Grange in Berkshire, and after an extensive search of the house, he was found lying in one of the secret priest’s holes.

Campion was, of course, taken at once to the Tower where he was initially imprisoned in the cell known as the Little Ease because it was so small that a man could neither stand upright not lie down in it. Here he had to crouch in the halflight for four days before he was taken out for examination by senior officials of the Crown. He was then promised that even now he could obtain freedom and great preferment if he would renounce the Church of Rome and return to the state Church. Campion, of course, refused and was returned to the Tower where those who had offered him his freedom now  authorised his being put to the torture.

For three months Campion suffered intermittent torture on the rack. By the time he came to trial in November he was so physically broken that he was not even able to raise his right hand to take the oath. At the trial he was found guilty of treason and condemned to the usual barbaric form of execution. On hearing the dreadful sentence he and the other priests condemned with him burst into singing the Te Deum.

Despite his broken body, Campion was now forced to take part in a series of disputations in the Tower in St Peter ad Vincula. Despite the disadvantages, Campion acquitted himself well and put up a strong defence of his faith.

On 1st December St Edmund Campion along with two other priests met at the Coldharbour
Tower. It was raining as it had  been for several days and the London streets were foul with mud. The three priests were bound on hurdles (as was customary) and dragged by horses for several miles through the muddy streets from the Tower to Tyburn. The rope with which he was bound is held in the Collections at Stonyhurst.

"Chamber of Little Ease" in the Tower of London

One witness records how one gentleman along the way wiped Campion’s face ‘all spattered with mire and dirt’. At Tyburn St Edmund made a brief speech before being hanged, drawn and quartered. Standing near the front of the enormous crowd was Henry Walpole. He came of a Catholic family but had fallen into indifference. Now, when St Edmund’s entrails were torn out by the executioner, a spot of the martyr’s blood splashed his coat. In that moment he was converted and immediately afterwards left England, became a priest and 13 years later suffered the same martyrdom as St Edmund, although in his case at York rather than Tyburn.

Why do stories like this  matter? It’s because they remind us of the price paid for the religious freedoms that we enjoy today and the central importance of upholding the right of every man and woman to believe, not to believe, or to change their belief. In promoting freedom of religion
and belief, The Christian Heritage Centre will shine a light on today’s Towers and today’s tortures – from Eritrea to Nigeria, from North Korea to Pakistan.

Graham Hutton is a Trustee of the CHC and Chairman of Aid to the Church In Need.

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Stonyhurst yields its mystical treasures

Friday 4th May 2018

The CHC @ The Catholic Universe

Stonyhurst yields its mysteries

Jonathan Luxmorre

Through the wide windows of a rambling but stately greystone building, the northern Lancashire countryside sweeps toward the Irish Sea in a maze of fields and woodlands. Inside, spring sunlight plays over shelves and glass cases, containing faded books and ancient artifacts amassed over four centuries.

When Stonyhurst College was founded at Saint-Omer in the Spanish Netherlands by the recusant Jesuit Fr Robert Persons in 1593, persecuted Catholic priests faced a mandatory death sentence if caught ministering in England.

More than four centuries later, Stonyhurst, the world’s oldest Jesuit school, houses a remarkable collection of relics relating to the country’s many martyrs. “Many things were being destroyed in Reformation England, so when Catholic boys came abroad to the school, they’d bring vestments, manuscripts and precious objects for safe keeping,” explained Jan Graffius, the collection’s curator. “This makes us part of the story Stonyhurst yields its mystical treasures and means we know what it was like to be targeted,” she said. “At a time when people know little about the struggles of the past, these relics provide a graphic reminder of what Catholics faced in upholding their faith.” 


The collections at Stonyhurst College provide a fascinating insight into the sometimes bloody history of the struggles faced by Catholicism in England
Church vestments form a substantial part of the Stonyhurst Collections

In 1794, when the school was forced to flee the French Revolution, its collection was already extensive. It was lucky to have the current site donated by a former student, Thomas Weld, father of Cardinal Thomas Weld (1773-1837). The Stonyhurst Collection, now being opened to visitors, has continued expanding.

 Its earliest exhibits include a piece of jawbone, documented to early medieval times, said to come from St Stephen. Its most recent relic is a piece of the bloodied vestment worn by St Oscar Romero of El Salvador when he was assassinated on 24th March 1980, while celebrating Mass.

