4 May: English Carthusian martyrs

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In 1535 King Henry VIII decided to break away from the Roman Catholic Church. He forced his English subjects to sign the «Act of Supremacy» that established that the head of the Church in England is not the Pope but the King. Many of them accepted. Others managed to flee the country in order to remain loyal to the Pope. Still others suffered martyrdom. This is the case of saints John, Robert, Augustine and their companions, martyrs whom we remember today. They are commemorated in the Order with the «rite of twelve readings». We offer below eight of these readings. In them, the Carthusian Father Maurice Chauncy, who managed to escape from England, recounts the martyrdom of his brothers in the Order.

1

In the beginning of the year 1535 it was settled by the King, and enacted by the celebrated Act of his Parliament, that all should renounce the authority and obedience they owed to our lord the Pope, or any other superior in other countries, and should acknowledge under an oath, the King himself as supreme head of the Church, in spiritual things as well as in temporal things, under penalty of being held guilty of high treason, and punished with death. Then the three venerable father priors, John, Augustine and Robert, reflecting that the anger of the King was like a messenger of death, resolved together that they would endeavour to mitigate it (leaving the result to the judgement of God), and would anticipate and preoccupy the time of the expected  arrival  of  the  King’s  councillors  by  going  to  Thomas  Cromwell,  the King’s  vicar,  to  implore  him  to  help  them  as  far  as  he  could  to  get  them exempted  from  the  King’s  decree,  or  to  obtain  some  mitigation  or  relaxation from the tenor or rigour of it, in regard to taking the oath. Having then approached him and laid before him their wishes and supplications, he not only denied their petition, but ordered them to be sent to the Tower as rebels.

The Martyrdom of the Priors of the Charterhouses of London, Beauvale and Axholme (by Vicente Carducho)

2

After remaining in the Tower for several days suffering many inconveniences, but standing with great constancy against those who oppressed them, the order for the execution of the three father priors arrived. This was the manner of their death, if manner it can be called, where beyond all human example, the barbarous cruelty of the worst tyrants was surpassed. On being brought out of prison they were thrown down on a hurdle and fastened to it, lying stretched out on their backs; and so lying on the hurdle, they were dragged at the heels of horses through the city until they came to Tyburn: a place where, according to custom, criminals are executed, which is one league distant from the prison. Who can relate what grievous things, what tortures they endured on that whole journey, when one moment the road lay over rough and hard places, at another through wet and muddy ones, which exceedingly abounded. On arrival at the place of execution, our holy father was the first loosened, and then the executioner, as the custom is, bent his knee before him, asking pardon for the cruel work he had to do. O good Jesus! who would not weep to see the servant of Christ undergoing such suffering? Who could behold the benignity of so holy a man without being saddened; how gently and modestly he spoke to his executioner, how sweetly he embraced and kissed him, and how piously he prayed for him and for all the bystanders.

3

On being ordered to mount the ladder to the gibbet where he was to be hanged,  our  father  meekly  obeyed.  Then  one  of  the  King’s  council,  who  stood there with many thousand people who came together to witness  the  sight, asked   him   if   he   would   submit   to   the   King’s   command   and   the   Act   of Parliament, for if he would he should be pardoned. The holy martyr of Christ answered: “I call upon Almighty God, and I beseech you all on the terrible day of Judgment, to bear witness that being here about to die, I publicly declare that not through any pertinacity, malice, or rebellious spirit, do I commit this disobedience and denial of the will of our lord the King, but solely through fear of God, lest I should offend his Supreme Majesty; because our holy mother the Church has decreed and determined otherwise than your King with his Parliament have ordained; wherefore I am bound in conscience and am prepared, and am not confounded, to endure these and all other torments that can be inflicted, rather than go against the doctrine of the Church. Pray for me and have  pity  on  my  brethren,  of  whom  I  am  the  unworthy  prior.”  And  having  said these things, he begged the executioner to wait until he had finished his prayer, which was, In you, O Lord, I take refuge… down to Into your hands I commend my spirit, inclusive. Then when a sign was given, the ladder was turned, and so he was hanged. Before his holy soul left his body, one of the bystanders cut the rope, and so falling to the ground, he began for a little bit to throb and breathe.

