top of page
  • Writer's pictureMary Allen

How Bleedeth Burning Love: A history of the Martyrs’ Cause

Christ's Bloody Sweat by Robert Southwell, from which the exhibition's title is taken

Veneration of the English and Welsh Martyrs of the Reformation began almost as soon as the persecution of Catholics started. It is with thanks to various individuals: those who witnessed executions and smuggled relics to safety, those who compiled catalogues of those that died for their faith, and those that championed the cause of the Martyrs in the 19th century when the Catholic hierarchy was re-established, that the Catholic men and women, lay and religious, who died for their faith during this time, have never been forgotten. As a result of this dedication, 285 martyrs were beatified and 43 canonised between 1886 and 1987. The joint exhibition by the Jesuits in Britain Archives and Stonyhurst College Collections, How Bleedeth Burning Love, which launched 1 March 2021 showcases relics of some of these martyrs from the British Jesuit Province collection. They are displayed according to the dates of their beatification or canonisation. A brief history of this process is explained below.

In 1874 a formal enquiry instituted by Cardinal Henry Edward Manning, Archbishop of Westminster, on behalf of the English hierarchy was held in London in which the names of 360 martyrs were submitted to the Sacred Congregation of Rites in Rome. Once a body of evidence had been gathered together, Pope Leo XIII introduced the Cause of 254 Martyrs. Of these, 54 were beatified on 29 December 1886, followed by nine others on 13 May 1895. The martyrs in these two groups had been venerated since the 16th century when Pope Gregory XIII allowed their portraits to be venerated in the church of the English College, Rome. This was judged to constitute an immemorial cult. Among the exhibits from this group of martyrs will be the rope that tied the Jesuit priest Edmund Campion to the hurdle that took him to his execution in 1581, relics of Thomas Percy, Earl of Northumberland, executed in 1572 for his part in the Rising of the North, and the Holy Thorn bestowed on Percy by Mary Queen of Scots.

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, permitting the remainder the title ‘Venerable’. Among the items being exhibited from this group of martyrs will be relics of the Jesuit priests Edward Oldcorne, executed 1606, and Thomas Whitbread, who was implicated in Titus Oates’ fabricated Popish Plot and executed 1679, and Thomas Thwing, a secular priest who was also executed as a result of the plot.

Both Thomas More and John Fisher were beatified in 1886 and in 1935, after intense lobbying, became the first Englishmen to be canonised in over 500 years. More, a lawyer, philosopher, author and statesman, and Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, were both executed during the reign of Henry VIII for their refusal to accept the king as head of the Church in England. On display will be an informal cap and a lawyer’s hat belonging to Thomas More, as well as a small crucifix, and a Renaissance cameo ring depicting the Greek philosopher, Aristotle, owned by Fisher.

In the 1950s the English and Welsh hierarchy decided once more to resume the Martyrs’ Cause but with just a small group. What was deemed a representative group of 40 lay and religious men and women were submitted to the Holy See in December 1960 for canonisation. The group was accepted and formed one Cause. The pope, Paul VI, signified that he was prepared to go ahead with the canonisation on the basis of one miracle and the canonisation took place in St Peter’s Basilica on 25 October 1970. Among the 40 Martyr exhibits will be the skull of Catholic priest, Cuthbert Mayne, executed 1577, a bone relic of Robert Southwell, a Jesuit priest executed 1595 whose poetry inspired the title of the exhibition, various relics associated with another Jesuit priest, Thomas Garnet, executed 1608, a trunk containing homemade vestments and various items associated with the Mass, used by the Jesuit Edmund Arrowsmith, executed 1628, and a piece of the rope used to hang David Lewis, the last Welsh Jesuit to be executed for his priesthood, in 1679.

Oliver Plunkett, an Irish Jesuit, Catholic Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland, was the last victim of the Titus Oates. Executed in 1681, he was to be the last Catholic martyr to die in England. He was beatified in 1920 and canonised in 1975, thus becoming the first new Irish saint for almost 700 years. On exhibition will be a piece of the shirt worn at his execution and a chasuble.

100 martyrs had been omitted from those proposed for beatification in the 1920s, along with 14 others whose cause had been postponed. Further research was carried out on these martyrs and this led to the beatification of 84 martyrs, executed between 1584 and 1679, by Pope John Paul II on 22 November 1987. Of these martyrs, the exhibition will display an elaborately beaded box, made c1590, containing the shoulder blade and upper arm of one of the Dryburne martyrs – it is not known which – executed in 1590, and a bone relic of the Welsh priest Roger Cadwallader, executed 1610.

The exhibition concludes with a fascinating detective story: In 1888 a wooden box containing two skulls and a variety of other bones wrapped in an ancient linen jacket was discovered in an attic of a former Jesuit house in Holywell, Wales. Until now, the bones have been assumed to belong to John Plessington, but new research carried out by Jan Graffius, Curator at Stonyhurst, suggests a different identity. You will need to visit the exhibition to find out more!

21 views0 comments

Related Posts

See All


bottom of page