Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Monday, 5 July 2010

Oxford Martyrs of 1589

Today is the feast of the Oxford Martyrs of 1589 - Bl. George Nichols and Bl. Richard Yaxley, two mission priests, Bl. Thomas Belson and Bl.Humphrey Pritchard, laymen. They were apprehended just before midnight on May 18th that year at the Catherine Wheel, an inn which stood at the junction of Broad Street and Magdalen Street on a site which is now part of Balliol. It rather looks as if the Catherine Wheel and the Mitre in the High Street were 'safe houses' for Catholics, and presumably good 'cover' as places for recusants to meet up: there is something similar in John Gerard's Autobiography about his arrival in Norwich the previous autumn. The landlady of the Catherine Wheel was certainly seen as implicated, being subsequently sentenced to life imprisonment.

Frs Nichols and Yaxley were caught together with Thomas Belson, a young layman from a local gentrey family on the borders of Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire, who had acted as their courier and agent. A young man of determination he had dissuaded his family from being "Church papists" - that is outward conformers to the established church. Humphrey Pritchard, born in Wales, was the barman at the inn, who when the others were arrested declared that he too was a Catholic.

The priests were hung, drawn and quartered, and the two laymen hanged at the gallows at the end of Holywell Street in Oxford. All four were beatified in 1987. A memorial tablet was unveiled and dedicated two years ago, and the place of their martyrdom an established place of pilgrimage for the LMS Oxford Pilgrimage.

There is a biography of Bl. Thomas Belson, published a few years ago, and the bar of the social centre at the Oxford Oratory is named in honour of Bl. Humphrey.

Here is a link to part of Tony Hadland's excellent Thames Valley Papists, which gives more details about the four martyrs, including their words from the scaffold.

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