4

Our father was then dragged to another adjoining place, where his garments were violently torn off and he was again extended naked on the hurdle. Then the bloodthirsty executioner laid impious hands on him. Having ripped open his belly, he completely eviscerated him, tore out his heart and entrails and threw them into the fire, during which time our  most  blessed father not only did not cry out on account of the intolerable pain, but on the contrary, while they were tearing out his heart, prayed continually and bore himself most patiently, most meekly and tranquilly, so much so, that not only the presiding officer, but all who saw these things wondered. Being at his last gasp  and  nearly  disembowelled,  he  cried  out  with  a  most  sweet  voice:  “Most lovable  Jesus,  have  mercy  on  me  at  this  hour.” And, as trustworthy  men  have reported, he said to the executioner, while in the act of tearing out his heart: “Good  Jesus!  what  will  you  do  with  my  heart?”  And  saying  this,  he  expired. Lastly, his head was cut off and his body divided into four parts. In this manner, Reverend Father, your holy son was found faithful till death. He passed from this world to the Lord, on the fourth day of May, 1535, in his forty- eighth year, and the fifth year of his priorate, like a good shepherd who gave his life, not only for his sheep, but for justice, and the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ. Our holy father having been thus put to death, the two other venerable fathers, Robert and Augustine, with another religious named Reynolds, of the Order of Saint Briget, being subjected to the same  most  cruel death, were  at the same time deprived of life, one after another.

5

Memorial located in the Charterhouse of London

Those three saints having been thus put to death, certain men of low condition, and not worthy to be named, came within the next three weeks to Cromwell, vicar of the King, asking authority to make sport of and maltreat other Carthusians. This request having been readily granted, they came to us in a noisy manner and carried off three other venerable fathers, our remaining officers, namely, father Humphrey Middlemore, then being the vicar, and previously procurator of our house; father William Exmew, who had become procurator on removal from the vicariate, and father Sebastian Newdigate, a priest and monk of our house. These three were led off ignominiously to a most filthy prison, where for two whole months they were bound and fastened tightly with iron chains around their necks and thighs, and were cruelly made to stand erect against the posts and pillars of the house, without any relief or relaxation for any purpose whatsoever. At the end of these weeks, they were brought together before the Council and questioned on the same article on which our father had been put to death, and the same proposals were made to them that were made to our father.

6

As these three fathers constantly professed that they would not go against the decrees and practices of holy mother Church, they were condemned to the same punishment, torture, and death, and within ten days, they suffered the same things as their father. These three were young in regard to  age,  but mature in mind, full of grace and virtues, and of illustrious family – one of whom,  father  Sebastian,  had  been  brought  up  in  the  King’s  house.  All  were especially learned and of great constancy; boldly alleging from the Sacred Scriptures, before the judges, that the King could not arrogate to himself, as a right and by divine authority, that supremacy of the  Church,  which  Jesus Christ our Lord gave to the Pope and to priests. And they went to death, as to a banquet, accepting it with the greatest meekness, and  patience  of  heart, alacrity of body, and joyful countenance, in the hope of eternal life, the 19th of June, 1535. From the death of these holy brothers of ours, two years elapsed before others were imprisoned, but not without great tribulation to us.

Ruins of Beauvale Charterhouse (where Saint Robert was prior)

7

The enclosure was divided: one part followed Jeroboam, who made Israel sin; the other adhered to the house of David, mindful of the justice of the one God, which it had learnt from its youth. One part of the community, seeing how straitened they were, the imminent danger of the overthrow of the house, that they could gain nothing by resisting, and that all the world had followed the King, these, overcome by weariness, committed themselves to the divine mercy, and consented to the royal will, yet not without great pain to their consciences, and many tears. But the rest of the community were not willing to regard the preservation of the house of  stone as more precious than themselves, but at once preferring the salvation of their souls to the material house, freely gave up all they had for the sake of their salvation, and would not accept deliverance through any pretence, but with constancy opposed the King, that  they might find a better resurrection and a house not made with hands in heaven.

Tyburn Tree (London – UK)

8

The number of these last was ten, all professed of our London house: three priests, Richard Bere, Thomas Johnson, and Thomas Green; one deacon, John Davy; and six converse Brothers: William Greenwood, Thomas Scryven, Robert Salt, Walter Pierson, Thomas Redyng, and William Horn. All of these, on the fourth of the calends of  June, 1537, were thrust into a very foul prison in the city, called Newgate, where all, except one, in a short time died of the filth and foulness  of  the  prison.  The  King’s  vicar  was  greatly  vexed  at  their  deaths  in this manner, swearing with a great oath that had they lived, he would have treated them more severely. The survivor, William Horn, a converse Brother, remained safe in prison for three years. Brought forth at length to death, on the fourth of August, 1540*, he suffered like our venerable father, and finished his life with like cruelties. So the son followed the father, maltreated most harshly and for a long time, preferring to be put to death for the love of  Jesus Christ, and for the faith of  his spouse, the Catholic Church, rather than to speak falsely or to perjure himself.

