Catholic Holocaust

Contributed by Fr. John Ryder (All Saints Church, Godshill)


In February 1586 two boyhood friends from Lancashire were executed horribly in Cowes before a crowd of islanders. Robert Anderton and William Marsden, both recently ordained Catholic priests, were on a ship to England when a storm blew up in the Channel. Someone on-board ship had overheard their prayers for the safety of the vessel and had reported them to the authorities. They were among the many hundreds of English and Welsh Catholics executed during the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI, Elizabeth I and James I.


Among the victims were the 18 Carthusian Monks, led by John Houghton, hung drawn and quartered or starved to death by Henry VIII, the nun Elizabeth Barton hung and beheaded, Margaret Pole the 67 year old Countess of Salisbury, Franciscan friar John Forest burned to death at Smithfield, hundreds of the Northerners who had risen in the Pilgrimage of Grace and been promised clemency, including lawyer Robert Aske, Sir Thomas Percy and MP, Thomas Moigne, and 200 in Elizabeth’s reign including the gentle scholar and poet Edmund Campion who was tortured before public execution.


Altogether at least 600 people, including women such as Margaret Cheyney and Margaret Stafford, and many priests were executed in our country in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. While the 274 Protestants martyred in Mary’s reign were long remembered in Britain (largely due to Foxe’s Book of Martyrs), the Catholic and the Anglican martyrs such as Archbishop Laud, were often forgotten.


Of course, this was not genocide in the sense of the deliberate annihilation of an entire ethnic group; but the extreme Calvinist ideology of many of their persecutors. They considered themselves an elite, predestined to be saved, superior to lesser mortals, who were identified and listed, had their civil rights removed and were harried and persecuted down to the 19th century. This is uncomfortably close to the mind set which led to genocide in Nazi Germany, Rwanda, Bosnia and Armenia among others. It is perhaps too easy for British people to think, smugly, that it could have never, and would never, happen here.


Of the islanders watching those martyrdoms in Cowes in 1586 some were indifferent or approving; others it is reported “returned home striking their breasts” in contrition. Perhaps, on this Holocaust Memorial Day, still the most appropriate reaction.