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A Journey in the Footsteps of the English Martyrs

On 1 December Bishop Nicholas celebrated Mass at Tyburn Convent commemorating the 435th anniversary of the martyrdom in 1581 of Ss Ralph Sherwin, Edmund Campion and Alexander Briant, the martyrs of the Venerable English College. 

Having spent time at the college both in formation for the priesthood and later as Rector, Bishop Nicholas has had much opportunity to reflect on the lives and witness of these martyrs. During his time as Rector, he explained how every year on the Feast of St Andrew, he ‘liked to imagine Fathers Sherwin, Campion and Briant gathered with Bishop Goldwell’ poring over the maps in an atlas that was ‘surely brought from England to prepare students for arrival on English soil’ to undertake the dangerous mission of ministering to Catholics in a hostile environment that would lead to their eventual martyrdom. 

Previously, after completing his formation at the college, he and four others returned to England by following the same route the martyrs had taken. It gave the five young priests an opportunity to reflect on the various stages of the journey and what their predecessors must have experienced. 

At Milan, they recalled stories of Fr Sherwin preaching to St Charles Borromeo, and the Cardinal’s favourable report to the Rector inviting all students returning to the mission to stop in Milan on their way. In Geneva, where the martyrs ‘sought out Beza, the Calvinist preacher, to have a dispute with him’, they ‘sought out the headquarters of the World Council of Churches, to pray there for reconciliation among Christians in England and Wales’. 

As they continued their journey to Rheims, they built in time to pray alone: ‘We were encouraged in this by remembering Campion who knew particularly well his need of prayer, and used to walk ahead of the group for an hour every morning, communicating with the Lord, praying, no doubt, for the grace to persevere in the enterprise on which they’d embarked.’ 

In Douai, they celebrated Mass at ‘an exquisite little altar in a dusty side-chapel of the church of St Jacques’, with a sign explaining it had been made in Westminster ‘confirming that this was the old high altar from the seminary demolished at the revolution’. 

When they finally arrived in Tyburn, they ‘remained a good long while in silent prayer, where the martyrs had made ‘the supreme sacrifice of offering their lives in witness to the truth of the Catholic faith’. 

Bishop Nicholas pondered: ‘What strength, what faith, what pietas it must have taken upon their parts to go so meekly and willingly to their death, to this death.’ 

He added, ‘Today we salute their extraordinary courage. We salute indeed every alumnus of the Venerable English College who went to his death in this way: we salute them, we honour them, and we thank them. For by their witness we are truly encouraged: encouraged, empowered, and yes, emboldened, for the mission ourselves.’

The full text of the homily is available here.

Pictured is a detail of the ceiling decoration in the Chapel of St George and the English Martyrs in Westminster Cathedral, commemorating the three martyrs.

Photo: Mazur/