The poem that sums up the selflessness of the English martyrs

The Chapel of St George and the English Martyrs at Westminster Cathedral (Mazur/

What a good idea it was for the Christmas issue of the Catholic Herald to include a free DVD about the English martyrs, produced by St Anthony Communications and narrated by Fr Marcus Holden and Fr Nicholas Schofield. I watched it the other night and was reminded again of the sacrifices that some brave men and women were prepared to undergo for the love of their faith.

I learnt much that I did not know, such as the anecdote about St John Fisher who, imprisoned in the Tower of London, told his gaoler not to wake him until the time of his execution so that he could catch up on his sleep. I made me realise that Fisher was so prepared for death that he didn’t need to lose sleep over it.

And what gives a man the courage and sang-froid to joke at his execution, as did St Thomas More, who asked his executioner to assist him up the steps, “but as for coming down I can shift for myself”. As Fr Holden reminded us, More, who led an exemplary private life as a husband and father, was a saint long before he became a martyr.

We saw the place in York near where St Margaret Clitherow was pressed to death, the unusually cruel punishment meted out to those who refused to plead. She chose this particular form of Calvary for motherly reasons: in order to protect her children from being cross-examined by the Protestant authorities.

One of my own favourites, not mentioned in the film which is why I now bring him to readers’ attention, is Blessed Thomas Belson, 1563-1589. Belson, one of the four Oxford martyrs, came from a prosperous landowning family near Long Crendon, Buckinghamshire. (I happen to live near the parish church.) He studied at Oxford and then renounced his possessions in order to dedicate himself to the humble but vital task of assisting priests in their travels between England and the Continent. He was hanged aged 26 on July 5 1589.

All that remains of this selfless young man is a 16-line Latin poem he wrote, probably after his first imprisonment in the Tower in 1586. Translated by Michael Hodgetts, it concludes with the lines:

Why should I rail on fortune or repine?
Why should I grieve? God’s remedy is mine.
Endure then, as philosophers maintain
A brave man should, adversity and pain.

On the surface these are skilful lines, the evidence of a classical education aligned to conventional piety. Then one remembers they were written in prison, anticipating the probability of a painful public death, and that their author, the son of a wealthy family and assured of a comfortable career in the (Protestant) Tudor world, was only 23 when he penned them.