Friday, 22 June 2012

Vocation to martyrdom

In his youth, St. Thomas More considered becoming a Carthusian monk at the Charterhouse of London.  It is a beautiful place, attractive to any spiritual person, though it was confiscated by Henry VIII and is no longer a monastery.  

However, St. Thomas did not join this most austere and hidden religious Order, but instead rose to become Chancellor of England and an author famous all over Europe ("Utopia" being only a small portion of his collected works which total fifteen volumes).  St. Thomas married and had several children, and when eventually his beloved wife died in childbirth he married again (both marriages apparently exemplary and happy).  When Henry VIII declared himself head of the Catholic Church in England, he ceased to be Catholic, and created a breakaway sect that at present would seem to be entering into its endgame.  St. Thomas could not in conscience accept Henry as Supreme Head of the Church in England, and resigned as Chancellor.  That was not enough, though, and he was tried, condemned and executed for "treason" on July 7th, 1535, just a few weeks after St. John Fisher, the Bishop of Rochester, was hanged, drawn and quartered on June 22nd, 1535, also for refusing to recognize Henry.

Yet had St. Thomas stayed in obscurity at the Charterhouse, his life would have ended in the same way.  

While the two ways of life could not be more different -- Chancellor of the realm and silent hermit-monk -- either one would have led to martyrdom for St. Thomas.  The Prior of the Charterhouse and his monks were also required to take the oath of the Act of  Supremacy.  Upon refusing to do so, the Prior, St. John Houghton, and the two other Carthusian Priors in England were arrested.  They were executed on May 4th, 1535, and the rest of the Charterhouse monks met their end as described below.  Had St. Thomas More become a Carthusian, he would have died with them -- and, I think, that given his remarkable gifts, he himself may have held a leadership position as well, and quite possibly would have died with Prior Houghton.  

Becoming Chancellor of England instead of a monk gave St. Thomas only an extra 63 days of life.  

His vocation was martyrdom.

Zurbaran's painting of St. John Houghton, whose heart was removed while he was still alive.  The rest of the Carthusian monks were martyred as follows (from Wiki):

On 4 May 1535 the authorities sent to their death at Tyburn, London three leading English Carthusians, Doms John Houghton, prior of the London house, Robert Lawrence and Augustine Webster, respectively priors of Beauvale and Axholme, along with a Bridgettine monk, Richard Reynolds of Syon Abbey.

Little more than a month later, it was the turn of three leading monks of the London house: Doms Humphrey Middlemore, William Exmew and Sebastian Newdigate, who were to die at Tyburn, London on the 19 June. Newdigate was a personal friend of Henry VIII, who twice visited him in the prison to persuade him to give in, in vain.

The next move was to seize four more monks of community, two being taken to the Carthusian house at Beauvale in Nottinghamshire, while Dom John Rochester and Dom James Walworth were taken to the Charterhouse of St Michael at Hull in Yorkshire. They were made an "example" of on 11 May 1537, when, condemned on trumped-up charges of treason, they were hanged in chains from the York city battlements until dead.

The government continued to play a game of intimidation until 18 May 1537, when the twenty hermits and eighteen lay brothers remaining in the London Charterhouse were required to take the Oath of Supremacy. Of these, the hermits Doms Thomas Johnson, Richard Bere, Thomas Green (priests), and John Davy (a deacon), refused. Richard Bere was the nephew, and namesake of, Richard Bere the Abbot of Glastonbury (1493–1525). The younger Bere abandoned his studies in the law, and became a Carthusian in February 1523.[1] Thomas Green may be the Thomas Greenwood who obtained a bachelor's degree at Oxford, and later a Master's degree at Cambridge in 1511, who became Fellow of St John's College, Cambridge in 1515 and the Doctorate in Divinity in 1532. This would associate him with St. John Fisher.

Likewise, of the brothers, Robert Salt, William Greenwood, Thomas Redyng, Thomas Scryven, Walter Pierson, and William Horne also refused.

As to the rest of the community, the charterhouse was "surrendered" and they were expelled.

Those refusing the oath were all sent on May 29 to Newgate Prison, and treated as had been their fellow Carthusians in June 1535. They were chained standing and with their hands tied behind them to posts in the prison. This time, however, no further proceeding was foreseen and they were simply left to die of starvation.
Margaret Clement (née Giggs), who had been raised by St. Thomas More, bribed the gaoler to let her have access to the prisoners, and, disguised as a milkmaid, carried in a milk-can full of meat which she fed to them. She also relieved them as best she could of the filth. However, King Henry became suspicious and began to ask whether they were already dead. When this filtered back to the gaoler, he became too afraid to let Margaret enter again. For a brief time she was allowed to go on the roof and uncover the tiles, and let down meat in a basket as near as she could to their mouths. This method meant the monks could get little or nothing from the basket, and in any case the gaoler became too afraid and stopped any contact.

The lay brother William Greenwood died first, on 6 June, and two days later the deacon Dom John Davy, on 8 June. Brother Robert Salt died on 9 June, Brother Walter Pierson and Dom Thomas Green on 10 June, and Brothers Thomas Scryven and Thomas Redyng on 15 June and 16 June, respectively. These last named had survived a remarkably long time. It seems likely that at this point the King and his Council had decided upon a change of plan which entailed bringing the survivors to execution and that Cromwell gave orders that those still living were to be given food so as to keep them alive. At any rate, the hermit, Dom Richard Bere, did not die till 9 August, and Dom Thomas Johnson not until 20 September.

See also:  Fortnight for Freedom 


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