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  • Writer's pictureMary Allen

History of the Martyrs’ Cause on the 50th anniversary of the Forty Martyrs’ Canonisation

[Credit: Vatican Photo Service]

This year, Sunday 25 October marked the 50th anniversary of the canonisation of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales. The Martyrs represent Catholic lay and religious men and women executed for their faith between 1534 and 1680. The British Jesuit Archives are privileged to look after the Martyrs’ Cause archives, a considerable body of work created by the Vice-Postulators of the Cause, which spans over 100 years from the introduction of the Cause in the 19th century to the final beatifications in 1987. In this blog post we explore the history of the Martyrs’ Cause and showcase some of the items in the collection.

The Cause of the Martyrs dates back over 400 years, when Pope Gregory XIII made a series of concessions relating to the Martyrs: their relics could be used to consecrate altars, a Te Deum could be publicly sung on the receipt of the news of their martyrdoms, and their pictures with their names attached could be placed in the church of the English College, Rome for veneration.

Fr Charles Newdigate’s sketches of Edmund Campion portraits. The sketch on the right is possibly after the portrait in the English College (ref. 34/1/38)

The first moves to promote canonisation of the English and Welsh Martyrs were instituted by Pope Urban VIII as early as 1642, however the investigation process was hampered by the difficulty of collecting evidence to prove the martyrdom due to continuing persecution and the Civil War. Among the important works created at this time was Dr Richard Smith, Bishop of Chalcedon’s catalogue of Martyrs which he submitted to Rome in 1628, and the body of transcriptions collated by Fr Christopher Grene SJ (1629-1697), which sought to preserve the records of the sufferings of Catholics during the time of persecution, including detailed lists of those who died in various prisons around the country.

Pages from Fr Christopher Grene’s Collectanea

In the 18th century, the work of Bishop Smith was updated, amplified and published by the Bishop Richard Challoner, Vicar Apostolic of the London District. Challoner’s Memoirs of Missionary Priests became the basis of the records of the restoration of the Martyrs’ Cause when it was revived in 1855 and taken up by Fr John Morris SJ (1826-1893) following the restoration of the Catholic hierarchy.

Edition of Challoner’s Missionary Priests, heavily annotated by Fr Charles Newdigate and Fr John Pollen in the early 20th century

A formal Ordinary Process (a judicial enquiry instituted by Cardinal Manning acting on behalf of all the English hierarchy in virtue of his “ordinary” jurisdiction as Archbishop of Westminster) was held in London, June to September 1874, in which 360 names were submitted to the Sacred Congregation of Rites (SCR). Thanks to the Fathers of the London Oratory who gathered together a body of evidence in a form acceptable to Rome, Pope Leo XIII introduced the Cause of 254 Martyrs. 54 were beatified ‘equipollently’, i.e. without executing the ordinary process due to their long veneration, on 29 December 1886, followed by nine others on 13 May 1895. These two groups corresponded with those depicted at the English College, their veneration being judged to constitute an immemorial cult. In 1923 Cardinal Francis Bourne OP, Archbishop of Westminster, resumed the process and on 15 December 1929 Pope Pius XI beatified a further 136 Martyrs. Although 241 had been submitted, the remainder were permitted the title ‘Venerable’. Except for the special case of Thomas More and John Fisher, canonised in 1935, it was another 35 years before any of the Martyrs were canonised.

In the 1950s the English and Welsh hierarchy decided once more to resume the Martyrs’ Cause, but with just a small group. Initially, the Vice-Postulators presented a group of 12 Martyrs for canonisation: 4 seminary priests, 4 religious, and 4 lay persons who died in the Elizabethan persecution, but this was deemed not representative enough. The Promoter-General of the Faith had emphasised that there must be evidence of a cultus for each of the Martyrs whose names were on the list and a reputation for answer to prayer. The list of Martyrs was increased to 20. Then, individuals put forward to represent the Carthusians, Bridgettines, Augustinians, and the Dioceses of Cardiff, Menevia, Shrewsbury and Northampton brought the number up to 33. Cardinal William Godfrey, Archbishop of Westminster, suggested that the list be limited to 40, and the remaining seven were chosen from the Martyrs depicted at the English College, Rome.

The names of the Forty Martyrs were submitted in December 1960 to the Holy See, which accepted the group as forming one Cause. Before that date reports of many favours and cures attributed to the intercession of the Blessed Martyrs of England and Wales had been brought to the attention of the hierarchy and the authorities in Rome. Once the group of 40 names were known there was an official and intense nationwide campaign of prayer and an appeal that favours granted through the intercession of the Forty Blessed Martyrs should be sent to the Office of the Vice-Postulation at 31 Farm St, the former Writers’ House. As a result the Pope, Paul VI, signified that he was prepared to go ahead with the canonisation on the basis of one miracle. The canonisation took place in St Peter’s Basilica on 25 October 1970.

Fr Philip Caraman, former Vice-Postulator, presents Pope Paul VI with a cage of doves at theCanonisation. Credit: Vatican Photo Service

The papers in the collection, which is part of an ongoing cataloguing project, represent the work carried out towards the canonisation of the Forty Martyrs and beatification of a further 85 martyrs in 1987, including research files and correspondence. Much of the work was carried out by the Vice-Postulators Frs James Walsh SJ, Philip Caraman SJ and Clement Tigar SJ, as well as Patrick Barry, a researcher who was also responsible for editing the work carried out by the diocesan representatives, particularly the process of the 85 blessed martyrs. But there are also many boxes of papers and transcripts from earlier processes. Much of the material held from this time is the work of the first three Vice-Postulators: Frs John Morris SJ, John Pollen SJ and Charles Newdigate SJ. The papers remained at 114 Mount St after the closure of the Office of the Vice-Postulators in 1984. They were officially deposited by the Bishops’ Conference in 2015. If you are interested in the collection, please contact us:

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