Friday, 28 May 2010

Priests of the Reformation

The reigns of Henry VIII (regnant:1509-1547), Edward VI (regnant: 1547-1553), Mary I (regnant: 1553-1558) and Elizabeth I (regnant: 1558-1603) were times of great disturbance for the Church in England, and for both her clergy and her laity.

Beati and Heretics

Some of the clergy under Henry VIII, such as Blessed John Larke, stayed eternally faithful to their priesthood, to the Papacy, and to the Church. Some, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer immediately comes to mind, apostatised and remained heretics until the end. Others went with each wind that blew. Between the likes of Thomas Cranmer and Blessed John Larke there were many, perhaps the majority of the clergy, who were ready to be wafted on any breeze. We know of many great and brave priests who gave their lives for the Faith, and we are aware of out-and-out opponents of the Church and her teaching, but what of those between, the trimmers, the priests who found it easier just to follow any trend? How did the average Rector or Vicar take to each new regime? Lots of them, it seems, did not do well from a Catholic point of view.

Defenders of Queen Katherine

Dr Thomas Abel was chaplain to Queen Katherine of Aragon and her tutor in languages and music. Dr Richard Fetherston, the Archdeacon of Brecon, was Latin tutor to Katherine's daughter, Princess Mary, later to be Queen. Dr Edward Powell, a Welshman, was a theologian who had written a book against Martin Luther, he was a fellow of Oriel college, Oxford, headmaster of Eton College, a prebendary of Salisbury and Vicar of St Mary Radcliffe, Bristol. He was one of the four canon lawyers who were appointed as counsel on the Queen's behalf. These three priests were active supporters of the validity of the Queen's marriage. Because of their opposition to Henry VIII's policies on religion the three divines were imprisoned in the Tower of London. After some years of imprisonment, they were condemned by Bill of Attainder in Parliament. They were martyred at Smithfield on 30th July 1540. At the same time, three Protestants, were burned as heretics. A Frenchman who was present remarked: "those who are for the Pope are hanged, and those who are against him are burned". The priest were subsequently beatified.

Thomas Cranmer

Throughout Edwards VI's reign, Cranmer earnestly supported the Reformation. Under his aegis the first Book of Common Prayer was issued. On the 6th July 1553, as Edward was dying, the Duke of Northumberland obtained the King's signature on a document transmitting the Throne to Northumberland's daughter in law, Lady Jane Grey, a descendant of Henry VII. This document was countersigned by Cranmer and Ridley, the Bishop of London. Although Lady Jane was proclaimed Queen by Nothumberland, the Country rallied to Mary, the lawful Queen. Cranmer was at once ordered to appear before the council, and within a month was committed to the Tower of London. In November 1553, he was pronounced guilty of the crime of High Treason, but was pardoned. Ridley incarcerated in the Tower. In 1555, Parliament re-enacted the 1401 statute for the burning of heretics. Cranmer, Ridley and Latimer, together with others, 273 in total, suffered under his statute. Queen Mary declared herself not in favour of "punishing ignorant people who had been mislead", but punishment was exacted none-the-less. It was decided to charge Cranmer with heresy. In 1954, he was sent to Oxford with Latimer and Ridley. He was imprisoned for two years. Two succesive commissions condemned him as a heretic. After the deaths of Latimer and Ridley, he was degraded and deprived. He was burnt at Oxford, opposite Balliol College.

Cardinal Pole

Reginald Pole was related to Henry VIII who had attempted to obtain his support for his divorce from Katherine of Aragon, but pole opposed it. He became a cardinal and took an active part in the organisation of the pilgrimage of Grace and the rising of 1541.

During the Reign of Edward VI he lived in Italy, but on the Accession of Queen Mary, he returned to England as Papal Legate. After the execution of Thomas Cranmer, he became Archbishop of Canterbury. As Legate, he absolved Parliament of it's heresy.