“The idea is to provide an accessible public resource with a narrative tracing back 2,000 years,” Graffius said. “These objects tell their own stories, and people engaging with them can feel uncomfortable, even revolted. But no-one remains indifferent and everyone has questions to ask,” she added.

England’s Catholic Church was effectively outlawed under Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603), who implemented her father’s break with Rome while officially seeking a Protestantled compromise, or “middle way”.

 Persecution was stepped up after Pope Pius V declared the Queen excommunicated and deposed in 1570 and following the 1588 rout of the Spanish Armada invasion fleet. It intensified following the failed 1605 Gunpowder Plot by Catholic militants against King James I, although Masses continued to be secretly celebrated at great personal risk by undercover Jesuit priests.

Choking off Catholic education was seen as key to stifling adherence to the traditional faith. It survived, but at a high price. In all, 23 Stonyhurst pupils were executed between 1610 and 1680; three have been canonised as martyrs and a dozen beatified.

The school’s Arundel Library includes works connected with the rebel Jacobite cause, as well as verses by the St Robert Southwell (1561-1595) and holographs by the 19th-century poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, who trained as a priest at Stonyhurst.

The Stonyhurst Collection also contains some macabre items: a piece of the battered skull of the 12th-century martyr St Thomas Becket, preserved after his Canterbury shrine was smashed in 1539; the shoulder blade of a priest executed at Durham in 1590, still bearing knife slashes; and the eyeball of a beatified Jesuit, Fr Edward Oldcorne, brutally killed at Worcester for alleged complicity in the Gunpowder Plot.

Although religious restrictions began to be eased in England after the 1829 Catholic Relief Act, Catholic persecution victims were publicly commemorated only after the canonisation of 40 English and Welsh martyrs by St Paul VI in 1970. The keeping of relics, stamped out with the Reformation, has been much less common here than in continental Europe.

Where they survive, they provide a tangible link with past martyrs and faith witnesses and can be a challenging but valuable asset for the prayer life of Catholics, Graffius said. “For young people especially, without much awareness of history, they can also be a good teaching resource, evoking youngsters like themselves who made difficult choices and decisions,” she said. “Today, we still ask our children to do the right things in a world not very sympathetic to religious values. And though conditions are now quite different, Christians are still being persecuted. It isn’t just ancient history.”

Beyond the window, the Ribble Valley undulates toward Clitheroe over a landscape used by the visiting J.R.R. Tolkein as a setting for his monumental Lord of The Rings trilogy as the latest generation of Stonyhurst pupils returns from afternoon activities.

Having had barely a dozen pupils when it relocated here, the school quickly became one of England’s best, and now welcomes men and women students from around the world.

While a third of its students are non-Catholic, all must attend services in the college’s six churches and chapels and subscribe to the Jesuit ethos of prayer and service. That ethos has produced outstanding alumni, including seven Catholic archbishops, assorted government leaders, artists, missionaries, war heroes and revolutionaries.

Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the sleuth Sherlock Holmes, studied here, as did Joseph Plunkett, executed for his part in Ireland’s 1916 Easter Rising, and Thomas Meagher, an Irish-born American Civil War general and later governor of Montana.

Stonyhurst College has called the stunning Ribble Valley home for over two hundred years.

So did Daniel Carroll, a signatory of the US Articles of Confederation and the US Constitution, and his brother John Carroll, founder of Georgetown University and the first American Catholic bishop, along with Oscar-winning actor Charles Laughton and George Walker, greatgrandfather of US President George W. Bush.

 Yet it’s the collection of relics that lends the most poignancy. “A centre like this should be viewed as a cultural resource, an expression of everyone’s search for God,” Graffius said.

“Faith is a lifelong journey, which requires us to open up and ask profound questions – to follow hearts and consciences without fearing the consequences. Objects like these show us how previous generations approached this vital task.”

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Fr John chose to die rather than yield to Protestantism

Friday 8th January 2018

The CHC @ The Catholic Universe

Fr John chose to die, rather than yield to Protestantism

Br Samuel Burke, OP

“I am willing to die, and I had rather die than doubt of any point of faith taught by our holy mother, the Roman Catholic Church.” In his ‘last testament’, St John Plessington, a Catholic priest, foretold his own fate.

