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St Cuthbert Mayne: Protomartyr of Douai College

by Fr Nicholas Schofield, Diocesan Archivist

Launceston, ‘the gateway to Cornwall, is a charming town situated two miles west of the river Tamar, the natural border that almost makes Cornwall into an island. Launceston was an important thoroughfare and base of power; dominated by the imposing Norman castle (now in ruins), it has been the location of a mint and (until 1835) the county town.

The town is perhaps best known for one of the most astonishing of Cornish churches, St Mary Magdalen, just by the market square. At a distance it does not look particularly imposing but the outside walls of granite, one of the hardest of rocks, is intricately carved. John Betjemin thought it ‘looks, at first glance, almost like a Hindu temple in the elaboration of its decoration.’

The church was built between 1511 and 1524, just before the Reformation. Within the lifetime of its builders and masons, society would be torn apart by religious changes. Those who differed from the status quo found themselves the victims of persecution and the dungeons of Launceston Castle were inhabited by several notable religious prisoners.

They covered the whole spectrum of belief. In 1555, during the reign of Mary I, Agnes Prest was incarcerated here for a time; she was found guilty of denying the Real Presence and taken to Exeter to be burnt at the stake. Exactly a century later it was the turn of George Fox, the Quaker founder. When he refused to pay a fine for not removing his hat in the presence of the judge, he was taken to the small cell at Launceston known as ‘Doomsdale’. He later wrote that this was ‘a nasty stinking place where they said few people came out alive; where they used to put witches and murderers before their execution; where the prisoner’s excrements had not been carried out for scores of years.’

It was here that our own St Cuthbert Mayne, ‘protomartyr of Douai college and all the seminaries’, was held before his execution in 1577.
Mayne was a West Countryman, born at Youlston near Barnstaple (Devon) in 1544, the son of a farmer. He was educated at the local grammar school and then in Oxford, at St Alban’s Hall and St John’s College. Ordained as an Anglican minister, he served the living of Huntshaw (Devon), thanks to his uncle’s influence, and then returned to his college of St John’s as chaplain, where he was highly regarded by Catholics and Protestants alike. Here he was influenced by Catholic-minded fellows, in particular St Edmund Campion (the future martyr) and Gregory Martin (one of the translators of the Douai Bible). Mayne eventually embraced the Catholic faith, fled Oxford and boarded a boat that would take him to the newly-founded English College, Douai. Here he was ordained a Catholic priest on 7th February 1575.

Like so many of the English Martyrs, his priestly ministry in England was tragically short. Employed as chaplain by Sir Francis Tregian, the nephew of Sir John Arundell (the leading Cornish Catholic), he lived at Golden Manor near Probus, five miles east of Truro. He celebrated Mass here and at Lanherne, the home of the Arundells, and visited the scattered Catholics in the area.

In 1577 the Archbishop of Canterbury, Edmund Grindal, was asked by the queen to suppress Puritan religious exercises known as ‘prophesyings’, which were seen as politically subversive. Grindal had evangelical leanings and refused to follow the royal order, which eventually resulted in his house arrest.

Instead, he commissioned a survey of recusants to show the queen that the real danger lay with Catholics who refused to attend church. It listed one and a half thousand names, including future martyrs such as St John Paine and St Margaret Clitherow, and it was around this time, as attitudes towards recusants hardened, that Mayne was arrested at Golden. 

The raid on this remote manor was an elaborate affair, involving at least eight JPs and a hundred armed men, but it was not purely a religious matter. The new sheriff of the county was Sir Richard Grenville, described by historian AL Rowse as ‘hot-tempered, determined, energetic, harsh’, though often remembered as a swashbuckling seafarer and privateer, the captain of The Revenge. Grenville was actually searching for a fugitive, one Anthony Bourne, but was only too happy to have the opportunity to strike at Arundell and Tregian, both of whom had threatened his business interests by serving on a piracy commission. Rowse depicts this as a struggle of ‘men of inland interests against those of the sea’, religious faith being used as an extra means of attack.

Mayne was discovered in a locked room and arrested, along with his employer and several others. On his person was found a waxen Agnus Dei, a devotional item that had been blessed by the pope, and among his papers a papal bull, a rather inoffensive one which, since it announced the indulgences of the Holy Year of 1575, had long expired. Nevertheless, it was a prohibited document in the eyes of English law.

Mayne was held in chains at Launceston Castle for five months and charged with obtaining and publishing a papal bull, denying the Queen’s supremacy, possessing a ‘vain sign and superstitious thing called an Agnus Dei’ and celebrating Mass at Golden. He was condemned to death at the Michaelmas Assizes and on St Andrew’s Day 1577 dragged to the town square on market day, not far from the church of St Mary Magdalen. A modern plaque on the pavement stands on the site of the unusually high gallows, erected as a ‘terror to the papists’. When he was cut down to be quartered, he fell heavily onto the scaffold, causing (according to one account) one of his eyes to be dislodged, and thus was mercifully insensible to the torture of being disembowelled.

His quarters were displayed at Barnstaple, Bodmin, Wadebridge and Tregony (near Golden), and his head impaled over the castle gate. This was retrieved by sympathisers and kept as one of the great treasures of the Arundell family; it is now at Lanherne. 

St Cuthbert Mayne was the first of the seminary priests to be martyred. A few weeks later, in early 1578, he would be followed by two other alumni of Douai: Blessed John Nelson and Blessed Thomas Sherwood (the nephew of Tregian). Mayne is remembered in the Catholic church at Launceston. In 1921 the first pilgrimage in his honour was organized, with an impressive procession with the saint’s relic through the streets of Launceston to the place of his martyrdom. More recently this has been organized every three years, often with the involvement of other churches, but still known locally as ‘Catholic Sunday’. As St Cuthbert Mayne prayed beside the gallows, he must have hoped that the religious violence would end and that people’s hearts would be converted. The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.

This article appeared originally in The Catholic Times on 7th July 2018 and is posted with kind permission.