Cuthbert Mayne

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St. Cuthbert Mayne
Cuthbert Mayne.jpg
Forty Martyrs of England and Wales
Born c. 1544
Youlston, near Barnstaple in Devon
Died 29 November 1577(1577-11-29)
Launceston, Cornwall
Venerated in Roman Catholic Church
Beatified 29 December 1886 by Pope Leo XIII
Canonized 25 October 1970 by Pope Paul VI
Feast 25 October

Saint Cuthbert Mayne (1544–1577) was the first English Roman Catholic "seminary priest" to be martyred under the laws of Elizabeth I.

Early life[edit]

Mayne was born at Youlston, near Barnstaple in Devon, the son of William Mayne, and baptized on 20 March 1543/4, St Cuthbert's day. His uncle was a priest who conformed to the Church of England, and the family expected the good natured, shallow Mayne would inherit his uncle's rich church. This uncle paid his way to Barnstaple Grammar School. He was ordained a minister at the age of seventeen, and became Anglican rector of the village of Huntshaw. After ordination, Mayne attended university, first at St Alban Hall, then at St John's College, in Oxford, where he became chaplain.[1] He was awarded a B.A. on 6 April 1566 and M.A. on 8 April 1570.[2]

Catholic conversion[edit]

Cuthbert Mayne

At Oxford, Mayne met Edmund Campion and other Catholics, such as Gregory Martin, Humphrey Ely, Henry Shaw, Thomas Bramston, Henry Holland, Jonas Meredith, and Roland Russell. At some point Mayne, too, became a Catholic. Late in 1570, a letter addressed to him from Gregory Martin, urging him to come to Douai, fell into the hands of the Bishop of London, and he sent a pursuivant to arrest Mayne and others mentioned in the letter. Being warned off by Thomas Ford, Mayne evaded arrest by going to Cornwall and then, in 1573, to the English College at Douai.[2]

Mayne was ordained a priest at Douai in 1575 and on 7 February in the following year he obtained the degree of Bachelor of Theology of Douai University. Shortly afterwards, on 24 April 1576, he left for the English mission in the company of another priest, John Payne. He soon took up his abode in the parish of Probus, Cornwall.[2] where he posed as the steward of local landowner with Francis Tregian, related to the Arundells, and one of the richest landowners in Cornwall.

Missionaries from Douai were looked upon as a papal agents intent on overthrowing the Queen. The authorities began a systematic search in June 1576, when the Bishop of Exeter William Broadbridge came to Cornwall. High sheriff Sir Richard Grenville, a noted anti-Catholic officer, conducted a raid on Tregian's house on 8 June 1577, during which the crown officers "bounced and beat at the door" to Mayne's chamber. On gaining entry, Grenville discovered a Catholic devotional article, an Agnus Dei around Mayne's neck, and took him into custody along with his books and papers.[3]

Imprisonment and trial[edit]

While awaiting trial at the circuit assizes in September, Mayne was imprisoned in Launceston gaol, being chained to his bedposts. The authorities sought a death sentence but had difficulty in framing a treason indictment to that end. At the opening of the trial on 23 September 1577 there were five counts against him:[3] first, that he had obtained from the Roman See a "faculty" (or bulla), containing absolution of the Queen's subjects ; second, that he had published the same at Golden; third, that he had taught the ecclesiastical authority of the Pope and denied the queen's ecclesiastical supremacy while in prison; fourth, that he had brought into the kingdom an Agnus Dei (a Lamb of God sealed upon a piece of wax from the Paschal candle blessed by the Pope)[1] and delivered it to Francis Tregian; fifth, that he had celebrated Mass.

Mayne answered all counts. On the first and second counts, he said that the supposed "faculty" was merely a copy printed at Douai of an announcement of the Jubilee of 1575, and that its application having expired with the end of the jubilee, he certainly had not published it either at Golden (the manor house of Francis Tregian) or elsewhere. On the third count, he said that he had asserted nothing definite on the subject to the three illiterate witnesses who swore to the contrary. On the fourth count, he said that the fact he was wearing an Agnus Dei at the time of his arrest did not establish that he had brought it into the kingdom or delivered it to Tregian. On the fifth count, he said that the presence of a Missal, a chalice, and vestments in his room did not establish that he had said Mass.