He died a martyr’s death. He was hanged, drawn and quartered at Gallow’s Hill in Boughton Cross, Cheshire, overlooking the River Dee, on 19th July, 1679. His offence: taking Orders in the Church of Rome and returning to the realm as a Catholic priest contrary to Act 27 of Elizabeth, 1585.

For his troubles, for his fidelity, for his ultimate sacrifice, as Paul VI declared in 1970 along with 39 others, Plessington numbers among the Saints in heaven. But the story doesn’t end there because the question remains: how do we honour the memory of this Saint and others like him?

Our first task is to remember, which is easier said than done. At least in the case of recent Saints, remembering is not a matter of fabled legend, it is an historical exercise, which often requires diligent research. Good, accurate information is important because it bring us closer to the person; they serve to make their memory more real to us; the details matter.

John Plessington was born around 1637, the youngest of three children, at Dimples Hall near Garstang in Lancashire. His father, Robert, was a committed royalist and Governor of Greenhalgh Castle, which stood on a hill overlooking a boggy plain about a quarter of a mile from the family estate. The family were both Royalist and Catholic.

St John Plessington

During John’s childhood, Robert fought for the Crown in the Civil War, for which he was later imprisoned and forfeited his property. The Parliamentarians also destroyed Greenhalgh Hall and a lone western tower is all that now remains of the fortress. As Catholics, the family kept a priest and a chapel.

Their chaplain, the Venerable Thomas Whitaker, was captured and martyred in 1646. Perhaps this was one of John’s earliest memories, aged about nine. Did the martyrdom of the family priest inspire his own priesthood and martyrdom? 

Educated by the Society of Jesus, John left the family home first for Scarisbrick Hall, near Ormskirk, and subsequently leaving Lancashire for St Omers in France, a forerunner to Stonyhurst College. The Jesuits were famed not only as “the schoolmasters of Europe”, they have also been dubbed “the shock troops of the Counter-Reformation”, a glib remark that fails to do justice to valiant mission and unparalleled sacrifice which they made to the Greater Glory of God and for the preservation of the faith in England during penal times.

If our first task was to remember, our second task, I think, is to understand the human context. Part of this is speculative, of course, but we must seek to understand the motivations and challenges that the martyrs faced if we are to appreciate their witness in its fullness.

From France to Spain where John, taking the pseudonym ‘Scarisbrick’ — perhaps in tribute to his early educators — studied at the Royal College of St Alban, Valladolid, along with five other fellow seminarians in November 1660.

St Winefride's Well, at Holywell, in Flintshire, Wales, where Father Plessington ministered

As a welcome gesture, they were given a good supply of tobacco to help them settle in. Within a very short time, John was ordained a priest on 25th March in 1662 at Segovia. Not long after, ill-health curtailed his studies and, though a priest, he returned to England with his theological studies incomplete. Little is known about his early ministry in Lancashire. What is known is that he subsequently lived and ministered at the St Winefred’s Shrine at Holywell in North Wales. The area had a strong Catholic community supported by secular priests, including Plessington, based at a local Inn, Ye Cross Keyes, and a Jesuit mission based at another pub, Ye Old Star Inn, a pub which plays another role in Plessington’s tale to which I will return.

Some time before 1670, perhaps as early as 1665, Fr Plessington is to be found at Puddington Hall, home to the Massey family near Burton, on the Wirral. Officially, he was tutor to the Massey children but in reality he was the resident priest, supporting the family and Catholics in the surrounding area. For a brief time, there was relative toleration for Catholics and Fr Plessington would have probably gone about his ministry discretely but without too much trouble. This was not to last.

In 1678 Titus Oates’ feigned to reveal an elaborate conspiracy to assassinate Charles II and replace him with his Catholic brother, James. Catholics, especially priests, were rounded upon by authorities.

They stood accused as conspirators in the ‘Popish Plot’. In all, some 45 Catholics were executed in this wave of persecutions. On the Wirral, directions came from the King’s Ministers in Whitehall for the local authorities to exercise great vigilance and near panic ensued.
It seems that Fr Plessington was targeted following the report of a Protestant landowner who was grieved at the refusal of a match between his son and a Catholic heiress. It was presumably on the basis that a Protestant husband would be unwilling to risk keeping a priest, and, as a consequence, such matches would inevitably result in the falling away from Church.

