The Blessed Martyrs of Sussex

The Blessed Martyrs of Sussex

Celebrated 3rd October

John Rugge, Thomas Percy, Thomas Pylcher, Henry Webley, Edward Shelley, Ralph Crockett, Edward James, George Gervase, Thomas Bullaker, William Howard.
On this day we honour ten martyrs, whose sufferings span the whole period during which men and women were put to death in England for their loyalty to the Catholic faith: a period of over a hundred and forty years, during the reigns of five monarchs. Among them are four laymen, two of noble birth, and six priests, including a Benedictine monk, a Franciscan friar, and three “seminary priests”.
The first was a priest of 63 years of age, John Rugge, who had spent most of his priestly life at Chichester, first as Principal of the College of Vicars Choral, and then as Prebendary of the Cathedral. In 1536 he retired to live at the Benedictine Abbey at Reading; it is not clear whether he actually became a professed monk.
This was the year when Henry VIII first moved to take over the monasteries – the lesser ones at this time. But three years later Thomas Cromwell descended on the larger and richer abbeys, among which was Reading. Abbot Hugh Faringdon was one of the few abbots to refuse to sign away his abbey, and when he was brought to trial John Rugge and John Eynon were found guilty with him of treason, for denying that the King was Supreme Head of the Church in England. All three were hanged, drawn and quartered at Reading oh 15th November 1539.
Thirty years later, Elizabeth I was on the throne, and the Protestant Reformation was being enforced with increasing severity.
The year 1569 saw the Rising in the North, which sought to restore the Catholic faith, and to secure the succession to the throne of Mary Queen of Scots.
The leaders of the uprising were the Earl of Westmorland and the Earl of Northumberland, Thomas Percy.
Throughout his life Percy was a supporter of the Catholic cause, arguing for it in the House of Lords. But ten years earlier he had been forced to resign his post as Warden of the Marches, and to live more quietly at his Petworth estate.
The rising of 1569 was a failure, in spite of considerable support in the north of England, and the Earl was forced to flee to Scotland. There he was betrayed and kept imprisoned in Lochleven Castle for two and a half years, while his captor bargained with the Queen for his surrender to her jurisdiction. He was brought eventually to York, where he was beheaded for treason on 22 August 1572. His last words to the crowd made the reason for his execution very clear: “From my earliest years I have kept the faith of that Church which, throughout the whole Christian world, is knit and bound together; and in the same faith I am to end this unhappy life.”
Five more of our Sussex martyrs suffered during the reign of Elizabeth I.
Thomas Pylcher is a distinguished son of the Sussex town of Battle. A Fellow of Balliol College, Oxford, he was “grievously suspect of religion”. In 1581, aged 24, he left Oxford to study for the priesthood at the English College at Rheims, where two years later he was ordained priest. Returning to the “English Mission”, he worked for two years in Hampshire and the West Country, but in 1585 he was arrested and banished from the realm, with many others.
This banishment was no act of leniency, for that same year the infamous Act of 27 Elizabeth C.2 was passed, which made it high treason for a priest to be ordained abroad to enter the country to minister here. Any one of those banished who returned would come under this Act. Like so many others, Thomas Pylcher did so return, and for over a year worked secretly among the Catholics in Dorset and in London.
It was in London that he was recognised (he had a cast in one eye). He was taken to Dorchester, tried for treason under the Act, and executed on 21 March 1587. He had been a great reconciler, bringing many back to the faith, including a carpenter named William Pike, who died a martyr in 1591, other prisoners in Dorchester gaol, and a notorious young robber, who died on the scaffold with him. A priest friend wrote of him: “There was not a priest in the whole West of England who was his equal in virtue”.
An honoured place among our martyrs is held by two laymen, Henry Webley and Edward Shelley. Not much is known of Webley’s early life, but Shelley came from a staunch Sussex Catholic family. His father had estates at Warminghurst, and his grandfather was Sir John Shelley of Michelgrove near Arundel. Both men were among that band of laypeople – many unknown to us – who gave help and shelter to the priests who came from abroad to minister to them. One of these priests was Blessed William Dean, and indeed Shelley had been in prison with him. Dean (and perhaps Shelley) had been banished with many others in 1585, but returned that same year. Henry Webley probably joined them in London. But in 1586 Webley was arrested on board a ship in Chichester harbour, as he was about to sail for France, and committed to Marshal-sea prison in London, where he remained for two years.
1588 was a fateful year for English Catholics. In July the invasion of the Spanish Armada was narrowly averted, and there was an immediate reaction against Catholics. The government was not slow to take advantage of this, and many Catholics then in prison were brought to trial, among them Webley and Shelley.
Both were tried under the Act of 1585, by which it was a felony to receive or aid priests entering the country, and in both cases the priest in question was William Dean. It was made abundantly clear that if they acknowledged the Queen as head of the Church they would be reprieved. Henry Webley and Dean were found guilty at Newgate Sessions and executed together at Mile End Green on 28 August 1588. Two days later Edward Shelley was hanged at Tyburn.
Barely a month later it was the turn of two seminary priests, Ralph Crockett and Edward James. Ralph Crockett, a native of Cheshire, was a Cambridge man and a schoolmaster. At the age of 32 he offered himself for the English Mission, studying at the English college at Rheims, where he was ordained in 1585. Edward James, of Derbyshire and Oxford, was a younger man who had been ordained in 1583 after studying at the English College in Rome.
The two met at Dieppe in February 1586 and arranged with a Newhaven ship-owner to take them across the Channel. They arrived off Littlehampton, but were advised that it was unsafe to land, as close watch was being kept at the port for such as themselves. After two days the ship was boarded and the two priests were arrested.
