October 24, 2017

The Forty Martyrs of England and Wales

October 25th in England is the feast of the Forty Holy Martyrs of England and Wales (in Wales this is a memorial), a group of forty men, women, religious, priests, and lay people, canonized by Pope Paul VI on October 25, 1970. Their martyrdoms span the years 1535 to 1679. Four distinct waves of persecution occurred. The first followed the passing of the First Act of Supremacy (1534) when Henry VIII broke with Rome. John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, and Henry’s chancellor, Sir Thomas More, were executed in 1535 along with several religious.

The second wave came after 1570. Pope Pius V, believing that Queen Elizabeth I, the daughter of Anne Boleyn, was illegitimate and had no right to the throne, issued a papal bull Regnans in excelsis excommunicating her and absolving all her subjects from allegiance to her and her laws. This was a real dilemma for Catholics especially if they were asked the infamous "bloody question": if there was an invasion from the Pope, which would you support – Rome or England?

The third wave of persecution followed the failed Gunpowder Plot in 1605. This was an ill-advised assassination attempt against King James I. Robert Catesby organized the plot in an effort to end the English government's persecution of Roman Catholics. The conspirators had tried to blow up Parliament during the State opening. They were later hanged, drawn and quartered in punishment.

The final wave came in 1678 following the so-called "Popish Plot" created by the infamous Titus Oates. Oates had been twice expelled from Jesuit colleges on the continent and was refused admission as a novice. He spread the rumor that the Jesuits were plotting to overthrow King Charles II and make England a Catholic nation. The rumour of a plot stirred a new persecution against "English Papists".

The Forty Martyrs of England and Wales includes: 3 Carthusians, 1 Augustinian, 1 Brigittine, 2 Franciscans, 3 Benedictines, 10 Jesuits, 13 Priests of the secular clergy and 7 members of the laity – 4 men and 3 women, all of them mothers. Ever-living God, who was pleased to give light to your Church by adorning the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales the victory of heaven, grant that, as they imitated Jesus' Passion, we may follow them and know your eternal Beatitude.

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