Prayer: All-powerful God, You sanctified by martyrdom John and his companions because of their fidelity to the Pope. Following the example of their unshakeable attachment to the unity of the See of Peter, may we be able thus to serve You in peace. We ask this through Christ Our Lord. Amen.

Source: The History of the sufferings of 18 Carthusians in England, Burn and Oates, 1890, p.47-70. In: Lectionary for Maitins – Year A – 4 May – Readings 1-8 (Saint Hugh’s Charterhouse 2021)

* Father Chauncy gives the 4th of November, 1541. Wriothesley’s Chronicle, p. 121, says, “This yeare [1540], the fowerth daie of Awgust, were drawen from the Tower of London to Tiburne, Giles Heron, gentleman . . . William Horn, late a lay brother of the Charter House of London…» Wriothesley and Stow, who give the same date, were both in London at the time. Chauncy, who was living at Bruges, must have been misinformed.

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«Vita Christi» (the life of Christ)

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On 10 (or 13) April 1377 (or 1378) the Carthusian monk Ludolph of Saxony died. Now, in a week in which we especially meditate on the life of Christ, we would like to share with you an extract from his book «Vita Christi», in which Ludolph tells us about the importance of meditating on the life of Our Lord.

For other foundation no man can lay, the Apostle says, but that which is laid, which is Christ Jesus. Anyone who wishes to lay down the burden of sins and  attain  peace  of  heart  should  heed  God’s  gracious  invitation  addressed  to sinners: Come to me all that labour with the toil of vices and are burdened, with the baggage of your sins, and I will refresh you by healing and reviving you; and you shall find rest to your souls here and hereafter. Listen, patient, to your loving and devoted physician; come to him with heartfelt contrition, sincere confession, and the firm intention to avoid evil and do good. The sinner who already faithfully believes in Christ and has been reconciled to him through penance should strive to stay close to this physician by devoutly meditating on his most holy life as much as possible.

But take care to do this with deliberation, and not hurry through the reading  of  Christ’s  life;  rather,  take  a  small  selection  in  turn  each  day.  With such devout reflections you can celebrate a daily Sabbath for Christ; your thoughts, feelings, prayers, praises, and all of your daily work will lead to this, and you will find delight in it. Here you will find a respite from the din of distractions and worldly preoccupations, and you will enjoy sweet repose. Wherever you may be, return often here; this is a sure and holy refuge  to protect you from the manifold varieties of human weakness that constantly assail God’s servants. Frequently  consider  the  major  events  in  Christ’s  life:  his  incarnation, birth, circumcision, epiphany, presentation in the temple, passion, resurrection, ascension, sending of the Holy Spirit, and his second coming as Judge. Do this with an eye to definite spiritual recollection, self-discipline, and consolation. Meditate on the life of Christ with a thirst to put into practice what you read there.

There  are  many  reasons  that  this  way  of   living  should  be  a  sinner’s greatest aspiration. First, for the forgiveness of sins: when we judge ourselves, accuse ourselves in confession, and freely undertake penance, we are already delivered in no small measure from the squalor of sin; we walk attentively with God and are meditating in the aforesaid manner. For our God is a consuming fire, purifying those who cling to him of their sins. Second, for enlightenment: the one who comes to our aid is a light shining in the darkness. Those who are illumined by this light learn to set proper priorities, giving themselves first to Christ and then to godly concerns, their own, their neighbour’s, and those of  the world. Third, for the gift of tears: these are so necessary for a sinner in this miserable valley. Christ, who is the fountain of gardens and the well of living waters, customarily gives these tears to one who stays close to him.

