November 15th is the anniversary of the martyrdom in 1539 of Richard Whiting, Abbot of Glastonbury and of his companions, Dom Roger James and Dom John Thorne.
I have edited together several accounts of his life, notably from the Catholic Encyclpedia and an article by Fr Dwight Longenecker in Catholic Life, as well as the work of Geoffret Ashe, and the revised entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography by Nicholas Doggett :
Click on each of the figures to learn more about them.
Click on the foot of the tapestry to learn more of the history of the Shrine
and about the tapestry itself.
Blessed Richard Whiting
Richard Whiting was born around 1460. Traditionally he is said to have been born at Wrington in Somerset, where his family were tenant farmers on land owned by the Glastonbury Abbey, but this cannot be substantiated. He was probably educated in the claustral school at Glastonbury, proceeding to Cambridge - presumably the monastic Buckingham College, now Magdalen - and graduated as M.A. in 1483 and D.D. in 1505. If, as is probable, he was already a monk when he went to Cambridge he must have received the habit from John Selwood, Abbot of Glastonbury from 1456 to 1493. He was ordained acolyte in 1498, sub-deacon the next year, deacon in 1500 and priest in March 1501 at Wells, and held for some years the office of chamberlain of the monastery.
In February, 1525, Richard Bere,Abbot of Glastonbury, died, and the community, after deciding to elect his successor per formam compromissi, which places the selection in the hands of some one person of note, agreed to request Cardinal Wolsey to make the choice of an abbot for them. After obtaining the king's permission to act and giving a fortnight's inquiry to the circumstances of the case Wolsey, possibly advised by Abbot John Islip of Westminster, on 3 March 1525, nominated Richard Whiting to the vacant post. The first ten years of Whiting's rule were prosperous and peaceful, and he appears in the State papers as a careful overseer of his abbey alike in spirituals and temporals. During these years the Edgar Chapel at the eastern end of the abbey church was completed.
In these years the number of monks in the abbey at Glastonbury increased from forty-six to fifty-four. Furthermore,during the 1530s there was an increase in the number of monks who went from Glastonbury to Gloucester College at Oxford. Whiting himself seems to have been more interested in music than scholarship, making arrangements in 1534 for the instruction of the choirboys. A visitation in 1538 suggests that there were divisions among the monks, especially between the older and younger ones, and that the abbot had his favourites in the community.
Whiting was also prone to reside away from the monastery, especially at his manors of Sturminster Newton in Dorset and Ashbury in Berkshire. Some of his apparent shortcomings were probably due to ill health, however, and he appears to have had few critics before the events of 1539. John Leland, whom he entertained generously, decribed him as ‘homo sane candidissimus, et amicus meus singularis’ (‘a most upright man and my particular friend’; De rebus Britannicis collectanea, 6.70) .
In June 1534 the royal Commissioners arrived at Glastonbury and Abbot Whiting and his community took the oath of loyalty to the king.On 1 August the King’s Commissioners returned on their visitation to Glastonbury and reported that the community was run in good order, and that the monks were known for their strict life and holy living. Dr Richard Layton even praised Abbot Whiting personally for his holiness of life.
In spite of this, however, the abbot's jurisdiction over the town of Glastonbury was suspended and minute "injunctions" were given to him about the management of the abbey property; but then and more than once during the next few years he was assured that there was no intention of suppressing the abbey. Like other heads of monastic houses he sought the favour of Thomas Cromwell with presents and the church at Monkton.
The furniture from the house of Glaston
In ready money from Glaston, £1,100 and over
The rich copes from Glaston.
The debts (i.e., owing to the Abbey) £2,000 and above."
