Isle of Wight Martyrs – Blessed Robert Anderton and Blessed William Marsden

Talk given to St. Catherine’s Trust for Traditional Catholic Education in association with The Traditional Catholic Family Alliance at The Summer School at Ardingly College, West Sussex by Peter Clark on Wednesday 2nd August 2006, the Feast of St. Alphonsus Ligouri, Bishop, Confessor and Doctor of the Church.

May I first say how delighted that I am to be present here this evening on the Feast of St. Alphonsus Ligouri. I am particularly pleased to be here on this day when you have just returned from a coach trip to Arundel. I know that in the cathedral you saw the tomb of St. Philip Howard, Duke of Norfolk, who died in 1595 and was re-buried in Arundel Cathedral in 1971. Although he was never executed, nevertheless he was canonized as a saint of the Church by Pope Paul VI because of his sufferings in prison. He could have been released if only he had renounced Papal authority and recognised the Queen as the Supreme Governor of the Church. He had written on the wall of his cell: “The more suffering in this world for Christ’s sake, the more glory with Christ in the next”. St. Philip put Almighty God and His Holy Church before any personal considerations and therefore he received the martyr’s crown.

I want to speak to you tonight about two more martyrs who gave their lives for Christ. The word martyr comes from a Greek word meaning witness. To bear witness to the Gospel and the teachings of Christ was to invite persecution; and therefore the term “martyr” was given to those who suffered hardship and persecution because of their witness to Christ. The two martyrs about whom I have come to talk to you, were school friends just like many of you. They grew up together in Lancashire – Catholic Lancashire! I say that because that northern county largely remained more Catholic than anywhere else in England following the Reformation and the Introduction of the Book of Common Prayer in 1559 when the Mass was officially abolished under Queen Elizabeth I. Being so far away from London and the Government, the penal laws were not enforced with the same determination and ruthlessness as elsewhere. Two Lancashire boys, Robert and William, were childhood friends. They grew up together, went to the same (Rivington Grammar) school, visited each other’s homes and shared each other’s joys and troubles. They were just ordinary children like yourselves. They did what you do each day here at Ardingly College. They played together outside and they prayed together in church. Like you they attended Mass together and recited the rosary together. No doubt, like you, they may also have got up to some mischief together as well!

As they grew up they began to be concerned about the spiritual nourishment (or rather the lack of it) for the people around them. Holy Mass was becoming more rare. Young men were no longer being trained to become priests. The seminaries had been closed. They asked themselves where the future priests would come from? They prayed earnestly that the situation would be resolved but they soon realised that it was all in vain and they determined themselves to do something about it. Together they went to Oxford to continue their education at Brasenose College. As at school these two young men studied, played and prayed together.

As they looked at the religious scene around them under Queen Elizabeth I, they realised that for faithful Catholics it was a time of despair. After much prayer and meditation they decided to do something positive in order to bring the Mass and the Sacraments to the people of England. They had heard of an English College which had been established at Douai in France in 1568 by Cardinal William Allen for the specific purpose of training young men for the Holy Priesthood and it was to Douai that the two young men decided that they would apply in order to train to be priests. (The college moved to Rheims in the 1580s)

Having returned from Oxford to Lancashire they explained their decision to their families and said farewell, not realising that they would never see their parents, families and Lancashire friends again. As they travelled south through Oxford to London, they saw how Protestant the capital city had become. The Mass had gone underground and was offered now by a few elderly priests who risked imprisonment and even death if they were discovered.

They caught a boat at Dover and sailed to Calais and they were duly enrolled at the English College (at this time at Rheims) on 10th July 1580. Robert Anderton in particular proved to be a brilliant scholar and was proficient in Hebrew. After his Ordination by the Cardinal of Guise on 31st March, 1584, he spent two years at Douai assisting other students with their studies. He was a skilful debator and an excellent preacher and was selected out of the whole college to give a sermon before a “noble and learned assembly of churchmen”.

William Marsden was ordained a year later. The two young priests were then given permission to return to England. Early in the morning of 4th Feb. 1586 they each offered Mass in the seminary chapel before bidding farewell to their professors and fellow students. Together they set off for England to preach the Faith that once prospered within its shores. Little did they realise that the Mass which they offered to Almighty God that morning would be their last Mass.