Fourth, for renewal after the sinful lapses of daily  life: the  Lord  always lifts up those who cling to him, as he says: Make a brazen serpent, and set it up for a sign: whosoever being struck shall look on it, shall live. Fifth, because of the sweet and longed-for taste, this practice holds for those who possess it, as the Psalmist says: O taste, and see that the Lord is sweet. Sixth,  for  the  knowledge  of  the  Father’s  majesty,  which  can  be  had  only through Christ, as he himself teaches: Neither does any one know the Father, but the Son, and he to whom it shall please the Son to reveal him. Seventh,  for  the  sure  deliverance  from  this  world’s  dangers  that  it  offers: faithful sinners who daily welcome Christ into their hearts and make a bower for him from these sweet meditations will in turn be sought out and welcomed by Christ after death. What they longed for and grew accustomed to here below they will enjoy forever: life with Christ.

This is a blessed, well-irrigated way of life; it purifies and renews sinners who cling to it, making them fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God. To live like this is sweet and lovely: for conversation has no bitterness, nor her company any tediousness, but joy and gladness. This food is so agreeable and delicious that, once a loving heart has tasted it, all other practices will seem bland. It nourishes and refreshes, for, as Ambrose observes, those who receive Christ into their inner dwelling feed on the greatest delights and abundant pleasures. It is the consolation of the solitary, for whom it is the best of  companions, giving joy, comfort, and solace; for the sinner it is a tower of strength against the face of the enemy. This way of life offers an easy and thorough way to contemplate the Creator (a duty from which no one may excuse  oneself)  because  there  is  no  faster  way  to  reach  the  heights  of  God’s majesty than by meditating on the life of our Redeemer.

Everyone can follow this practice, the young beginner as well as those advanced in the spiritual life, and all find here a pleasant home in which to nest like a dove, and a hiding place for the offspring of their chaste love. This meditation makes the saints loving, solicitous, and disposed kindly to those who invoke them because of the joy we share with them. For example, could the Blessed Virgin, the mother of mercy, tenderness, and grace, possibly despise you or turn her eyes from you, sinner though you are, when she sees you take her Son (whom she loves above all) into your arms and hold him close to your breast, and this not just once a day, but frequently? Could she possibly desert you when she sees you holding her Son each and every day, attending to every detail of his life, and offering him every service of devotion and affection? Certainly not. So it is with the other saints: they look gladly on those with whom God is pleased to dwell; this way of life turns their clients into their companions, because it is their way of life, too.

Clearly this is the life of  Christ’s mother, who served him and cared for him for so many years. This is the life of the apostles, his intimate companions, who persevered faithfully with him. This is the life of the heavenly citizens who enjoy Christ, marvel at his wondrous works, and reverently attend him for all eternity. Here we find what is truly the best part: to sit at the feet of Christ and listen to his words. Rightly, it is not taken away from one who by  grace possesses it, for this is the reward promised to the good and faithful servant : a life begun here on earth but fulfilled in eternity. No tongue can sufficiently praise this way of life, which is truly good, holy, and more eminent than any other: it marks the beginning of that profound contemplation we long for in the angelic, eternal life of  our true homeland. What can compare with abiding continually with Christ, in whom the angels desire to look? If you wish to reign with Christ forever, begin to reign with him now; do not abandon him, for to serve him is to reign.

According to Augustine, among the entire collection of divine records contained in Sacred Scripture, pride of place should be given to the gospels. For this reason, see to it that you always hold them in  your  hands and carry  them in your heart; they will best illuminate for you the life and deeds of our Lord Jesus Christ, and all that pertains to your salvation. In the gospels themselves you will learn the life story of the  Word incarnate, what he commands and what he promises, in which you have the way, the truth, and the life. Study carefully Christ’s example: from his life, you will see that you can live rightly; from his commandments, you will know how to live rightly; from his promises, you will desire to live rightly. With these three weapons you can repel our three enemies (impotence, ignorance, negligence). The one who chooses to remain ignorant will be ignored, the negligent person will be neglected, the one who feigns lack of ability will be cast out. So rouse yourself, O soul devoted to Christ! Be alert, Christian! Examine diligently, ponder attentively, tease out scrupulously every detail in the life of Jesus Christ, and follow in your Lord’s footsteps. For your sake he came down to earth from his heavenly throne; for your own sake, flee earthly things and strive for those of Heaven. If you find that the world is sweet, know that Christ is sweeter; if you find that the world is harsh, know that he endured all its pains for you.

Source: Lectionary for Maitins – Year A

21 September – Readings 1-8

Saint Hugh’s Charterhouse (2021)

Images used in this article are different

illustrations to the book «Vita Christi»