On 28th December 1678, the priest hunter Thomas Dutton raided the house at Puddington and, despite the house having a priest hole by the chimney, Fr Plessington was found and taken into custody. Dutton received a handsome reward of £20 for his troubles.
The trial of Plessington, which followed was defective in several respects. Three lapsed Catholics testified against him but their evidence was seemingly insufficient. The first witness was deranged, as confirmed by her father and neighbours, and the second Fr Plessington had never met. This left only a third valid witness, a man named Robert Wood.

However, for a capital offence, at least two witnesses were required for a conviction, as Fr Plessington pleaded in the court. Nevertheless, the jury still convicted him. Such was the ill-feeling at the conviction that the judge granted a reprieve only to have this overturned by Whitehall.
Though awaiting death for nine weeks in a damp underground cell at Chester gaol, Fr Plessington maintained a lively sense of humour. When his friend, Sir James Poole visited him at the same time as an undertaker who was apparently measuring him for a coffin, Fr Plessington joked that he was giving orders for his last suit!

Dragged on a hurdle through the city of Chester from the Castle to Gallow’s Hill, overlooking the River Dee, Fr Plessington was hanged, drawn and quartered on 19th July 1679. His body was later committed to Puddington Hall, where it was ordered that the body parts be displayed on the four corners of the property. In open defiance of this charge, the Massey family laid out Plessington’s dismembered body on an oak table.

Where the martyr’s remains are is a matter of some debate. 140 years after Plessington’s death, a collection of bones bearing fractures consistent with his death, wrapped in children’s clothes of the period were discovered in a trunk in Ye Olde Star Inn. There is good, albeit circumstantial, evidence to suggest these are the bones of St. John Plessington.

A few years ago, an appeal was made by the Bishop of Shrewsbury to conduct DNA tests on the bones. Let us hope that will happen soon so we can honour the relics and memory of this martyr.

This brings me finally to our third task in honouring the martyrs: learning the lessons of history. It is to this third task especially that the new Christian Heritage Centre at Stonyhurst is committed.

Painting by Daphne Pollen (1904-86) commissioned for the 1970 canonization of the forty martyrs of England Wales.

This special museum is housed at the very school at which Plessington was educated, no longer in exile on the continent but in his native Lancashire. We will strive not simply to retell his story, important though that is, and not only to understand the human context, but crucially to ask also what lessons we can draw from the witness of martyrdom, even as they are made today.

Bloodshed, oppression and discrimination against Christians takes place the world over. One thinks particularly of the genocide of Christians in the Middle East.

There is much to learn from the life and death of St John Plessington about the importance of Catholic education; the mentality of the mob and scare-mongering; about the importance of legal process; about maintaining a sense of humour in the face of adversity; about faith and, yes, about Christian heroism – if we can learn some of that, we will have truly honoured the memory of the martyrs.

Br Samuel Burke, OP, is a Trustee of the Christian Heritage Centre at Stonyhurst.

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St Edmund’s rope binds us to the memory of his sacrifice

Friday 3rd November 2017

The CHC @ The Catholic Universe

St Edmund’s rope binds us to the memory of his sacrifice

Christopher Graffius

At Stonyhurst there’s a rope. Among all the treasures of the College this receives the most honour. Housed in a reliquary, it is placed on the altar on the great feast days. The pupil who carries it there, amid the candles and the incense, on its feast day on 1st December, will never forget the experience.

A simple rope, some five hundred years old. The rope that bound St Edmund Campion to the hurdle on which he was dragged to execution. A rope smuggled away from the butchery and worn by Fr Robert Persons, the founder of the college who escaped the martyrdom of his companion, round his waist for the rest of his life. What’s the point of a rope? Is it merely a cultural artefact collected amid the gore? Or does it hold a greater meaning? As the new Christian Heritage Centre rises at Stonyhurst these are questions worth asking.

Museums must have some relevance or the exhibits are merely dry as dust. That simple rope holds a message as important to us today as it was when it played its part in Campion’s sacrifice.

As Westminster Cathedral, Stonyhurst and many other buildings are floodlit red on 22nd November – Red Wednesday – and Christians commemorate the killing of today’s modern martyrs, there is a direct link to Campion and others who have died for their faith.

Stonyhurst College lit up for Red Wednesday in solidarity with those persecuted for their faith

Campion epitomises the heroism of recusant England.