The coming of Elizabeth
On 17th November 1558, both Mary and Pole died and Elizabeth came to the throne. By 2nd January 1559, nine Sees were vacant. Has this not been the case, it is probable that the Act of Uniformity would not have been passed by the House of Lords. The Act was passed by a majority of three votes. The Act of Uniformity enforced penalties for a priest who, after 24th June 1559, celebrated Mass according to the rites of the Catholic Church. For a first offence, the priest was fined one years income from his benefice, for a second, he was imprisoned for a year and deprived of any chance of advancement. For the third offence, he was imprisoned for life.

The Rising in the North
The Elizabethan settlement had made little impact in the North during the 1560's. It was estimated that two thirds of Northern Justices of the Peace were Catholics in 1566. Even among those who outwardly conformed and went to the now Protestant churches, there was considerable conservatism. There were cases of the continued use of images, candles and even holy water, and some priests, contrary to the law, celebrated the new Communion Service for the Dead. In 1969 Catholics in the North rebelled. Various Catholic nobles were amongst those prominent in the rebellion, but among the instigators of the rising was Dr Nicholas Morton, formerly a Canon of Canterbury Cathedral. He has gone into exile on the continent, but had returned to England in 1568, on fire with enthusiastic support for the Counter-Reformation. The Earl of Northumberland reports that Dr Morten "lamented the want of sound Catholic priests to whom he might give authority to reconcile such people as would seek it"

During the rising, a group of priests gained control of the services at Durham Cathedral and celebrated mass for large congregations. one priest, William Holmes, publicly reconciled the congregation. On 4th December 1569, Thomas Plumtree, a priest who had been born in the Diocese of Lincoln and educated at Corpus Christi, Oxford, chaplain to the insurgents, was Celebrant at a Mass in the Cathedral for the Army of the Rising. After the failure of the rebellion, he was offered his life if he would give up the Faith. He refused and was executed at Durham on 4th January 1570. He was beatified in 1929.

The Catholic Bishops
Because of the dead of the Archbishop of Canterbury, it should have fallen to the Archbishop of York, Nicholas Heath, to crown Elizabeth as Queen, but he refused to do so. The other Bishops, excepting only Owen Oglethorpe of Carlisle, followed his example. Oglethorpe agreed in the hope he might prevent an open schism. Having taken the Oath to uphold the Catholic Faith and guard the rights of the Church, Elizabeth, by her actions showed her utter contempt for the Faith. She forbade the Bishop to elevate the Host, but he refused to obey.

The Bishops, with the exception of Kitchin of Llandaff, were not prepared to accept the Act of Supremacy. Those who refused the oath were deprived of their Sees and most were imprisoned, including, Oglethorpe. Despite threats and promises, he refused to take the Oath and was deprived like the rest. He died on the last day of 1559. Thomas Thirlby, who, in the reign of Henry VIII, had been the first and last Bishop of Westminster _ his Cathedral was Westminster Abbey - was Bishop of Ely. He was on France on an embassy when Elizabeth acceded to the throne. When he returned to England, he immediately joined his brother Bishops in rejecting the Act of Supremacy. He was deprived of his See in 1559 and committed to the Tower of London in 1560. In 1563 he was released into the custody of Matthew Parker. Dr Thirlby died at Lambeth in 1570.

The Bishops who had accepted Henry VIII's title of "Head of the Church", did not make the same mistake again; they had seen where error took them. After a plague broke out in London, they were moved away from the City and placed in the custody of the Protestants who had been intruded into their Sees.

Thomas Watson of Lincoln had taken the Oath of Supremacy under Henry VIII, but otherwise remained faithful to Catholicism and because of of preaching in its defense during the reign of Edward VI, for a time he had been imprisoned with Bishop Gardiner of Winchester, whose chaplain he was. Mary made him Bishop of Lincoln. deprived by Elizabeth, he was imprisoned. Because he had been in touch with Douai, he was moved to Wisbech for his final years of confinement. He died on 27th September 1585, the last survivor of the old Hierarchy to die on English soil.

