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John Cornelius was born of Irish parents at Bodmin, in Cornwall, on the estate of Sir John Arundell of Lanherne, in 1557. Sir John Arundell took an interest in the boy and sent him to the University of Oxford. Cornelius went on to the seminary at Reims, and a little later, on 1 April 1580, entered the English College, Rome, to pursue theological studies. After ordination he was sent as a missionary to England. He was there for nearly ten years.
While acting as chaplain to Lady Arundell, he was arrested on 24 April 1594, at Chideock Castle, by the sheriff of Dorsetshire. He was met on the way by Thomas Bosgrave, a relative of the Arundell family, who offered him his own hat, as he had been dragged out bareheaded. Thereupon Bosgrave was arrested. Two servants of the castle, John (or Terence) Carey and Patrick Salmon, natives of Dublin, shared the same fate. When they reached the sheriff's house a number of Protestant clergymen heaped abuse on the Catholic religion, but the sheriff stopped the disputation.
The missionary was sent to London and brought before the Lord Treasurer, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and others, who, by words and torture, tried to obtain names of those who had given him shelter or assistance. He was brought back to Dorchester and with his three companions condemned to death on 2 July 1594. He was accused of high treason, because he was a priest and had returned to England; the others were charged with felony, for having rendered assistance to one whom they knew to be a priest; but all were assured that their lives would be spared if they embraced Protestantism.
While in prison, John Cornelius was admitted to membership in the Society of Jesus. The first to ascend the scaffold was John Carey; he kissed the rope, exclaiming "O precious collar", made a solemn profession of faith and died a valiant death. Before his execution Patrick Salmon exhorted the spectators to embrace the Catholic faith, for which he and his companions were giving their lives. Then followed Thomas Bosgrave, who delivered a stirring address on the truth of his belief. The last to suffer was John Cornelius, who kissed the gallows with the words of St. Andrew, "O Cross, long desired", etc. On the ladder he tried to speak to the multitude, but was prevented. After praying for his executioners and for the welfare of the queen, John Cornelius also was executed. The body was taken down and quartered, his head was nailed to the gibbet, but soon removed. The bodies were buried by the Catholics.