Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Blessed John Nelson, SJ and the Trees of Tyburn

According to the Jesuit Curia in Rome, today's martyr was not only a late vocation to the priesthood (after age 40) but a late joiner of the Society of Jesus too:

John Nelson (1535-1578) became a Jesuit in prison just before he was martyred. A man of unshakeable convictions, he died two years before the English mission began, but he provided the same fearless service to Catholics that Jesuits later lived and died for. The son of Sir Nicholas Nelson, he was born in Yorkshire about 1535. He was firm in his conviction that Catholics should be bold in professing their faith and did not accept the practice of attending Protestant services to avoid penalties. Finally he left England when he was almost 40 and studied at the English College in Douai. He was ordained a priest at Bynche in June 1576 and set out with four other newly ordained priests the following November to return to England.

Little is known about Father Nelson's ministry except that it lasted only one year before he was arrested on the evening of Dec. 1, 1577 when priest-catchers burst into his residence as he was reading his breviary. They arrested him on suspicion of being a Catholic; but when he was brought before the queen's high commissioners and asked who the head of the Church was, he boldly answered that it was the pope, thus sealing his fate. His trial took place February 1 and featured the comments he made before the commissioners; since he refused to take the oath acknowledging the queen's supremacy in religious matters, he was found guilty of high treason and condemned to be executed as a traitor. Nelson had admired the Jesuits but their mission to England did not begin until two years after his death. He wrote to the French Jesuits asking to be admitted, and they were pleased to accept a priest about to be martyred. He was kept in a foul dungeon for two days and then dragged to Tyburn to be executed. As he gave his final words to onlookers, he was hanged but then cut down while he was still alive and disembowelled. He was beheaded and quartered with his body parts exhibited on London Bridge and the city gates as a warning.

This Jesuit website provides more detail about his execution and his beatification:

Just before he was hanged, Fr Nelson asked the Catholics present to pray with him and aloud he recited the Creed, the Our Father and the Hail Mary, all in Latin. He then encouraged the bystanders to remain steadfast in their faith, asked forgiveness of all whom he might have offended and beseeched God to forgive his enemies and executioners. Just as he was finishing these words he was hanged. He was cut down while still alive to make him further suffer disembowelment. His severed head was then displayed on London’s Bridge and portions of his body exhibited at each of the city’s four gates.

Fr Nelson had been an admirer of the Jesuits since he had met them in France and as there was no Jesuit mission in England until 1580, 2 years after his death, he had written to the French Jesuits during his imprisonment for permission to be admitted to the Society. The Jesuits were happy to accept him, especially one about to be martyred for Christ. Fr John Nelson was beatified by Pope Leo XIII on December 9 1886 together other Jesuit martyrs of England and Wales.

I missed this story (in 2014) from the Archdiocese of Westminster about how the marker of the site of Tyburn Tree near Marble Arch has been embellished with the addition of three trees, representing the Triple Tree of Tyburn where 105 beatified and canonized martyrs died:

The tree planting and restoration of the damaged roundel was a joint project between the Edgware Road Partnership, Tyburn Convent, Westminster City Council and Transport for London. It was marked by a ceremony in which Fr Christopher Pedley, a Jesuit priest from Farm Street parish, Mayfair, blessed the roundel with holy water.

He and fellow Jesuit Fr Dominic Robinson, nuns of Tyburn Convent, and other Catholics then honoured the martyrs by kneeling down to kiss the roundel in the centre of the traffic island.

Afterwards Fr Pedley said: ‘They have arranged the trees triangularly in a way which resembles the gallows used for executions. It is very significant, because it is the place where Catholic martyrs died and particularly a number of Jesuit martyrs between 1571 and 1679.’ The site is so significant for the Society of Jesus that when the order’s Superior General came to London he was brought to visit this spot.

At a reception in Tyburn Convent after the ceremony, Councillor Robert Davis, deputy leader of Westminster City Council, said the event was a ‘hugely important commemoration of one of the most poignant aspects of Westminster’s, London’s and the nation’s history.’

Tyburn, which means ‘boundary stream’ and refers to a tributary of the Thames, first became a place of public execution in the 12th century. By the 16th century it had become the ‘King’s gallows’ and on 4 May 1535 Charterhouse prior St John Houghton and four others became the first martyrs of the Reformation when they were hanged, drawn and quartered for refusing to take the oath attached to the Act of Succession.

Queen Elizabeth I rebuilt the gallows into the infamous three-sided Tyburn Tree in 1571 and frequently used them to execute Catholics in the religious persecution in the years afterwards. The last hanging there was in November 1783.

Blessed John Nelson, pray for us!


  1. Wow.

    And meanwhile our dear Holy Father makes his plans to toddle off to Sweden to pray with the Lutherans and celebrate the riches brought to the Church through the Reformation (albeit the European strand...but still). Indeed: Blessed John Nelson, pray, pray for us!

  2. Apologies, I forgot to sign my comment which I made using the 'anonymous' option. Chris Rayment

  3. Thank you very much for posting this..I have sent it to all my social media. Thank you again especially for the links. I am producing animated videos about the English Saints and Martyrs and hope to produce a film/video about them. Please read the book 'Silence' about the missions to Japan, soon to be release as a film version at the Cannes film festival. love you