Today is the anniversary of the execution of King Louis XVI in 1793--Requiem Masses are being held throughout Paris and France (even in Quebec, Canada!) But in England on this date in 1586 and 1642, four Catholic priests were executed:
~Blessed Edward Stransham, priest and martyr--A native of Oxford, born about 1554, earning his BA from St. John's College in 1575-76. Then he went to Douai in 1577 and Reims in 1578. Because he was ill he returned to England to recuperate; then went back to Reims in 1579; ordained in 1580. In 1581 he returned to England as a missionary priest, but was still suffering from consumption; he left England in 1583, bringing 12 Oxford converts with him to Reims. After a stay in Paris, he returned to England and was arrested while saying Mass in London in 1585 and executed at Tyburn on January 21, 1586. He was beatified by Pope Pius XI in 1929. His companion in martyrdom was:
~Blessed Nicholas Wheeler (or Woodfen), priest and martyr--Born at Leominster in 1550, he studied for the priesthood in Reims, after ordination he returned to England with Edward Stransham, and was executed with him at Tyburn in 1586. He was beatified by Pope St. John Paul II in 1987.
~Blessed Thomas Green (Reynolds), priest and martyr--Born under the name Green, he trained at Rheims, Valladolid and Seville; exiled from England once, he returned and spent fourteen years imprisoned until his execution at Tyburn in 1642 at the age of 80. He was beatified by Pius XI in 1929.
In 1586, Blessed William Freeman witnessed the executions of Stransham and Wheeler. He became a Catholic, went to Reims, was ordained and returned to England as a missionary priest. He was hung, drawn, and quartered for that crime on 13 August 1595 in Warwick, after spending some time in Stratford-on-Avon.
Notice, however, that the time Fathers Stransham and Wheeler spent in England was relatively short. Although Stransham traveled back and forth between England and the Continent because of his health (how poorly he must have fared in prison while waiting trial and execution!), he and Wheeler received no second chances once finally captured--during some periods of Elizabeth I's reign, that was the common practice: capture, torture (if some plot was suspected), trial, execution.
St. Alban Roe and Blessed Thomas Green, ministering during the Stuart dynasty, however, received different treatment. They were captured, imprisoned, and exiled, sent back to the Continent--then they returned. Their long final imprisonments were spent in relative "freedom". St. Alban Roe was allowed to leave his cell in the Fleet prison, minister to Catholics, and return at night for lock-up. In 1641 he was transferred to close confinement within the strict Newgate prison and was finally tried in 1642 and found guilty of treason under the statute 27 Eliz c.2 for being a priest. [The authorities really didn't know what to do with him and at trial Roe perplexed the judge so much that he suspended his sentence of execution!] Just before his death, Alban asked the sheriff if his life would be spared if he renounced his Catholic religion and became an Anglican. The sheriff swore he would be spared if he did. Alban then said to all: “See, then, what the crime is for which I am to die, and whether my religion be not my only treason... I wish I had a thousand lives; then would I sacrifice them all for so worthy a cause.”
His companion, Blessed Thomas Reynolds (Green) had also been exiled in 1606, during the reign of James I--after the Gunpowder Plot!--but had returned to England to serve Catholics until he was arrested in 1628. He spent fourteen years in prison before his trial and execution. Why the long prison sentences, the relative freedom, the delay in trial and execution? Because Charles I was reigning without Parliament! "When he finally had to recall Parliament and the Long Parliament convened, however, the hangings began again in earnest (20 between 1641 and 1646 including Fr. Alban [and Fr. Reynolds])" Ampleforth Abbey notes.
Think of the cold these men endured those January mornings. After all dangers of their missionary efforts, the discomforts of imprisonment, and the anticipation of the horrendously painful and humiliating death they were about to undergo, they were shivering with cold. The hurdles they were tied to, on their backs, bumped and jostled on frozen ground. St. John Roberts, executed in December of 1610, managed to joke about the cold: when someone said he should be wearing a cap, he asked "are you afraid I'll catch a cold?"; when he arrived at the scaffold he saw the fire (which would actually be used to burn his guts) and said "I see you have prepared a hot breakfast for us!" It's clear that the demeanor and steadiness of these four men moved the crowds to empathy--and at least in one case we know of, conversion. This site notes that Blessed Thomas Reynolds said "I dare look death in the face" when offered a blindfold. And this site has more details about the demeanor of the two priests executed on January 21, 1642:
Reynolds told Roe of his fears of dying. Roe replied with powerfully comforting words.
The two were told to get ready for the trip to the Tyburn Hill gallows on January 21, 1642 (January 31 in the reformed calendar). “Well, how do you find yourself now?” the monk asked his aged companion. “In very good heart,” Reynolds replied. “Blessed be God for it, and glad I am to have for my comrade in death a man of your undaunted courage.”
Having mounted the gallows, Reynolds stated that he forgave his enemies; and he moved the sheriff deeply by praying that he (the sheriff) would merit the “grace to be a glorious saint in heaven.”
Roe, in his turn, greeted the people cheerily. “Well, here’s a jolly company!” he exclaimed with a fine contempt for death. He told bystanders that his religion was the sole cause of his death. If he should reject Catholicism even now, he said, he would be released. His last word of conversation was a joking remark made to one of his prison turnkeys.
The two priests had already absolved each other. Now they recited the psalm “Miserere” alternately. As the traps were sprung and their bodies fell, each called out “Jesus!”
The stories of the English Catholic martyrs--like all the Church's martyrs from Apostolic times until today--never cease to inspire!