They were taken to London and interrogated. The fact that they had been arrested when on board ship meant that they had not entered the country of their own free will, and that therefore they had not broken any law – especially the new law making it treason for priests to enter the country to minister here. But Crockett stated that he had intended to exercise his priesthood in England, and James said that he had come to fulfil his oath to the service of the English Mission, which was evidence enough.
They were kept in prison for the next two and a haft years, until in the aftermath of the Armada in 1588 the Government sought to make examples of Catholics, particularly in disaffected places. Chichester was considered one of these, so the two priests were put on trial there. The prosecutor made an attempt to show that they were traitors not only under the new Act, but also under an Act of Edward III, which of course had no reference at all in priesthood as a cause of treason. Crockett, who was the spokesman, said that it was a cruel law to make their religion and tie taking of priesthood to be treason, and that time had been that priesthood had been reverenced in England.
On 1st October 1588 Crockett, James and another, Francis Edwardes, were taken to Broyle Heath outside Chichester. Crocket and James absolved each other. Crockett died first; the mild prayerful James remained staunch to the end, but the third, Edwardes. Gave way at the last moment, took the oath and was reprieved.
Blessed Ralph Crockett and Blessed Edward James had never offered a mass or heard a confession in England. They accomplished their ministry in their death. George Gervase was born and baptised into the Established Church at Bosham in 1569.
His mother was a member of the Shelley family. At the age of twelve George was orphaned. At twenty-six he was pressed into service on Sir Francis Drake’s last voyage to the Indies. On his return he went to Flanders and enlisted as a soldier in the army of the Archduke of Austria. But he also made contact with his elder brother, who was a Catholic, and was reconciled to the Church. He was accepted as a student at the English College at Douai and ordained priest in 1603.
The following year he returned to England, ministered for a time in the south, then went to the north, where he was apprehended. After a period in gaol, he was banished from the realm with many other priests, including St Thomas Garnet. Back on the Continent, George made a pilgrimage to Rome, where he asked to be received as a monk at the new St Gregory’s Priory at Douai. He was clothed as a novice, and returned immediately to England.
He was at liberty for just two months, and then was arrested and brought to trial at the Old Bailey. He was asked if he would take the Oath of Allegiance (this was a new oath which had been imposed after the Gunpowder Plot). He refused, and was condemned to a traitor’s death. The sentence was carried out on 11 April 1608. George Gervase can be said to have made his profession as a Benedictine monk on the scaffold.
For our next Sussex martyr we move on a generation, to the reign of Charles I. This reign had begun with a considerable respite for Catholics, largely because of Charles’s Catholic queen, Henrietta Maria. Thomas Bullaker was born in 1603. His father was a doctor in Chichester, and a well-known recusant. Thomas himself was born at Midhurst, and early experienced the pressures involved in living a Catholic life at that time. In 1621 he went to study at Valladolid, and there was admitted into the Franciscan Order.
He was professed as Brother John Baptist in 1623, and about four years later was ordained priest. His first desire was to go on the West Indies mission, but his Provincial judged him better suited to go to England. At first things went badly for him. He was arrested as soon as he landed at Plymouth, was tried at Exeter but remanded for insufficient evidence. Friends secured his release by means of a forged letter purporting to come from the Privy Council. The next twelve years he spent in uninterrupted work for the Catholics in England; he was Secretary to the Franciscan Provincial, and Guardian of various districts. But it was not to last.
Puritan opposition to the King was increasing, and under the Long Parliament which began to sit in 1640 persecution of Catholics was renewed. Thomas Bullaker ardently desired the palm of martyrdom. So he went to work in London, the most dangerous place, was arrested and again released, went to the country for a time, returned to London and was finally apprehended there while saying Mass.
On trial at Newgate, he made an able defence, admitting that he was a priest, but denying treason. The Jury wavered, but the Judge pronounced sentence without waiting for their verdict. Thomas was taken to Tyburn, where he spoke to the people about priesthood and the Real Presence, until ordered to stop; he received absolution from a member of his order in the crowd (perhaps Arthur Bell), and went to his martyr’s death, aged about 38. Relics of him are preserved at the Carmelite Convent at Chichester, and at the Convent of the Poor Clares at Arundel.
The last of the Sussex Martyrs is a distinguished layman, William Howard, Viscount Stafford, the grandson of St Philip Howard. The fifth son of Thomas, 14th Earl of Arundel, he was born at Arundel House in the Strand, and was brought up a Catholic. A brilliant boy, he graduated from Cambridge at the age of twelve. At Charles I’s coronation, aged 13, he was made a Knight of the Bath.
As Viscount Stafford his career was chiefly noteworthy for long and acrimonious litigation with other members of his family in defence of his mother’s inheritance. At all events, throughout his middle years he showed little sign of the heroic destiny that awaited him. He was already an elderly man when, in 1678, the infamous Titus Oates singled him out as one of the alleged participants in his invented “Popish Plot” to assassinate Charles II and put his brother James on the throne.
In September of that year he was arrested and committed to the Tower. After fourteen months he was brought to trial and sentenced to death by beheading. He received the news with joy, quoting Psalm 117: “This is the day which the Lord hath made, let us rejoice and be glad in it”. And he declared, in his speech from the scaffold, on 29th December 1680: “I have considered often what could be the original cause of my being thus accused, since I knew myself not culpable, so much as in a thought, and I cannot believe it to be on any other account than my being of the Church of Rome. I have no reason to be ashamed of my religion.” That can stand as the epitaph of all the Martyrs of Sussex and indeed of all who gave their lives for the faith in our land.
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