Fr Clement Tigar, who championed the cause of the Forty Martyrs, wrote: ‘In June 1580, when Campion landed on these shores in disguise, he brought with him the spirit of chivalry in defence of the ancient Faith. By his holiness of life, his unquenchable good humour, his charm of manner, his burning eloquence, he put new heart, new courage, new enthusiasm, into the persecuted, dejected Catholics of England.’

It hadn’t always been so. Campion was a scholarship boy and learned early to please the establishment. He was chosen to speak before Queen Mary on her visit to the City and later, as a student at Oxford, to debate before Queen Elizabeth. He was described as “one of the diamonds of England”. Great men offered him patronage. In the turmoil of the Reformation this promised safety. His friend, Tobie Matthew, urged him to embrace the opportunities. Campion accepted ordination as an Anglican deacon and barred himself from the sacraments for twelve years.

His conscience troubled him. Matthew, who told him not to bother, went on to become the Anglican Bishop of Durham and Archbishop of York. As Evelyn Waugh says in his classic biography of Campion: ‘Tobie Matthew died full of honours in 1628, there but for the Grace of God went Edmund Campion.’

‘Hope, greatest and
ever-present to the Dead,
Hope is the Host
which I behold;
Here, be assembled
here,I pray;
Here celebrate God, and for
the afflicted seek peace.’

– An extract from Anima. The
original copy of Anima, which
Edmund Campion composed in
Latin in 1581 as he was
returning to the mission field in
England – and to certain death
– is held in the Collections

A 1581 illustration of St Edmund Campion and his execution.

Nevertheless, many remained loyal to the Church, and  Catholicism was particularly strong in some of the great aristocratic households of the Thames Valley and the Sacred County of Lancashire. It was to these houses, with their secret Catholic chapels and holes in which the sacred vessels and vestments (as well as the priests themselves in time of emergency) could be hidden, that Campion went to minister. In disguise he travelled  extensively ‘through the most part of the shires of England’ (Persons) hearing confessions and saying Mass for the faithful who would have had no access to the sacraments for many years and yet who had kept faith.

During this time Campion wrote Decem Rationes defending the claims of the Church against those of the state church. This document was widely circulated and led to an increase in the government.

He escaped overseas and was reconciled at Douai. He walked to Rome to join the Jesuits. He was assigned as a school master to the college at Prague. He might never have seen England again. A life in community and academia beckoned.

The call to the English mission came as a surprise. Campion answered it despite his fear that he had not the “constitutional courage”. He entered the country disguised as a jewel merchant and with Persons and others began the reorganisation of the scattered and dispirited Catholics. He travelled across the country between safe houses, confessing, offering the Mass, putting new spirit into those worn down by fines and imprisonment. “The harvest is wonderful…I cannot long escape the hands of the heretics; the enemy have so many eyes…I am in apparel to myself very ridiculous…”

With Persons he set up a secret printing press to circulate his ‘Ten Reasons’ for being a Catholic and his ‘Brag’ a justification of his mission and a challenge to the authorities. ‘And touching our Society, be it known to you that we have made a league—all the Jesuits in the world…cheerfully to carry the cross you shall lay upon us, and never to despair your recovery, while we have a man left to enjoy your Tyburn, or to be racked with your torments, or consumed with your prisons. 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.’

In the summer of 1581 he rode out of London, pausing at Tyburn to pray under the gallows. “Because”, says Persons, “he used to say that he would have his combat there.” He stopped at the Catholic house of Lyford Grange to say Mass, but there was a priest hunter in the congregation. The Gospel of the day was prophetic, ‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets.’

Captured, he was bound to his horse with the sign ‘Campion, seditious Jesuit’ pinned to his hat. He disappeared into the Tower for four months of interrogation and torture. Rumours flew, he had recanted, accepted a bishopric, betrayed his hosts. When he emerged, brought to debate with the Anglican divines, it was the same gentle, eloquent Campion who confounded his adversaries. Except, at his trial, he couldn’t lift his right arm to take the oath because of the racking.

Condemned to death by perjured witnesses and a packed jury, Campion spoke for all Catholics: “In condemning us, you condemn all your own ancestors, all our ancient bishops and kings, all that was once the glory of England; the island of saints, and the most devoted child of the See of Peter.”