They managed to board a ship for England. After a few hours a storm developed. The two priests were caught as they prayed for calm on board ship in the English Channel. A spy on board heard their words: “O Lord thy Will be done! But if we are to die, suffer us to die for Thy cause in our own country. Let us not be remembered as the first seminarians who have perished in the waters”. They were betrayed by the words and manner of their own prayer and taken ashore at Cowes on the Isle of Wight where they were brutally treated.

The Governor of the Isle of Wight was Captain George Carey, a cousin of Queen Elizabeth I and he was keen to ingratiate himself with the authorities and accept the reward for capturing “Romish priests”. So the two young men were sent to the assizes at Winchester and then on to the London Prison at Marshalsea, having been found guilty of Treason under the new Act (27 Elizabeth) which made it illegal to return to England having been ordained as a priest overseas. They were the first two to be sentenced under this Act of Parliament. The authorities were keen to demonstrate to the local people the consequences for those who harboured priests or supported them, so they were sent back to the Isle of Wight for execution. The two young priests who had become almost inseparable from the time that they met at school, were to die together on the scaffold. They were hung, drawn and quartered on 25th April, 1586. We do not know the exact spot of their execution. The records state that it was on “high ground in sight of the moaning sea”. This was probably on the hill above Cowes where they were caught.

A Jesuit contemporary Fr. Warford wrote soon afterwards that “Their life was promised if they would recant, but in vain. The nearer virtue comes to triumph the more courageous it grows”. In other words they were offered a pardon at the last moment if they would only refute their allegiance to the pope but they refused.

A proclamation was ordered to be read out to those assembled at the place of execution which quoted the relevant Act of Parliament and informed those present that the two priests had: “sought to persuade her Majesty’s subjects, under colour of maintainence of Popery, to rebellion”. This served to intimidate the Island people to refute all allegiance to the Pope. However it was noted that “many of those who witnessed the execution returned to their homes striking their breasts”.

They had probably never intended to come to the Isle of Wight. It was a cruel fate. They were probably destined for West Grinstead, where you will be going with Fr. Andrew and the staff on Friday. This was a sort of clearing-house for Catholic priests from abroad, where they would receive instructions about where they would go to say Mass for the people.

Robert and William both suffered cruelly and gave their lives for the Faith; the same faith that you have. They gave their lives for the Holy Mass; the same Mass offered by Fr. Andrew that you attend with your friends in the college chapel here at Ardingly; the same Mass that you attend at home with your families. We must never forget the sacrifices made by the English martyrs such as Robert and William.We are their spiritual descendants, and we must strive to keep the Faith with its rites and ceremonies that go back in an unbroken succession to the time of the Apostles and were universal in England for a thousand years until the Reformation. It was the Mass and the all-prevailing love of the Truth for which the English martyrs so readily gave their lives. We must pray that England shall one day return to the One True Faith that was once hers.

The two young martyr-priests were never forgotten. On 15th December 1929 they were beatified with 136 other English and Welsh martyrs by His Holiness Pope Pius XI. So now they are known as “Blessed”. The Church recognises martyrdom as the perfect and heroic act which merits the complete remission of sin and an immediate entry into eternal life.

The solemn ceremony of Beatification took place in St. Peter’s in the presence of a vast multitude. The Holy Father came to venerate the relics of the one hundred and thirty-six newly beatified martyrs. Thousands of English pilgrims were present in St. Peter’s for this historic occasion. They watched with a sense of awe and excitement as the Holy Father dressed in his traditional white was borne aloft up the centre of the great nave.

Naturally one’s mind went back to those heroic figures whose relics the Vicar of Christ had come to venerate. What a contrast between the triumphant enthusiasm of this day and their execution when most were dragged through the muddy streets, to their Calvary, where the tall gibbet and the hangman’s rope awaited them. The names of their executioners and persecutors are forgotten, buried in oblivion; but God’s saints are held in everlasting remembrance, and this is the day of their triumph.

