Saturday, August 8, 2015

August Martyrs: The Blesseds Felton, Father and Son

Today's saint is not to be confused with the John Felton who assassinated the Duke of Buckingham during the reign of King James I. Blessed John Felton (executed 8 August 1570) was an English Catholic martyr, who was executed during the reign of Elizabeth I:

Almost all of what is known about Felton's background comes from the narrative of his daughter, Frances Salisbury. The manuscript that holds her story has a blank where his age should be, but it does say that he was a wealthy man of Norfolk ancestry, who lived at Bermondsey Abbey [pictured above] near Southwark. He "was a man of stature little and of complexion black". His wife had been a playmate of Elizabeth I, a maid-of-honour to Queen Mary and the widow of one of Mary's auditors (a legal official of the papal court).

Felton was arrested for fixing a copy of Pope Pius V's Bull
Regnans in Excelsis ("reigning on high"), excommunicating Queen Elizabeth, to the gates of the Bishop of London's palace near St. Paul's. This was a significant act of treason as the document, which released Elizabeth's subjects from their allegiance, needed to be promulgated in England before it could take legal effect. The deed brought about the end of the previous policy of tolerance towards those Catholics who were content occasionally to attend their parish church while keeping their true beliefs to themselves. . . . [this policy had already ended, and not just with the Northern Rebellion of 1569; the fines for recusancy had been mounting because the government was becoming frustrated with how Catholics were holding out against conformity].

The law records say that the act was committed around eleven at night on 24 May 1570, but Salisbury claims it happened between two and three in the morning of the following day, the Feast of Corpus Christi. Felton had received the bulls in Calais and given one to a friend, William Mellowes of Lincoln's Inn. This copy was discovered on 25 May and after being racked, Mellowes implicated Felton, who was arrested on 26 May. Felton immediately confessed and glorified in his deed, "treasonably declar[ing] that the queen . . . ought not to be the queen of England", but he was still racked as the authorities were seeking, through his testimony, to implicate Guerau de Spes, the Ambassador of Spain, in the action. Felton was condemned on 4 August and executed by hanging four days later in St. Paul's Churchyard, London. He was cut down alive for quartering, and his daughter says that he uttered the holy name of Jesus once or twice when the hangman had his heart in his hand. 

He was beatified in 1886 by Pope Leo XIII.

His son, Blessed Thomas Felton, was a Franciscan friar, born about 1567 at Bermondsey Abbey, Surrey, was in his youth page to Lady Lovett. Afterwards he was sent to the English College at Rheims, where he received the first tonsure from the hands of the Cardinal de Guise, archbishop of Rheims, in 1583. He then entered the order of Minims, but being unable to endure its austerities he returned to England. On landing in England Felton was arrested, brought to London, and committed to the Poultry Compter. About two years later his aunt, Mrs. Blount, obtained his release through the interest of some of her friends at court. He attempted to return to France, but was again intercepted and committed to Bridewell. After some time he regained his liberty, and made a second attempt to get back to Rheims, but was rearrested and recommitted to Bridewell, where he was put into "Little Ease" and otherwise cruelly tortured. He was brought to trial at Newgate, just after the defeat of the Spanish Armada, and was asked whether, if the Spanish forces had landed, he would have taken the part of Queen Elizabeth. His reply was that he would have taken part with God and his country. But he refused to acknowledge the queen to be the Supreme Head of the Church of England, and was accordingly condemned to death. The next day, 28 August 1588, he and another priest, named James Claxton or Clarkson, were conveyed on horseback from Bridewell to the place of execution, between Brentford and Hounslow, and were there hanged and quartered.

Like his father, he was beatified in 1886 by Pope Leo XIII. They are unique among the English Catholic martyrs, being father and son tortured and executed for their faith. There are other sets of relatives (like the Garnets and Thwings, uncle and nephew and the Nutter brothers), but for a son to remain true to his father's faith, suffer and die for it knowing what it cost his father, is remarkable.

The Minims or Order of Minim Friars were founded by St. Francis of Paola in Italy during the fifteenth century. The "austerities" mentioned above include not just the usual vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience, but a vow of a "Lenten way of life"--constant abstinence from meat and dairy products.

On the other hand, if you like Paulaner beer from Munich, that's from a former Minim friary!

Also martyred on August 8, in 1586, was Blessed John Fingley or Finglow, one of the 85 Martyrs of England and Wales. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia (1909), he was:

An English martyr; b. at Barnby, near Howden, Yorkshire; executed at York, 8 August, 1586. He was ordained priest at the English College, Reims, 25 March, 1581, whence the following month he was sent on the English mission. After labouring for some time in the north of England, he was seized and confined in Ousebridge Kidcote, York, where for a time he endured serious discomforts, alleviated slightly by a fellow-prisoner. He was finally tried for being a Catholic priest and reconciling English subjects to the ancient Faith, and condemned to be hanged, drawn, and quartered.

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