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The martyr who gave up worldly fame for the scaffold

Nobody dies for religion to seek worldly fame, nor should there be an order of merit among martyrs. Nevertheless, Ralph Sherwin (1549-81) might have received greater posthumous honour if he had not died upon the same scaffold as Edmund Campion.

Sherwin’s career began, like Campion’s, in a blaze of academic glory. A Derbyshire man, he showed such early promise that he was selected for a fellowship at Exeter College, Oxford.

There, according to Anthony à Wood, he was “accounted an acute philosopher and an excellent Grecian and Hebrician”. As Campion had made his mark with a Latin oration before Queen Elizabeth in 1566, so Sherwin, when he took his MA in 1574, impressed the Queen’s favourite, the Earl of Leicester.

The baubles of this world were his for the grasping. In 1575, however, he left Oxford and embraced Roman Catholicism, proceeding to Douai to study for the priesthood under William Allen. In March 1577 he was ordained at Cateau Cambrésis by the Bishop of Cambrai.

The following August, Sherwin arrived in Rome, where the English hospice was in the process of becoming the English College – though the Bull of foundation was not issued until May 1579, and only received in December 1580.
During this period there were disputes between the Welsh and the English elements within the college, the former advocating a passive attitude towards events in England, while the latter (of whom Sherwin became a leader) argued
for immediate missionary activity. 

Sherwin’s was the first name to appear in the college’s annals, which ran from April 23 1579. In a note he expressed his resolution to go to England “today rather than tomorrow”.

In fact it was not until April 18 1580 that he set out in company with Campion and Robert Persons, though prudence demanded their separation in France. Sherwin despised the need for disguise. “Mr Paschal came in with the fripp to frenchify me,” he wrote from Paris in June 1580. “O miserable time, when a priest must counterfeit a cutter.”

Sherwin arrived in England in August 1580 and preached in various parts before being arrested the following November at the house of Nicholas Roscarrock, a contemporary at Exeter College. Imprisoned in the Marshalsea, he wrote to Robert Persons joking about the huge pair of shackles in which he was bound.

The disgusting process of torture duly followed. Sherwin was racked twice and apparently was offered a Protestant bishopric if he would forswear allegiance to Rome.

At his trial he vigorously denied any attempt to raise rebellion: “the plain reason of our standing here is religion, not treason”. Before being hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn on December 1 1581, he kissed the executioner’s hands, which were still wet with Campion’s blood.