Marillac, the French Ambassador, wrote on 25 October : "The Abbot of Glastonbury. . . has lately, been put in the Tower, because, in taking the Abbey treasures, valued at 200,000 crowns, they found a written book of arguments in behalf of queen Katherine." If the charge was high treason, which appears most probable, then, as a member of the House of Peers, Whiting should have been attainted by an Act of Parliament passed for the purpose, but his execution was an accomplished fact, before Parliament even met. In fact it seems clear that his doom was deliberately wrapped in obscurity by Cromwell and Henry, for Marillac, writing to Francis I on 30 November, after mentioning the execution of the Abbots of Reading and Glastonbury, adds: "could learn no particulars of what they were charged with, except that it was the relics of the late lord marquis" - that is referring to the Marquess of Exeter who had been convicted and executed for treason the previous year.This appears to be a case of the government proceeding by smear and association.
Whatever the precise charges, however, Whiting was sent back to Somerset in the care of Pollard and reached Wells on 14 November. The show trial was held in the Bishop’s Hall in Wells on 14 November. Lord Russell (later the first Earl of Bedford) was the judge and made sure the jury was made up of people "very diligent to serve the King." Although his monks had been dispersed, his lands taken and the abbey’s riches seized, Abbot Whiting was charged with robbery by concealing church goods from the commissioners. He was therefore to be hanged as a traitor for robbing his own church. The sacrist Dom Roger James and treasurer of the Abbey Dom John Thorne were to be executed along with him because they assisted in hiding the treasures from the King’s Commissioners. One of them had taken the name arthur in religion, which suggests a clear commitment to the traditions of the abbey
Next day, Saturday, 15 November, he was taken with the two monks to Glastonbury where all three were fastened upon hurdles. From the Abbey gates in the centre of town Richard Whiting was dragged on a hurdle and up Tor Hill. There, by the side of the ancient tower of St Michael's chapel the seventy nine year old man was hung, then cut down and mutilated. After being disembowelled he was beheaded and quartered and his head was fixed on a stake over the great gateway of the Abbey. His quarters were boiled in pitch and displayed at Wells, Bath, Ilchester and Bridgwater. With intentional cruelty the blameless man was even deprived of the company of his two monks in his martyrdom. John Thorne and Roger James were executed individually after Abbot Whiting had died. Eyewitnesses recorded that the abbot and his monks "took their death very patiently, begging forgiveness of all they might have offended."
Richard Whiting and his companions were beatified by Pope Leo XIII in his decree of 13 May, 1895. The abbot's and seal are still preserved in the museum at Glastonbury.
When in the years after 1908 Frederick Bligh Bond was in charge of excavating the abbey at Glastonbury he used a medium and automatic writing to make contact with a long dead monk of Glastonbury, John Alleyne. This is all recorded in The Gate of Remembrance The Story of the Psychological Experiment which resulted in the Discovery of the Edgar Chapel at Glastonbury. (Oxford. B.H.Blackwell. 1920 3rd edition). This highly controversial approach led to his dismissal by Dean Armitage Robinson,and indeed to his being banned from the abbey site.
One of the discoveries he made and identified to his satisfaction were some human bones interred near the site of the High Altar. These Bond decided were part of the remains of Bl.Richard Whiting. Today these relics are preserved at Prinknash Abbey in Gloucestershire, and were shown in a Tony Robinson programme about the paranomal and historical research about a year ago. No one could be certain - but I suppose it is possible that someone rescued part of the Abbot's remains and gave them burial in what had been his church and home.
As at Reading it is perhaps surprising that nothing was done to preserve the abbey at Glastonbury. As the reputed burial place of King Arthur it had been a place of royal pilgrimage and interest, and about 1530 Henry VIII was citing Arthurian claims in his dispute with the Papacy, and a few years previously was proudly showing Arthur's Round Table at Winchester, newly repainted for the occasion, to the Emperor Charles V. In addition the abbey held the remains of several English Kings, notably Edgar (959-975), whose new funerary chapel had been completed by Abbot Whiting.
Here is a view of the superb reconstruction model of the abbey on the eve of the dissolution which can be seen in the information centre at the site.
Photo by Mike Kemble
The Edgar Chapel is on the left, and the Lady Chape, on the site of the `Old Church' of Glastonbury, lost in the 1184 fire, at the right.