After this brief ceremony all those present prepared to venerate Our Blessed Lord in the monstrance; an act of veneration which you give, boys and girls, when you go to Benediction; and an act of veneration for which the Martyrs had been willing to give their lives as they consecrated the Sacred Host during Holy Mass in secret chapels throughout England.

Several churches in Lancashire have memorials and stained windows depicting the two young men but it took 417 years for a memorial to these two brave martyr-priests to be erected on the Isle of Wight. Nevertheless a simple marble monument was blessed by Fr. Michael Purbrick, parish priest of St. Thomas of Canterbury Church, Cowes on 13th July 2003.

Now every Isle of Wight Catholic church has a picture (artist’s sketch) of the two martyrs and a scroll recording the martyrdom of the two brave, young priests as a permanent reminder of their sacrifice. Even a few Anglican churches have taken a scroll and expressed admiration for these two martyr-priests.

I ask you all to pray for their canonization please. This is sought in order that Catholics everywhere may learn from their heroism the need for self-sacrifice, for devotion to Almighty God’s Holy Church, and for their co-operation in the redemptive work of Christ.

Soon after the martyrs memorial was completed at Cowes, a priest from the Southwark Archdiocese, Fr. Timothy Finigan MA, STL, came to the Isle of Wight to offer the traditional Latin Mass, the same Mass that you have here each morning at Ardingly. Like Robert Anderton and William Marsden, he had been to Oxford University, and it was fitting for him to pay a tribute to these two martyr-priests. So after the Mass the congregation followed Father to the memorial and after reciting the De Profundis, he gave the following address to those present:

“Having offered the Traditional Sacrifice of the Holy Mass we are now gathered outside the church here at this memorial today to honour the bravery and the sacrifice of our two Isle of Wight martyrs, Blessed Robert Anderton and Blessed William Marsden, who so heroically gave their lives for the Faith in 1586 and to emphasise our unity with them. They belonged to the same Faith and celebrated the same Sacrifice of the Mass that we have celebrated here in this beautiful church this morning. In the dark days of the penal times nothing is more inspiring than the selflessness and devotion of the martyrs who returned to England like Fr. Anderton and Fr. Marsden, to say the immemorial Mass and to keep alive the One True Faith that was once firmly established within these shores for a thousand years until the Reformation. This simple monument placed here in the garden of St. Thomas of Canterbury Church, Cowes; the place where the two martyrs were arrested, is a fitting reminder of their love of Christ and His Holy Church and their determination in adversity to do His holy will. They never had the opportunity of offering the Sacrifice of the Holy Mass in England before they were betrayed and captured here on the Island. As we face today a decline in vocations to the priesthood and the religious life, we pray that young men will be inspired by these two martyr – priests to offer themselves to God in the Holy Priesthood in order to say the Immemorial Mass and help souls obtain their everlasting reward in Heaven The heroic sacrifice of the martyrs encourages us to maintain our devotion to the Mass and the Sacraments and Fidelity to the Holy Catholic Church and all that it teaches. We thank God for these two brave young priests and we ask Our Blessed Lord to inspire us with the same zeal that they so honourably portrayed as they suffered death and attained the martyr’s crown”.

Like all the other martyrs, Blessed Robert Anderton and Blessed William Marsden, shed their blood for Christ just as truly as did the apostles and the martyrs of the Early Church. It is the glory of the martyrs that they were called to bear witness to Christ in the manifestation of the Eucharistic Sacrifice, which is the continuation of Calvary. When we think of the sad and dreary days of England in the penal times, we remember the wonderful courage and optimism with which the martyrs faced the evil of the time and its apparently hopeless future. Their names will surely be written in the Book of Life for they have gone to their eternal reward. Children, we are their spiritual descendants, and we must not only practise the Faith for which they died, but we must seek to actively promote it, so that England, – the Dowry of Mary, – may once again return to the Faith that was once hers for a thousand years until the Reformation.

I want to thank all of you for your attention and your interest. I have spoken for over an hour and you have maintained your interest because, I hope, that you can identify with the faith of the martyrs and because as faithful, traditional young Catholics, you can appreciate the sacrifice that they made. Never forget that it will be your duty and responsibility in the future to pass on the One True Catholic Faith to the next generation.