Thursday, July 5, 2012

The Catholic Oxford Martyrs

Mention of the Oxford Martyrs usually recalls Thomas Cranmer, Hugh Latimer, and Nicholas Ridley, burnt alive at the stake during the reign of Mary I. During the height of the Oxford Movement, when Newman and Pusey published Froude's Remains, their late friend's expressed regret that the English Reformation had ever happened led to the campaign for the Martyrs' Memorial on St. Gile's. There are also, however, Catholic martyrs to be remembered in Oxford, and four of them were executed on July 5, 1589:

Blessed George Nichols, priest and martyr
Blessed Richard Yaxley, priest and martyr
Blessed Thomas Belson, martyr
Blessed Humphrey Pritchard, martyr

George and Richard were executed at Oxford in 1589 for being priests and Thomas and Humphrey for sheltering them; Thomas Belson was preparing to enter the priesthood at the time of his arrest. Several years ago, simple plaque was posted to mark the site of their executions. The two priests were, of course, hung and then quartered and beheaded, while the two laymen were merely hung:

Two of the martyrs, Father Richard Yaxley and Father George Nichols, were arrested at midnight in May 1589 after secretly saying Mass at the city's Catherine Wheel Inn, during a wave of repression against the outlawed "Old Religion." After being tortured in London, they were brought back to Oxford to be hanged, drawn and quartered.

Their lay companions, Thomas Belson, who had studied at the university's Oriel College, and Humphrey Prichard, the inn's Welsh barman, also were hanged for harboring the priests. All four were beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1987.

The wave of repression, of course, was part of the reaction to the Spanish Armada of 1588; more detail of the arrest and torture of the priests may be found here, along with accounts of their deaths:

The executions took place at Oxford in July 1589. The two priests were each dragged through the streets on a horse-drawn hurdle. The first to die was Fr George Nichols. Having been refused permission to address the crowd, he made his profession of faith. He made it clear that he was being executed merely because he was a priest. Climbing the ladder to the gallows, he made the sign of the cross on each rung and kissed it. Then he was thrown off to his death.

Fr Richard Yaxley was the next to die. He embraced the body of his dead colleague, then climbed the ladder and started to make his own profession of faith. But, before he could finish, he too was pushed off.

It was now Thomas Belson's turn to die. He hugged the bodies of the two priests and prayed that he would share their courage. He climbed the ladder, started his profession of faith and, like Fr Yaxley, was executed before he could finish. He was twenty-six years old.

Finally it was the turn of Humphrey Prichard, the servant from the Catherine Wheel. At the top of the ladder he told the crowd that he died for 'being a Catholic and faithful Christian of Holy Church'. A Puritan minister mocked him for being ignorant. Prichard replied that 'what I cannot explain by mouth, I am ready and prepared to explain and testify to you at the cost of my blood.' Whereupon he was thrown from the ladder.

The priests were decapitated and quartered, their heads and quarters being parboiled in a cauldron. Their remains were then fixed to the wall of Oxford Castle where they were mutilated by Puritan extremists. A couple of days later the remains were fixed to the town gates. The right arm of Fr Nichols is reported to have swivelled round of its own accord. Some said it pointed accusingly at the city.

Within a year of their deaths, the story of the Oxford Martyrs had been published in Italy, Spain and France. Four eye-witnesses of the executions had related the story to Richard Verstegan, an English writer, poet and publisher based in Antwerp. Verstegan relayed the reports to Cardinal William Allen in Rome and sent additional information to Spain. The story was published in Rome early in 1590. Within three months a French translation was available. Later in the year Fr Robert Persons issued the Spanish version. The incident had generated international interest and much bad publicity for Queen Elizabeth's regime.


  1. "...Martyrs' Memorial on St. Gile's...." should be "St. Giles Street"? (Can't help myself...I have a typo correction obsession for which I am in counselling.) Great blog. God bless.

  2. No, streets in Oxford are often known simply by their name, such as 'The High', 'The Broad', 'The Turl', 'St Aldates', 'St Ebbes', and 'St Giles'.

  3. Very informative. Never knew of these martyrs' existence until today.