Carthusian Martyrs

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The Carthusian Martyrs were the monks of the London Charterhouse, the monastery of the Carthusian Order in central London, who were put to death by the English state in a period lasting from the 4 May 1535 till the 20 September 1537. The method of execution was hanging, disembowelling while still alive and then quartering. The group also includes two monks who were brought to that house from the Charterhouses of Beauvale and Axholme and similarly dealt with. The total was 18 men, all of whom have been formally recognized by the Catholic Church as true martyrs.

At the outset of the "King's Great Matter," (the euphemism given to King Henry VIII's decision to divorce Catherine of Aragon, marry Anne Boleyn and break with the Holy See) the government was anxious to secure the public acquiescence of the Carthusian monks, since they enjoyed great prestige for the austerity and sincerity of their way of life. When this attempt failed, the only alternative was to annihilate the resistance, since their refusal put the prestige of the monks in opposition to the king's will. This took the form of a long process of attrition.

The First Group[edit]

On 4 May 1535 the authorities sent to their death at Tyburn, London three leading English Carthusians, Doms John Houghton, prior of the London house, Robert Lawrence and Augustine Webster, respectively priors of Beauvale and Axholme, along with a Bridgettine monk, Richard Reynolds of Syon Abbey and a secular priest John Haile.[1]

The Second Group[edit]

Little more than a month later, it was the turn of three leading monks of the London house: Doms Humphrey Middlemore, William Exmew and Sebastian Newdigate, who were to die at Tyburn, London on 19 June. Newdigate was a personal friend of Henry VIII, who twice visited him in the prison to persuade him to give in, in vain.[1]

The Third Group[edit]

The next move was to seize four more monks of community, two being taken to the Carthusian house at Beauvale in Nottinghamshire, while Dom John Rochester and Dom James Walworth were taken to the Charterhouse of St. Michael in Hull in Yorkshire. They were made an "example" of on 11 May 1537, when, condemned on trumped-up charges of treason, they were hanged in chains from the York city battlements until dead.[1]

The Fourth Group[edit]

The government continued to play a game of intimidation until 18 May 1537, when the twenty hermits and eighteen lay brothers remaining in the London Charterhouse were required to take the Oath of Supremacy. Of these, the hermits Doms Thomas Johnson, Richard Bere, Thomas Green (priests), and John Davy (a deacon), refused. Richard Bere was the nephew, and namesake of, Richard Bere the Abbot of Glastonbury (1493–1525). The younger Bere abandoned his studies in the law, and became a Carthusian in February 1523.[2] Thomas Green may be the Thomas Greenwood who obtained a bachelor's degree at Oxford, and later a Master's degree at Cambridge in 1511, who became Fellow of St John's College, Cambridge in 1515 and the Doctorate in Divinity in 1532. This would associate him with St. John Fisher.

Likewise, of the brothers, Robert Salt, William Greenwood, Thomas Redyng, Thomas Scryven, Walter Pierson, and William Horne also refused.[3] As to the rest of the community, the charterhouse was "surrendered" and they were expelled.

Those refusing the oath were all sent on May 29 to Newgate Prison, and treated as had been their fellow Carthusians in June 1535. They were chained standing and with their hands tied behind them to posts in the prison. This time, however, no further proceeding was foreseen and they were simply left to die of starvation.[3]

Margaret Clement (née Giggs), who had been raised by St. Thomas More, bribed the gaoler to let her have access to the prisoners, and, disguised as a milkmaid, carried in a milk-can full of meat which she fed to them. She also relieved them as best she could of the filth. However, King Henry became suspicious and began to ask whether they were already dead. When this filtered back to the gaoler, he became too afraid to let Margaret enter again. For a brief time she was allowed to go on the roof and uncover the tiles, and let down meat in a basket as near as she could to their mouths. This method meant the monks could get little or nothing from the basket, and in any case the gaoler became too afraid and stopped any contact.[3]

The lay brother William Greenwood died first, on 6 June, and two days later the deacon Dom John Davy, on 8 June. Brother Robert Salt died on 9 June, Brother Walter Pierson and Dom Thomas Green on 10 June, and Brothers Thomas Scryven and Thomas Redyng on 15 June and 16 June, respectively. These last named had survived a remarkably long time. It seems likely that at this point the King and his Council had decided upon a change of plan which entailed bringing the survivors to execution and that Cromwell gave orders that those still living were to be given food so as to keep them alive. At any rate, the hermit, Dom Richard Bere, did not die till 9 August, and Dom Thomas Johnson not until 20 September.

A Lone Survivor[edit]

For some reason Brother William Horne was kept alive. Refusing to abandon his religious habit, he was not attainted till 1540, when he was hanged, disembowelled, and quartered at Tyburn on August 4, 1540 along with five other Catholics: the two laymen Robert Bird and Giles Heron, Friar Lawrence Cook, Carmelite Prior of Doncaster, the Benedictine monk, Dom Thomas Epson, and (probably) the secular priest William Bird, Rector of Fittleton and Vicar of Bradford, Wiltshire.

A Summary List of Carthusian Martyrs[edit]

In art[edit]

There are paintings of four of the Carthusian martyrs - Blessed William Exmew, Blessed Thomas Johnson, Blessed Richard Bere, and Blessed Thomas Green - at the Certosa di Bologna.

References[edit]

See also[edit]

Sources[edit]

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