Bishop Thomas Goldwell, escaped to the Continent to become one of the Fathers of the Council of Trent and to sit on the Commission which produced the Missal of 1570. He had been the Chaplain of Reginald Cardinal Pole, in exile, chamberlain to the English Hospice in Rome, which later was to be used by the English College, and became a Theatine. He was appointed Bishop of St Asaph on the accession of Queen Mary. He died on 3rd April 1585, aged 85.

By permission of Pope Pius V's successor, Gregory XIII (pope: 13th May 1572 to 10th April 1585), there was inscribed on a wall of the Venerable English College in Rome "For their Confession of the Roman See and the Catholic Faith eleven Catholic Bishops died, after wasting away by a lazy imprisonment".

The lesser clergy

Had the lesser clergy followed the lead of the Bishops, then the plans of Elizabeth and her Government could well have failed. Although a large number, perhaps as many as half of the Cathedral clergy, archdeacons, and heads of colleges at the two Universities did follow the lead of the Bishops, yet the other half , driven by fear, conviction, or cupidity, consented to abjure their oaths of allegiance to the Holy See.

Vicar of Bray

The Vicar of Bray, is the priest whose title has become synonymous with changing sides. The well known song, written in the twentieth century - the chorus of which is: "but, what so-ever king may reign, still I'll be the Vicar of Bray, Sir!'' - places him in the seventeenth century, but he dates from the reign of Henry VIII and his immediate successors. Although there was a Protestant Vicar of Bray, Simon Symonds, between the reigns of Charles II and Queen Anne, who changed his churchmanship according to whoever was reigning, the sixteenth century Vicar is accepted as being the one who gave his name to preserving his living. His name was also Simon, Simon Aleyn and he had the living from 1540 to 1588.

In his recent book The Voices of Morebath Dr Eamon Duffy follows the life of Christopher Trychay. Like Aleyn, he celebrated Mass according to the Sarum Use, but followed King Henry VIII into schism. Under Edward VI he apostatised, but returned to the Church and the Mass under Mary Tudor. He apostatised again under Mary's sister, Elizabeth I, going back to the Protestant Communion Service: (interestingly, when I spellchecked this article, the computer rejected Trychay and suggested instead "treachery''). Many priests seem to have had no difficulty about preaching one thing one day and its opposite the next; what you might call a turn-cassock.

Henry Siddall

In the parish of St Mary's, Woodford, Essex, Henry Siddall was appointed Rector in 1530. There had been an inexplicable appointment to the parish three years earlier. Although the advowson was in the gift of the Lord of the Manor of Woodford, the Lord Chancellor, St Thomas More, presented Blessed John Larke to the living in 1527, pro hac vice "on this occasion''. No-one knows the reason for, or the legality of, the intervention of St Thomas. Blessed John Larke, who was also Rector of St Ethelburga's, Bishopsgate, London, remained Rector of Woodford until St Thomas presented him to the Rectory of Chelsea in 1530.

Henry Siddall, like Thomas Cranmer, and other priests, took the opportunity given them by the coming to the throne of the Protestant boy, Edward VI, to take themselves "wives''. After the accession of Queen Mary I, Siddall was deprived of his living as a "married'' priest, in 1555 (ten years after the martyrdom of his predecessor, John Larke at Tyburn). Eventually, Siddall was reconciled, presumably after putting away his "wife'', and made Vicar of the neighbouring parish of St Mary's, Walthamstow.

This same sort of situation would have occurred throughout the country during this period.

The decision must have been made by the Papal Legate, that he could not be too zealous with the priests who had gone along with the Protestant Reform, or there would not be sufficient priests available to staff the parishes. They were, no doubt, reconciled in barrelfulls. So long as they had no "wife'', or were prepared to leave her, if they had one, if they were willing to return to the Mass - which, of course, many would have preferred to have retained in the first place - they could stay, perhaps in their parishes. The alternative for Cardinal Pole was parishes denuded of priests.