He was dragged to execution on 1st December, his feast day. He greeted the crowd “God save you all, and make you all good Catholics.” His final words were to pray for the Queen; that “we may at last be friends in heaven, when all injuries shall be forgotten”.

The Campion Rope, which tied him to the hurdle and is now owned by the BritishProvince of the Society of Jesus.

So to the rope. We all face the same choice, whether to conform or stand for the truth. Today, we will probably not be called to a physical martyrdom. Instead we face the hostility of secularism, of licence masquerading as liberty and the marginalisation of spirit and faith. That’s as much a threat as anything the martyrs faced. Meeting it demands the constant courage and faithfulness that Campion inspires

That’s what the rope means.

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Romantic relics from Stuart queens and Jacobite princes

Friday 6th January 2017

The CHC @ The Catholic Universe

Romantic relics from Stuart queens and Jacobite princes

With Burns’ Night nearly upon us, it seems an appropriate time to examine some of the remarkable Stuart and Jacobite artefacts preserved at Stonyhurst College. These objects have powerful and romantic stories to tell, and have long been a source of fascination.

The Book of Hours of Mary, Queen of Scots is perhaps the most famous, associated with the romantic, doomed queen, although it was not originally made for her. The book is the property of the British Jesuit Province, and came to Stonyhurst in 1794 via the Jesuit Seminary at Liege. It is a beautiful, lavishly bound prayer book printed in France in 1558. The exterior is rich red velvet which extends below the bottom edge of the book in a deliberately.

The front of the book carries silver-gilt letters spelling MARIA, a gilt pomegranate and a Tudor rose. The back bears the letters REGINA and an enamelled coat of arms surmounted by a queen regnant’s crown.

The original owner is easily identified: the pomegranate of Katherine of Aragon, the Tudor Rose of Henry VIII, and the royal arms of Queen Mary Tudor of England. The queen must have ordered it from France, but died before the book was complete. Somehow it passed to her cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots, who was at that time married to the French Dauphin and it stayed in her possession throughout her life.

On 7th February 1586 Mary, who had been imprisoned in England since 1568, was informed that she was to die the following morning. She spent her last night settling her affairs, distributing her personal possessions amongst her ladies, Elizabeth Curle and Jane Kennedy, and praying. It was probably at this point that the queen gave the book to Elizabeth Curle. At seven the next morning she was taken into the great hall at Fotheringay, accompanied by Jane and Elizabeth. All three read psalms from prayer books, and so it is almost certain that this book was on the scaffold with Mary, though not in her hands.

The red velvet cover for a Book of Hours which belonged to Mary Queen of Scots

After the execution, Elizabeth Curle moved to Antwerp to join the substantial group of English and Scottish Catholics in exile. In 1620, she bequeathed her possessions to her nephew, Hugh Curle, a Jesuit priest, and he in turn left them to the Jesuits when he died in 1638, with specific funds dedicated to the support of poor Scottish seminarians. The prayer book became part of the Jesuit Library at Liege Seminary, and moved to Stonyhurst in 1794.

Perhaps the most renowned of the many relics housed and venerated at Stonyhurst is the Holy Thorn, often called Mary Queen of Scots’ Thorn. It too belongs to the British Jesuit Province, and has been associated with the college since 1665. It consists of a single thorn from the Crown of Thorns originally kept in the Sainte Chapelle in Paris entwined with freshwater pearls within a gold and enamelled reliquary from the late Elizabethan period.

The Fourth Crusade which sacked Constantinople in 1204 saw the dispersal of the renowned Byzantine Imperial collection of Passion Relics. In 1238, the Crown of Thorns, with many other relics reputed to have been discovered by St Helena in fourth century Jerusalem, was sold to Louis IX, King of France. These arrived in Paris in August 1242 to national rejoicing, and Louis built the Sainte Chapelle at a cost of 60,000 livres as a fitting shrine for the relics. We first hear of this particular thorn in John Gerard’s famous account of his life as a Jesuit missionary in Elizabethan England. He describes how the thorn came into his hands in 1594.

‘At this time I was given some very remarkable relics, and my friends had them finely set for me. They included a complete thorn of the holy crown of Our Lord which Mary, Queen of Scots, had brought with her from France (where the whole crown is kept) and had given to the Earl of Northumberland, who was later martyred. While he lived, the earl used to carry it round his neck in a golden cross, and when he came to execution he gave it to his daughter, who gave it to me. It was enclosed in a case set with pearls.