The trial judge, Justice Sir Roger Manwood,[4] directed the jury to return a verdict of guilty, stating that, "where plain proofs were wanting, strong presumptions ought to take place".[citation needed] Manwood also argued that it was illegal to introduce any papal letter into the country, no matter what it was. The jury found Mayne guilty of high treason on all counts, and accordingly he was sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered. Mayne responded, "Deo gratias".[3] Richard Grenville was later awarded a knighthood.[1]

With him had been arraigned Francis Tregian and eight other laymen. The eight were sentenced to seizure of their goods and life imprisonment, Tregian suffered imprisonment and loss of possessions for harbouring a Roman Catholic priest.[5]

After the sentencing, Judge Jeffries took exception to the proceedings and referred the matter to the Privy Council. The Council submitted the case to the whole bench of judges, which was inclined to leniency on the grounds of the flimsiness of the evidence. Nevertheless, the council ordered the execution to proceed.

At the examination of Mayne after the trial, Mayne admitted to having said mass. The Record Office also recorded that among his papers were notes which brought him under suspicion of the charge that Catholics were bound, in the right opportunity, to rise against the Queen. The same office also recorded him admitting to this during his examination after the trial:

The words found in a book of his signifying that though the catholic religion did now serve, swear and obey, yet if occasion were offered they would be ready to help the execution, &c., were annexed to a text taken out of a general council of Lateran for the authority of the pope in his excommunication, and at the last council of Trent there was a consent of the catholic princes for a reformation of such realms and persons as had gone from the authority of the bishop of Rome, when it was concluded that if any catholic prince took in hand to invade any realm to reform the same to the authority of the see of Rome, that then the catholics in that realm should be ready to assist and help them. And this was the meaning of the execution as he saith, which he never revealed to any man before.[6]

Mayne had also supposedly stated that "the people of England may be won unto the catholic religion of the see of Rome by such secret instructions as either are or may be within the realm; but what these secret instructions are he will not utter, but hopeth when time serveth they shall do therein as pleaseth God."[7]

On the night of 27 November Mayne's cell was reported by his fellow prisoners to have become full of a "great light"[citation needed].


Before being brought to the place of execution, Mayne was offered his life in return for a renunciation of his religion and an acknowledgment of the supremacy of the queen as head of the church. Declining both offers, he kissed a copy of the Bible, declaring that, "the queen neither ever was, nor is, nor ever shall be, the head of the church of England".

A special, high gibbet was erected in the marketplace at Launceston, and Mayne was executed there on 29 November 1577. He was not allowed to speak to the crowd, but only to say his prayers quietly. Just as he was about to be hanged, he refused to implicate his co-religionists. It is unclear if he died on the gibbet. One source states that he was cut down alive, but in falling struck his head against the butcher's scaffold. In any case, he was unconscious when being drawn and quartered.

Political considerations[edit]

A.L. Rowe sees the condemnation of Mayne as arising from local rivalries between Protestant coastal and Catholic inland interests.[8] Grenville had been unsuccessful in his attempts to arrange a marriage between his daughter and the Tregian heir.[9]

The coming of Mayne and others made the English government fear the possibility of papal agents coming to the island to ready the populace to rise up in revolt in support of King Philip of Spain in a future potential invasion of Britain. This helped support the case to pass harsher legislation against Catholicism in Britain. Establishing a threat from subversive Catholic elements also served Elizabeth's councilors such as Lord Burghley in their attempts to persuade the Queen to support the Dutch insurgency against Spain.[6]


Relics of Mayne's body survive in various locations. He was the first "seminary priest", the group of priests who were trained not in England but in houses of studies on the Continent. He was also one of the group of prominent Catholic martyrs of the persecution who were later designated as the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales.

Christopher M. B. Allison suggests that the reliquary discovered in 2015 at Jamestown, Virginia in the grave of Captain Gabriel Archer may contain Mayne's relics.[10]

In 1921 an annual June pilgrimage was initiated in Launceston to commemorate Mayne.[11] In 1977 the name of the Roman Catholic church on St. Stephen's Hill in Launceston was changed from the Church of the English Martyrs to the Church of St. Cuthbert Mayne; it is the site of the National Shrine to St. Cuthbert.

Mayne was beatified "equipollently" by Pope Leo XIII, by means of a decree of 29 December 1886 and was canonized along with the other Martyrs of England and Wales by Pope Paul VI on 25 October 1970.

St Cuthbert Mayne School in Torquay and St Cuthbert Mayne School in Hemel Hempstead are named after him.

In fiction[edit]

In the historical novel The Grove of Eagles by Winston Graham, which is set in Cornwall some years after Mayne's death, there are several references to him. One character, a Catholic member of the prominent Arundell family of Tolverne, says bitterly that his Protestant brother, who was one of the jurors at Mayne's trial, will burn in Hell for his share in Mayne's death. In fact the brother, filled with guilt for his share in the execution, has not only converted to the Roman Catholic faith but is risking his life by sheltering other priests.