Elizabethan apostates

After the accession of Queen Elizabeth I, Bishop Kitchin of Llandaff was the only bishop to apostatise. There were priests who did so, including Matthew Parker, the priest whom Elizabeth appointed to fill the See of Canterbury. He had been educated at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, and was Dean of Lincoln under Edward VI, but was deprived of his office on the accession of Queen Mary as a "married'' priest. David Poole, Bishop of Peterborough had refused to consecrate him. Parker was "consecrated'' according to the Edwardine Ordinal. He managed to preserve good relations with Elizabeth, despite her understandable prejudice against "married'' clergy, she detested the idea of priests marrying.

Marian Priests

At the beginning of the Penal period, there were only a relatively small number of priests serving on the English Mission. There were priests who had been ordained in the reign of Elizabeth's sister Mary I. Many of these had conformed to the new religion. Some probably outwardly conformed and conducted the new English Protestant service in their churches, while privately celebrating Mass for those of their parishioners who demanded it. A small number continued, at risk of imprisonment, if not their lives, to provide the Holy Sacrifice in secret, travelling around as seminary priests and Jesuits who were to come to join them did in their turn.

James Bell

James Bell was a Marian priest. A Lancashire man, from Warrington, he was born about 1520. He was educated at Oxford University and ordained during the reign of Mary I. On the accession of Elizabeth, he conformed and acted as a Protestant minister. Maybe his heart was not in it because he refused to accept a benefice with the cure of souls, although many were going begging. He returned to Lancashire in the hope of finding a chaplaincy without the care of the people. A Catholic woman persuaded him to return to the Church and to his priesthood. Having been reconciled, he returned to the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice and the Divine Office. For two years he continued to fulfil his office as a priest, but eventually was arrested as a spy. In January 1584, he was sent to Manchester. From there he was taken to Lancaster and indicted at the Lent Assizes. He was tried under the Act of Supremacy. Tried with him were two other priests and a layman, John Finch, a farmer who was charged with harbouring priests. James Bell and John Finch were both hanged, drawn and quartered on 10th April 1560 at Lancaster. The other two priests were imprisoned. Blessed James Bell (he and John Finch were beatified in 1929) was unusual among Marian priests in being martyred. Other Marian priests who were caught exercising their priesthood were imprisoned; they had not committed the crime of going beyond the seas to be ordained as had the seminary priests.

William Watson

Not all priests were the stuff of which martyrs are made. William Watson was a priest ordained during the reign of Queen Mary I. He conformed in Elizabeth's reign. He repented his action and was reconciled. He was imprisoned in the Bridewell a London palace which had been turned into a gaol. Showing that female Papists could be as resourceful (or foolhardy) as their male counterparts, Margaret Ward, a Cheshire woman, resolved to aid his escape with the help of an Irish, Thames waterman called John Roche. She visited the priest over a period of a month carrying a basket of provisions. She was always searched, but, security no doubt becoming slack, eventually she managed to smuggle in a rope. The priest escaped, but injured himself doing so and left the rope dangling from the window. Margaret Ward was his only visitor and so was arrested. She was badly treated in prison, but was happy to admit to aiding the priest's escape. She was promised a pardon if she would attend the Protestant service, but refused and was hanged with her boatman accomplice, who rowed the priest away and changed clothes with him. They were martyred at Tyburn on August 30th 1588. William Watson went free, to bring the Mass to his people.

Jacobean apostacy

Soon after the reputed Gunpowder Plot of 1605, an apostate Jesuit, Christopher Perkins was involved with the Protestant occupant of the See of Canterbury, Richard Bancroft, in writing a new oath of allegiance for Catholics, which was intended to show disloyalty to the Sovereign Pontiff, without entirely severing the allegiance of Catholics. The Archpriest, George Blackwell, the most senior priest in England, took the oath and was, accordingly, deprived of his office.

The glory of the Clergy

After, there were to be many priest martyrs from the Continental seminaries and religious houses, they are the glory of the English clergy.


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