Possibly it was a wedding present on Mary’s marriage to the French Dauphin in April 1558. The widowed queen brought the thorn back to Scotland when she returned there after the death of her young husband. 

Her later misfortunes in Scotland are well known. Mary crossed into England in May 1568, and was taken to Carlisle Castle. Thomas Percy, Earl of Northumberland was active in raising opposition to Elizabeth, with the intention of freeing Mary, placing her at the head of an army, and, ultimately, on Elizabeth’s throne. The thorn must have been given as a pledge of her gratitude for his support. Following Percy’s execution after the failed Rising of the Northern Earls, the thorn passed to his daughter, Elizabeth, and thence to her confessor, Fr John Gerard. By 1666 it was recorded as being at St Omers College. It was the property of Mary, Queen of Scots for only a relatively short time, yet such was her fame that the relic has always been associated with her name

The Holy Thorn, a thorn said to be from Christ’s crown of thorns

A more startling group of Jacobite relics includes a piece of the flesh of James II, his hair, a piece of flannel, and linen soaked in his blood. A few scraps of manuscript pasted beside the objects record, ‘Ex carne Jacobi 2i Regis. Accepi a P. Hen:Humberston/ K J haire & a piece of his Flesh allso a Piece of the Flanell wastecoate he dyed in/ Of ye Blood of King James ye 2nd’

Stonyhurst College is home to a rich variety of relics from Britain's Catholic history

Henry Humberston was ordained as a Jesuit in 1669. He worked in England during the 1680s and was well known to James. In 1701 he become the Rector of St Omers. James II died on 16th September 1701 and bequeathed his large intestine to St Omers, as a mark of honour; bowels were believed to symbolise compassion. The framed fragment is the only surviving remnant, the rest was destroyed during the French Revolution. Many shortbread tins boast an image of Bonnie Prince Charlie in improbable tartan. There are very few surviving pieces of fabric that can be proved, beyond reasonable doubt, to have been on the back of Charles Edward Stuart, but such a fragment survives at Stonyhurst, with a manuscript note.

‘This piece of cloth is part of a kilt left by Prince Charlie in the House of Campbell, Island of Glass, 30th April 1746.

‘Robert Hemsley Tarber (?) House, got it from a descendant of Campbell’s and sent it to Walter Armstrong of Tarff House, Kirkcowan, who gave it to JS Maitland on 19th April 1887.

‘In landing on the island Prince Charlie got wet. His kilt was not dry in the morning when he wished to start, so he left his own behind and took one of Campbell’s kilts.

‘The above was told me by W Armstrong, of Kirkcowan.

‘Glasgow, April 1887. JS Maitland, HM Inspector of Factories.’

The tartan made in the same pattern as an actual piece worn by Bonnie Prince Charlie

Immediately following the defeat at Culloden on 16th April 1746, Prince Charles and some companions escaped to Borrodale on foot, arriving on 20th April. The prince was well acquainted with Angus and Catriona Macdonald of Borrodale, having stayed with them in July 1745 when he landed in Scotland. One of Charles’s fugitive companions described how the prince acquired the Borrodale tartan,

‘Early upon the 20th (April) his royal highness got up and went straight to Arisaig to a town called Glenbiastill, where the prince got a sute of new Highland cloaths from Angus Macdonald of Boradale’s spouse, the better to disguise him and to make him pass for one of the country.’

The prince then fled to Scalpay, known in Gaelic as Eilean Glas – the Island of Glass on the Maitland manuscript note. On arrival at Scalpay ‘every stitch they had as stiff as buckrum from the salt water.’

Their new host, Donald Campbell, provided the prince with a change of clothing, and so he left his wet Borrodale clothes behind.

The design of the tartan is simple: a black check on a lavender blue ground with an overlay of fine red and yellow stripes. The fabric, as it appears today, has darkened with time, but when new it would have been bright and eye-catching. In 1995 the original tartan was recreated and named Lady Borrodale’s Gift, in honour of Catriona Macdonald. The tartan is now worn by girls at Stonyhurst College as part of the school uniform.

These stories have considerable romantic associations, which overlay a more sobering undercurrent of religious dispute, war, rebellion, persecution and disenfranchisement. It is important that such issues are examined openly and without partisanship, as part of the religious and historical education of young people in Britain.