On a recent visit to the English College in Rome, one of the seminary’s students showed us around the place, sprinkling our tour with anecdotes and historic accounts. Most memorable and moving was the visit to the beautiful and recently renovated College church and its raised galleries decorated with graphic depictions of the martyrdom some of the students endured for their Catholic faith between 1581 and 1679. Their heroism was such that they returned to Protestant England as Catholic priests knowing well that they would almost certainly have to face the most horrific torture and death. It is in honour of the 44 recorded martyrs and the many more who were incarcerated or exiled, that since the early 19th Century the seminary has become known as the “Venerable English College” (or “Venerabile”).
The ‘history’ section of the Venerabile’s website provides the following details:
The College’s “Protomartyr” is St Ralph Sherwin. He was born in Roddesley, Derbyshire, around 1550 and educated at Exeter College, Oxford, before leaving for Douai and then Rome. His name stands first in the famous Liber ruber (a list of students who took the missionary oath in Rome before returning to England), where he is recorded as saying that he was ready, “today rather than tomorrow, at a sign from his superiors to go into England for the helping of souls”.
His time soon came, and within four months of landing he was captured, imprisoned, tortured and finally hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn on 1 December 1581. Many others followed – including St Robert Southwell, the Jesuit poet (1595) and St Henry Morse, the “Priest of the Plague” (1645). The last College martydoms were in 1679 during the anti-Catholic hysteria following the “Popish Plot”, when St David Lewis, St John Wall and Bl Anthony Turner suffered.
The College soon gained a reputation as a nursery of martyrs. A custom arose of a student preaching before the Pope every St Stephen’s Day on the theme of martyrdom – Bl. John Cornelius called the College the “Pontifical Seminary of Martyrs” in his St Stephen’s sermon of 1581. St Philip Neri, the “Second Apostle of Rome”, who lived opposite the College at S.Girolamo della Carità, used to greet the students with the words Salvete flores martyrum (Hail! flowers of the martyrs), and the great Oratorian historian, Cardinal Cesare Baronio, paid tribute to the English martyrs in his 1585 revision of the martyrology. In the College church Pomarancio painted a series of frescoes of English saints and martyrs which began with St Joseph of Arimathea’s supposed visit to England and ended with the College martyrs, their sufferings shown in graphic detail. Copies of these frescoes can be seen in the tribune, and afforded important evidence of contemporary veneration of the martyrs during the process of their beatification and canonisation.
“The Martyrs’ Picture” is the first thing one notices upon entering the College church. It was painted by Durante Alberti in 1580, just after the foundation of the College, and depicts the Blessed Trinity with two English martyrs: St Thomas of Canterbury on the left hand side and St Edmund, King of East Anglia, on the right. Blood from Christ’s wounds is shown falling onto a map of the British Isles, and from this blood fire is springing up. This ties in with the College motto, held by a cherub: Ignem veni mittere in terram (I have come to bring fire to the earth). According to tradition, students gathered around this picture to sing a Te Deum whenever news reached Rome of a martyrdom of a former student. This custom continues today when the Te Deum is sung in front of the painting on 1 December, “Martyrs’ Day”.
A book entitled “The Forty Four: The Martyrs of the English College Rome” commemorates the lives and the witness given by these great heroes. The various quotations taken from their short biographies reveal the extent of the faith and courage of the young men. For example:
St Ralph Sherwin’s declaration: ”If to be a Catholic only, if to be a perfect Catholic, is to be a traitor, then I am a traitor.”
Then there are St Eustace White’s final words to the crowd gathered for his execution at Tyburn: “Christian people, I was yesterday condemned as a traitor for being a priest and coming into this country to reconcile (hear confessions) and use other of my priestly functions, all which I confess I have done in sundry places of this realm for some years together. I thank God that it hath pleased Him to bless my labours with this happy end, when I now am to die for my faith and my priesthood. Other treasons I have not committed. If I had ever so many lives, I would think them very few to bestow upon your Tyburns to defend my religion. I wish I had a great many more than one, you should have them all, one after another.”
And in his final address St David Lewis implores: “Friends, be firm of your faith, avoid mortal sin by frequenting the sacraments of Holy Church, patiently bear your persecutions and afflictions, forgive your enemies; your sufferings are great, I say be firm in your faith to the end, yea, even to death.”
Over the centuries many men and women have been called to great sacrifice. Though in our country today we may encounter little more than ridicule, discrimination and indifference, there could come a time when greater acts of heroism will once more be demanded of us. One thing is for sure, that to live the Faith is to swim against the tide. For that we need God’s grace.
Holy Martyrs of England and Wales intercede for us!