St. John Houghton, Martyr
Painting of St. John Houghton,
taken from Il martirio dei certosini in Inghilterra
[Taken from Saint John Fisher, by Michael Davies, The Neumann Press, 1998.]
"...On 20 April 1535 [during the reign of King Henry VIII], [Saints] John Houghton, Augustine Webster, and Robert Lawrence, the priors of the Charterhouses [Carthusian monasteries] of London, Beauvale, and Axelhome were arrested. They were committed to the Tower [of London] which they entered by the Traitors' Gate, and in which they remained in foul conditions. They were soon joined by [Saint] Dr. Richard Reynolds, of the Brigettine monastery at Syon who was reputed to be 'the most learned monk in England'. While in the Tower they were subjected to a personal interrogation by [Thomas] Cromwell and the Royal Commissioners who brought with them the Act of Parliament [the first Act of Supremacy] under which it was intended to condemn them if they refused the oath. The priests said that they were ready to consent to all that the law of God permitted. 'I admit no exception,' said Cromwell. 'Whether the law of God permits it or no, you shall take the oath without any reserve whatsoever, and you shall observe it too.' The prisoners objected that the Catholic Church had always taught the contrary to what was set forth in the Act of Parliament. 'I care nothing for what the Church has held or taught,' replied Cromwell. 'I will that you testify by solemn oath that you believe and firmly hold what we propose to you to profess: that the king is Head of the English Church.' The prisoners answered that the fear of God would not allow them to disobey or abandon the Church, seeing that St. Augustine says that he would not believe even the Gospel if the Holy Catholic Church did not teach him to do so."
"At their trial the monks insisted that the supremacy of the pope had been instituted by Our Lord 'as necessary to the conservation of the spiritual unity of the mystical body of Christ.' They were cut short by the judge who stated that as the Act has been passed and was law it could not be called into question. Twice the jury refused to condemn priests of such radiant holiness despite threats that if they failed to find in favour of the king they would suffer the same fate as the monks. Cromwell himself then came to intimidate them in person, and they brought in a reluctant verdict of guilty. The four prisoners were sentenced to be hanged, drawn, and quartered at Tyburn. Tuesday 4 May 1535 was the day fixed for their execution. It had rained during the night and the streets were coated with mud. The martyrs for the faith were dragged by horses to Tyburn, lying on their backs on hurdles, jolting over rough cobbles, their heads beaten against the rough stones, and splashing through puddles of filthy water. St. Thomas More, and his daughter Margaret who was visiting him, witnessed the beginning of the sad procession from the window of his cell in the Bell Tower. Tears came into his eyes as he gazed down upon the scene below, and he said to Margaret: 'Lo, dost thou not see Meg, that these blessed fathers be now as cheerfully going to their deaths as bridegrooms to a marriage.' As a young man More had aspired to the Carthusian life, but eventually decided that this was not his vocation. In his deep humility the saint told Margaret that God was calling the monks to everlasting life as a reward for spending their days in a hard, penitential, and painful life, but because of his own unworthiness he was condemned to remain longer on earth."
"The painful three mile journey [from] the Tower halted at the hospital of St. Giles-in-the-Fields where, in accordance with tradition, the condemned men were offered a bowl of ale. Together with a secular priest, [Blessed] John Hale, the Vicar of Isleworth, they were hanged, drawn, and quartered as traitors. Hale had been denounced to the authorities for remarks concerning the king's tyranny and licentiousness made during a private conversation. In an act of unprecedented barbarism the monks were executed wearing their religious habits. Had they truly been guilty of treason or any other capital offence they should have been degraded to the lay state and executed wearing secular clothing. This had been the invariable practice in England."
"To Blessed John Houghton [this account was written after his beatification, but before his canonization], God was pleased to grant the signal honour of being the first man since pagan times to suffer death in England for being a Catholic. After lovingly embracing the executioner, who craved his pardon, the holy martyr entered the cart which stood beneath the gallows; and there, in the sight of the multitude, he was asked once again whether he would submit to the King's laws before it was too late. Nothing daunted, he replied: 'I call Almighty God to witness, and I beseech all here present to attest for me on the dreadful day of judgment, that, being about to die in public, I declare that I have refused to comply with the will of His Majesty the King, not from obstinacy, malice, or a rebellious spirit, but solely for fear of offending the supreme Majesty of God. Our holy Mother the Church has decreed and enjoined otherwise than the king and Parliament have decreed. I am therefore bound in conscience, and am ready and willing to suffer every kind of torture, rather than deny a doctrine of the Church. Pray for me. and have mercy on my brethren, of whom I have been the unworthy Prior.' He then asked for time to say his last prayer, which he took from the 30th Psalm: 'In Thee, O Lord, have I hoped; let me never be confounded: deliver me in Thy justice...Into Thy hands I commend my spirit; for Thou hast redeemed me, O Lord, the God of truth.' Blessed John Houghton was now ready to meet death."[Saints] Augustine Weber, Robert Lawrence, [and] Richard Reynolds were all butchered in the same way as the protomartyr. Each was offered a free pardon if he would renounce his Catholic faith, but each preferred death to apostasy. Insults were heaped upon the lifeless bodies of the martyrs. [Saint] John Houghton's heart was rubbed in his face. The bodies were cut into quarters which were thrown into a cauldron of boiling pitch to prevent decay, and then set up in different parts of London as proof positive that the king was indeed the head of the Church in England....In order to terrify the remaining Carthusians into submission, [Saint] John Houghton's severed arm, all bloody from Tyburn, was nailed above the gateway of the Charterhouse. When it eventually fell to the ground it was hidden by the monks and may still be lying where they hid it. This alone suffices to make the London Charterhouse a hallowed place for Catholics."
"A thick rope had been chosen, for fear he might be strangled and expire too quickly. It was placed about his neck. The sheriff gave the signal. The cart was drawn aside; and the gentle monk, who had done good to many, and harm to none, was hanging like a malefactor from the gallows. Then came the worst part of the business, for no mercy was shown, and the hideous sentence was carried out in all its details. The rope was cut, and the body fell heavily on the ground; but John Houghton was not dead. They tore off his holy habit, and laid him on a plank or platform. The executioner inflicted a long and ghastly wound with a sharp knife, dragged out his entrails, and threw them into a fire prepared for the purpose. The poor sufferer was conscious the whole time; and while he was being embowelled he was heard to exclaim: 'Oh most holy Jesus, have mercy upon me in this hour!' When at last the executioner placed his hand upon the heart to wrench it from its place, the blessed martyr spoke again. A German, Anthony Rescius, who afterwards became auxiliary Bishop of Wiirzburg, was close by. He overheard his last words: 'Good Jesu, what will ye do with my heart?' The struggle was over at last. John Houghton had been faithful unto death, and gained the crown of life."
"...It is impossible not to see the divine irony in the fact that three Carthusian priors were among the first five Catholics who shed their blood for the rights of the Church since the martyrdom of St. Thomas Becket in 1170. The iron derives from the fact that as part of his penance for the death of the archbishop, King Henry II made a vow before the tomb of St. Thomas to build a monastery. The austere Carthusian order stood highest in the veneration of Christendom, and so the king build the first Carthusian monastery in England at Witham in Somersetshire. The third prior of this monastery at the earnest request of Henry II was the great St. Hugh (1140-1200). The king later persuaded him to become Bishop of Lincoln. His tomb in Lincoln Cathedral was second only to that of St. Thomas Becket as a place of pilgrimage and popular devotion. Both tombs were despoiled by Henry VIII."