Page 5, 28th November 1986

28th November 1986
Page 5
Page 5, 28th November 1986 — St Cuthbert Mayne, martyr to the Act of Supremacy

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Locations: Exeter, London, Oxford


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St Cuthbert Mayne, martyr to the Act of Supremacy

Elizabeth and Stephen Usherwood describe a life cut short after 33 years.

WHEN Cuthbert Mayne was born, and baptised at Shirwell in 1544, his parents, like all Catholics, were in doubt about how best to educate their children, but one of Cuthbert's uncles, a Catholic priest whi) had become a schismatic in order to retain a livelihood, paid for him to attend the grammar school at Barnstaple, near their home at Youlston.

At 17 he was given a church living and went up to Oxford, where he took an MA degree and became chaplain at St John's, newly founded by a rich Catholic merchant, Sir Thomas White. Queen Elizabeth I, fearing the college's Catholic influence, had already dismissed two of its heads for refusing to take an oath of allegiance acknowledging her as Supreme Governor of the Church of England and Ireland.

Many Catholics complied, hoping that, if Elizabeth were succeeded by her cousin Mary Queen of Scots, there would be a united Catholic kingdom of England, Scotland and Ireland.

When two of Mayne's friends, Edmund Campion and Gregory Martin, resigning their Oxford posts, went into exile, he noticed how truly happy their letters sounded; they were living as free men under Catholic rulers.

One day another friend advised him to leave Oxford immediately; a letter to him from Campion had been intercepted by the Bishop of London, who had ordered his arrest. Mayne took refuge in Cornwall where he persuaded a sea captain to take him to France.

Then he made for Douai in Flanders, where Catholic boys, sent out secretly, were receiving an excellent education, after which some were ordained and returned to work among persecuted co-religionists at home, even though they knew that, if caught, death was the penalty.

The founder of this most inspiring college was Dr William Allen, a former principal of St Mary's Hall Oxford, now part of Oriel College. (The seminary of the Westminster diocese is named after him.) Allen saw with clear eyes that Catholics in England would gradually, by complying with the law, lose their faith.

After ordination Mayne, travelling with another priest, John Paine (martyred six years later), returned to Cornwall, where he was warmly welcomed by Francis Tregian of Golden Manor, Probus, who was related to the Queen through her great grandmother, Elizabeth Woodville.

Soon Mayne was ministering to the Tregians, their staff and others who, hearing of his coming would gather quietly at inns or in barns where preparations for Mass could be quickly made and as quickly hidden on the approach of strangers.

News of these activities reached Sir Richard Grenville, sheriff of Cornwall, later commander of the Revenge, a man with an ungovernable temper. Accompanied by the chancellor of the Exeter diocese, a number of magistrates and 100 armed men, he swooped on Golden, and threatened with horrible oaths to stab Tregian to death for objecting to his house being entered without warrant.

Coming to a locked door, Grenville battered till Mayne opened it and then, grabbing him by the coat, demanded to know who he was. 'I am a gentleman,' was the calm reply.

Sir Richard, unbuttoning his captive's coat and finding an Agnus Dei hanging round his neck, tore it off and, calling him a traitor, took him, together with Tregian and sixteen others, to Truro for examination by Bishop Bradbridge of Exeter.

Tregian was released on bail, but Mayne, taken in chains to Launceston Castle, was thrown into the deepest and darkest dungeon and kept there for three months without trial, then all were charged with breaches of the 1559 Act of Supremacy.

The jury, when asked for their verdict, appeared to hesitate, so Grenville shouted that they would pay dearly if they acquitted. The jury gave way, and the senior judge pronounced all the accused guilty. Some of the servants were released, but nine, including Tregain, were sentenced to lose lands and goods and to be imprisoned at the Queen's pleasure.

Mayne, condemned to be hanged, drawn and quartered, responded with a serene and joyful countenance, "Deo Gratias". Tregian was then offered his freedom and Mayne's life if he would attend Church of England services. He boldly replied that he would not withhold Mayne's soul from heaven at the risk of sending his own to Hell.

The proccedings had been irregular, and the Privy Council called a meeting of all the judges, who concluded that the indictment had been invalid, but before they had decided what action to recommend, Grenville, being in London, obtained authority to carry out the sentence on Mayne.

Two nights before the execution the prisoners in nearby cells saw a great light in his room and called to know what it was, knowing he had no fire nor candle. He asked them to be quiet, as it did not concern them.

The next day two Protestant preachers, in the presence of magistrates, argued with Mayne for eight hours, keeping him standing in chains, and offering him life if he would deny the Pope's authority and attend Protestant services.

In this extraordinary sub-trial he pleaded for the release of one of Tregian's servants, saying that he was completely innocent. This was granted; then Mayne, taking and kissing a Bible, declared: "The Queen neither is, nor ever shall be, Head of the Church of England."

His cruel death at the age of 33 shocked Catholics everywhere; his head was exposed at Launceston and his severed limbs in several Cornish towns.

Four years later, new and more severe laws were enacted to frustrate the efforts of ardent young priests returning from the continent and to disperse their converts. In spite of heavy fines, detention without charge, the torturing of prisoners and executions, the underground Church continued to grow in numbers and stength.

Some fifteen years after St Cuthbert Mayne's execution, St Robert Southwell SJ was able to report: "It seemed to me that I was watching the beginning of a religious life in England of which we now sow the seeds with tears that others after us may with joy carry the sheaves to the heavenly granaries."

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