England has hundreds of forgotten martyrs. Let’s bring back our devotion to them

English martyrs (Aidan McRae Thompson)

As the ‘t Catholic Herald’s resident Northern Correspondent, my attention was caught yesterday by a Guardian ‘long read’ on my hometown of Preston. The article itself, about the new economic protectionism of the shining jewel of the Ribble Riviera, is absorbing enough on its own terms. Its opening sentences, however, struck me as a little overplayed:

The city of Preston in Lancashire dates back to Roman times. It is listed in the Domesday book as Prestune. It’s where inventor Richard Arkwright kickstarted the cotton trade. Yet ask local people to tell you its history and they jump straight to 2011.

Now, to be perfectly frank, I rather doubt that that’s the case. If it is, though, then that’s a very sad state of affairs indeed.

As I’ve previously written on this blog, ‘Priests’ Town’ – the Lancastrian Shangri-La – has a long and proud Catholic history. As home to the Syro-Malabar Cathedral of St Alphonsa, and at the vanguard of the traditionalist resurgence (with two churches reinvigorated Institute of Christ the King), it is, moreover, a history still very much being written.

But while these new developments – the “Preston Option”, as all the kids are calling it – are certainly intriguing, it would be a crying shame if they eclipsed the centuries-old traditions of God’s Own City in the British Catholic imagination.

This hit home – literally – earlier today.

Blogging notwithstanding, I’m currently writing a book – a ‘proper’ one, unlike my recent shilling shockers – entitled Mass Exodus: Catholic Disaffiliation in Britain and America since Vatican II. As one small part of this, this morning I was artisanally crafting a paragraph on the cultus of the English martyrs, its historical significance for Catholic identity and practice, and its demise (for various reasons) beginning in the 1960s.

One of the points I was making was that, in addition to some of the “big names” with a national following, the sheer numbers of martyrs – around two hundred had been beatified by the time of More and Fisher’s canonization in 1935, with more to follow – meant that there was scope for the fostering of many intensely local devotions.

This led to an idle thought: how many such places might there be within easy distance of my own childhood (and still my parents’) home. Off the top of my head, I could think of one: the nearby village of Cottam, birthplace of Blessed George Haydock, and home to a beautiful and historic church. Knowing Preston’s Catholic pedigree, I assumed that there might be one or two others.

Well, was I in for a surprise.

By my reckoning, I could easily walk to the birthplaces of five other bona-fide Blesseds or Saints from my parent’s house (not to mention a Marian shrine dating back to the 11th Century): Bl. William Marsden, Bl. George Beesley, and St John Wall (all Goosnargh); Bl. Richard Hayhurst (Broughton); and St John Southworth (Samlesbury). And if I were to include those not yet raised to the altars, I could add at least one more: Fr Germanus Helme, yet another Goosnarghian and reputedly the most recent of England’s martyrs (in 1746!).

Looking a little further afield, despite no longer being at my physical peak, I reckon I could comfortably hike there and back to the birthplaces of six more: St John Plessington (Garstang), Bl. John Finch (Eccleston), Bl. William Harcourt (Weeton), Bl. John Woodcock (Clayton-le-Woods), Bl. Roger Wenno (Chorley), and Bl. Thomas Cottam (Dilworth).

If I am perfectly honest, with the exception of Haydock and Southworth, I hadn’t previously heard of any of them – not even the four from Goosnargh, a small village less than five miles from where I was brought up.

Maybe that’s because I only became a Catholic having left the area. Perhaps cradle-Catholic Prestonians are brought up on tales of these heroes of the Faith, and implore their intercessions from infancy. Somehow, however, I rather doubt it.

Still, in the interests of ‘being the change you want to see’, I suppose I ought to plan a pilgrimage myself. Some years ago, I spent New Year’s morning limping 26 miles along Liverpool’s docks while praying the rosary. Time for a repeat performance, even closer to come?