WHEN the people of England were robbed of their Faith, by the affair of King Henry divorce, few people indeed recognised immediately the issue at stake, and the blood of the martyrs was a very thin red line. The first martyrs can be counted almost on the fingers of twc hands.
Best known of those who saw the truth was the aged Bishop of Rochester, who had constantly warned of the need for golden priests rather than golden chalices. The leading layman was Sir Thomas More; a parish priest who spoke up was John Hall, Vicar of Isleworth; there were also Richard Reynolds, a Bridgettine, and a lay brother of the same house; Dr Greenwood of St John's College Cambridge, and George Lazenby, a Cistercian, who were joined by some Francisan Observants, and the Carthusians of London's Charterhouse.
John Houghton, Prior of London's Charterhouse, part of which still stands today, adjacent to Smithfield meat markets, led his fellow Carthusians into a head-on confrontation with King Henry VIII. Subsequently the King took a keen personal interest in their fate and in their most cruel tortures and violent deaths.
As a matter of conscience John Houghton could not accept Henry VIII as Supreme Head of the Church of England. It was as simple as that. The Prior of Charterhouse was imprisoned in the Tower of London, and "tried" in Westminster Hall. Thomas More, from his cell in the Tower, saw John Houghton on the morning of May 4, 1535, being strapped to a hurdle in the courtyard below, along with four companions.
He and his companions were dragged through the mud and mire over the cobble-stone streets, ignominiously behind the tails of horses, on their dreadful journey to the gallows at Tyburn.
Prior John Houghton was hanged, strangely enough, in his religious habit and hair shirt, and cut down from the gallows while still conscious, his heart and entrails torn out by the executioner whose task was made all the more difficult and horrendous by the toughness of the fabric of the Carmelite habit and the hair shirt beneath.
The Prior's last words were, "Oh most Holy Jesus, have mercy upon me in this hour." All the King's sycophantic court, including the Duke of Norfolk,. and 40 gentlemen on horseback, turned out to applaud the butchery. An arm of the Prior was nailed over the gate of Charterhouse as a warning to the citizens of London.
Six weeks later, on June 19, a Saturday, three Carthusian monks of Charterhouse, in their religious habits, were drawn on hurdles to Tyburn and brutally executed as had their Prior before them. The subtle difference was that the enraged executioner, having ripped out their hearts, stuffed them in their mouths.
These monks had been "examined" in Cromwell's house in Stepney, "a mile from London", on May 25, and imprisoned in the Tower of London. Such was the fury of Henry VIII that he ordered that they were to be made stand bolt upright for the 18 days before their execution.
Accordingly, they were, "tied with iron collars, fast by the neck and to posts of the prison, and great fetters fast riveted on their legs with great iron bolts, so straightly tied that they could neither lie nor sit, nor otherwise ease themselves, but stood upright, and in all that space of time were never loosed for any natural necessity nor voiding of ordure or otherwise."
With neck, arms and legs fettered and locked and chained, this was Henry VIII's personal vengeance being let loose upon them for daring not to recognise him as the Head of the Church of England. Before their imprisonment in the Tower the monks had been incarcerated in the notorious Marshelsea prison.
Arguably the most glorious of the Carthusian martyrs were the last ten to die. Of them, "the lay-brothers be more obstinate and more forward and more unreasonable than the monks." These poor simple men steadfastly refused to take the oath to acknowledge Henry VIII as Head of the Church in England.
Upon these men fell the full wrath of Henry VIII. He not only had them thrown into Newgate prison chained to posts in iron collars, but he had them hidden in the darkness of their dungeon from the public gaze. Not for them the brief public glory of Tyburn. They were left to die of slow suffocation, of thirst and of starvation in filthy surroundings.
These men were Br William Greenwood, Dom John Davy, Br " Robert Salt, Br Walter Pierson, Dom Thomas Green, who succumbed first, followed by Br Thomas Scriven, Br Thomas Reding, to be followed in their death agonies by Dom Thomas Johnson, and Br William Horn, and finally Dom Bere.
So humble and obscure were these Carthusian martyrs that apart from John Davy and Richard Bere absolutely nothing is known about them, except that they had lived the silent life of the hidden Christ as Carthusians of Charterhouse, London. A most valiant Catholic lay woman and mother, Margaret Clement, who had a special devotion to the Carthusian monks of London's Charterhouse, bribed their jailer, and, at great personal risk, disguised herself as a milkmaid, and entered the prison with a pack upon her head full of meat. She fed each chained monk by hand, as they were ' unable to move, and cleaned them of their filth.
King Henry VIII enquired why the monks were taking so long to die, and, Margaret Clement, fearful of being discovered, bribed their jailers and men to let her into the prison once more. Once inside the walls she lowered down a basket of meat to the prisoners through the roof tiles. The shackled monks were unable and too feeble to feed themselves from the basket. She was banished from their dungeon by their jailer, and they were left in the darkness, and, "soon after they languished and pined, one after another, what with the stink and want of food and other miseries which they endured."
Later, Margaret Clement, when she lay on her death bed, having received the last sacraments, saw standing around her bed the monks of Charterhouse to whom she had ministered in prison, and they all called upon her to come away with them. This vision she related to her husband, and, at the hour of her death, a day later, the Carthusian monks again appeared around her, robed in their habits.
The death of John Houghton, Prior of Charterhouse, London, was the culmination of a lifetime of prayer. Born in 1486, he was a graduate in Canon and in Civil Law, of Cambridge University. He was for 20 years (1515-1535), a monk of the Carthusian Order, being professed at the age of 29. He was only 48 years of age when he was put to death. He kept the rules of solitude and of silence of his Carthusian Order precisely. His was a life of special devotion to the Blessed Sacrament. He had a zeal for learning and books.
He ruled wisely over the London Charterhouse of 32 priests and 18 brothers, most of whom were under 30 years of age. He deliberately, almost as if forewarned, prepared his community of monks for the fierce trials that lay ahead of them. He perfected their singing of Divine Office. He was a man of deep humility and of great charity to his fellow monks. He was a contemplative whose rule was so austere and just that the "visitors" sent by Cromwell to the monastery were unable to bring against the Carthusians of London's Charterhouse any accusation of laxity or good living.
When the Act of Supremacy declared King Henry VIII Head of the Church of England, Prior John Houghton called on all the monks of Charterhouse for three days of solemn prayer, as if in special preparation for death.
On the last of the three days of prayer, during his mass, "after the elevation of the Host, there came, as it were, a soft whisper of air, which some perceived with their bodily senses, while all experienced its sweet influence upon their, hearts". The Prior was obliged to pause in his celebration of the Mass, overcome by the physical and spiritual manifestation of the Holy Spirit sweeping through the church.
The historian Froude (no friend of the Catholic Church) wrote, "with unobtrusive nobleness did these poor men prepare themselves for their end."
(Gerard Noel is on holiday)