St. Ignatius in London as the storm gathers

November 22, 2018

In the summer of 1530, Ignatius came to London. That year was a fatal one to England. The question of the divorce was agitating not this country alone, but the whole Christian world. The most celebrated Universities were consulted on the subject, and by means of bribery and intrigue, not to say open violence, favorable answers, real or pretended, were obtained from Oxford and Cambridge, as well as from Bologna, Padua, and Ferrara. In Germany, however, not a single public body, including even Protestant consistories, could be induced to espouse the cause of Henry — perhaps not to displease the Emperor Charles — and at Paris the different Faculties, despite the known wishes and expressed commands of Francis, remained decidedly hostile; until by dexterous management a plurality of voices was secured in a single instance, and an attested copy of the vote thus extracted was forwarded to England, and published by Henry as the free and formal decision of the whole University. To a menacing remonstrance dictated by Henry, but which purported to come from the English nation. Pope Clement replied that he was ready to show the King every indulgence compatible with justice, but that he would not violate the immutable commandments of God. Henry was embarrassed, and even declared in private his intention of abandoning his purpose, when he was confirmed in his resolution by the unscrupulous counsels of one bold, bad man.

Cardinal Wolsey and Henry VIII plotting a way to procuring Henry’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon. Painting by Sir John Gilbert.

Thomas Cromwell, who had already enriched himself by the plunder of the lesser monasteries, and who ere long was to amass great wealth by wholesale sacrilege, sought the royal presence, determined, in his own words, “to make or to mar.” “The King’s difficulties,” he said, “arose from the timidity of his advisers. The learned and the Universities had pronounced in favor of the divorce — was so great a sovereign to be thwarted in his rights by a Roman pontiff? Let him imitate the princes of Germany, who had thrown off the yoke of Rome, and, with the authority of Parliament, declare himself the head of the Church within his own realm. His supremacy once recognized, the prelates, sensible that their lives and fortunes were at his disposal, would become the obsequious ministers of his will.” To this advice Henry lent a ready ear, and from that moment the severance of England from the communion of the Church may be said to have been already in intention consummated.

Map of Tyburn gallows and immediate surroundings, from John Rocque’s map of London, Westminster and Southwark (1746)

The reports of this apostasy must have been as gall and wormwood to the heart of St. Ignatius, filling it at once with a righteous indignation at the wickedness of Henry and his counselors, and with a consuming pity for a noble people. And, peradventure, as he knelt in prayer before Our Lady’s picture near the Tower, or traversed deep in meditation the long line of road that led to Tyburne, the veil of the future may have been lifted for moment, and his prescient eye have foreseen the day, and his soul gloried in the thought, that his heroic sons, with others as brave and good, would encounter the ignominy and all the frightful horrors of a traitor’s doom, rather than stoop to acknowledge, by word or sign, a supremacy as much opposed to the rightful liberties of a Christian man as to the inalienable prerogatives of the Vicar of Jesus Christ. No record has been bequeathed to us of what befell the Saint during the short sojourn he made in this island; we are left therefore to our own conjectures.

That he would visit the famous and not yet desecrated shrine of St. Thomas of Canterbury, either on his way to London or on his return to France, we may regard as well-nigh certain; and as more certain still that he would go sometimes to pray at the tomb of St. Edward the Confessor in the abbey church of Westminster. It is probable, too, that he was hospitably received at the Charterhouse by the Carthusian monks, whose brethren in Paris were amongst his closest friends and who ere long, would with one unhappy exception, choose death in its most revolting forms rather than admit Henry’s impious claim. Some were hanged under circumstances of peculiar atrocity; the rest were left to perish of disease and starvation in prison.*

* The fact was thus communicated to Cromwell on June 14, 1537, by Bedyll, one of the Visitors:—” It shall please your lordship to understand that the monks of the Charterhouse here at London, which were committed to Newgate for their treacherous behaviour long time continued against the King’s grace, be almost dispatched by the hand of God, as it may appear to you by this bill enclosed. Whereof, considering their behaviour, and the whole matter, I am not sorry, but would that all such as love not the King’s highness and his worldly honor, were in like case.”

To the document is added, “There be departed. Brother William Greenwood, Dom John Davye, Brother Robert Salte, Brother William Pierson, Dom Thomas Greene. There be at the point of death, Brother Thomas Scriven, Brother Thomas Reding. There be sick, Dom Thomas Johnson, Brother William Home. One is whole, Dom Beer.”

St. Ignatius Loyola and the early Jesuits, by Stewart Rose 1891, pg 152-154

Stories on Honor, Chivalry, and the World of Nobility—no. 653

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