Monday, July 29, 2019

The Walsingham Conspiracy and its Martyrs

Yesterday I posted some information about the Walsingham Conspiracy in 1537, when Cromwell's men came to suppress the priory of Walsingham, a house of Augustinian Canons and to close down the shrine (from British History Online: 'Houses of Austin canons: The priory of Walsingham', in A History of the County of Norfolk: Volume 2, ed. William Page (London, 1906), pp. 394-401.)

The priory of Walsingham had a special hold on Norfolk, even in places far remote from the town. The concourse of pilgrims from all parts of England, as well as from over the seas, kept Our Lady of Walsingham vividly in mind. . . .

No wonder, then, that the suppression of the lesser monasteries in 1536, and the general upheaval of matters pertaining to the ancient faith of the populace, should have aroused much bitterness with regard to the threats against Walsingham. In April, 1537, depositions were taken before Sir Roger Townsend and Sir John Heydon against George Gysburgh, of Walsingham, charged with expressing regret that so many houses were dissolved where God was well served, and advocating a rising of the commons. George Gysburgh confessed to discussing with one, Ralph Rogerson, a rising against the suppression of the abbeys, believing that Walsingham would soon go. (fn. 45) On 3 May, Sir Roger Townsend and Richard; South well wrote to Cromwell as to the apprehension of the rest of the 'conspirators.' They had seized Nicholas Mileham, sub-prior of Walsingham, who by the confession of one, Watson, was privy to the proposals; they thought that the Gysburghs (father and son) and Ralph Rogers would make a larger confession if examined by Cromwell and others of- the council, for in their confession, so far, they did not touch the sub-prior, a man of lewd inclination. (fn. 46) On 20 May, Prior Vowell, the time-server, wrote an unctuous letter to Cromwell thanking him for favour shown to him and to his kinsman taken into the Lord Privy Seal's service; with the letter he sent 'a poor remembrance' as a further bribe to Cromwell. (fn. 47) Cromwell's accounts show that this poor remembrance was the big round sum of £100. (fn. 48)

The charge against these 'conspirators' was somewhat flimsily sustained, and their offence had certainly not gone beyond words, but the punishment was awful and speedy. On 24 May, 1537, a special commission sitting at Norwich Castle condemned no fewer than eleven of the accused to be drawn, hung, beheaded, and quartered for high treason. The executions took place in different parts of the county, so as to arouse more terror. On Saturday, 26 May, Ralph Rogerson and four others were executed at Norwich; on 28 May, two more were executed at Yarmouth; on Wednesday, 30 May, Sub-Prior Nicholas Mileham and George Gysburgh perished on the scaffold at Walsingham; and on 1 June the young William Gysburgh and John Pecock, a Carmelite friar, suffered at Lynn. Several others, including two clergy, were condemned to life imprisonment.

I searched for more information about these men and their conspiracy, which was to somehow stop the suppression of the priory and the destruction of the shrine. The leader of the group, Ralph Rogerson, planned an uprising, timed for St. Eligius' Eve on June 24. Recruiting others to join the uprising led to the kind of talk that authorities were always listening for, including from those who knew about the conspiracy and didn't report it (misprision of treason).

Different accounts (from Gasquet and Elton) provide slightly different details of the lists of men and what happened to them, but it is sure that the authorities wanted to squash this conspiracy and even the thought of conspiracy in Norfork by executing clergy and laity on site: they were not taken to London for trial, but held and tried in Norwich. They weren't all executed in Norwich, but also taken to three other locations, east, west, and north of Norwich to be hanged, drawn, and quartered: Yarmouth (Great Yarmouth, on the North Sea), Lynn (Bishop's Lynn under the authority of the Bishop of Norwich until 1537 when Henry VIII took control, King's Lynn), and outside the priory in Walsingham.

Neither the clergy, Mileham and Pecock, nor the laymen, Rogerson, the Gysburghs, etc, are listed among the English martyrs as developed for a cause of canonization in the late nineteenth century, but in Walsingham, Mileham and Gysburgh are considered martyrs. There is a shrine in their honor set up in cellar of the Dowry House.

There was one notable survivor from the gutting and bloodletting at Walsingham, the prior, Richard Vowell, as the Catholic Encyclopedia recounts:

In 1537 while the last prior, Richard Vowell, was paying obsequious respect to Cromwell, the sub-prior Nicholas Milcham was charged with conspiring to rebel against the suppression of the lesser monasteries, and on flimsy evidence was convicted of high treason and hanged outside the priory walls. In July, 1538, Prior Vowell assented to the destruction of Walsingham Priory and assisted the king's commissioners in the removal of the figure of Our Lady, of many of the gold and silver ornaments and in the general spoliation of the shrine. For his ready compliance the prior received a pension of 100 pounds a year, a large sum in those days, while fifteen of the canons received pensions varying from 4 pounds to 6 pounds. The shrine dismantled, and the priory destroyed, its site was sold by order of Henry VIII to one Thomas Sidney for 90 pounds, and a private mansion was subsequently erected on the spot. 

Image creditBy John Armagh - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0 ("13th-Century east-end of Walsingham Priory dominating the site")

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