All suspected sufferers confined to their homes with guards outside; those seriously ill taken to special isolation units (pest-houses); schools, theatres, and fencing and dancing lessons (and for that matter bear-baiting) banned; movement outside the home severely limited and guards on the roads out of/into London; special taxes raised to help all those who were housebound or who became unemployed as opportunities for work dried up; premiums paid for the slaughter of dogs, cats and rabbits (none of which, we now know, were carriers of the bacillus; rats, the real danger, were left to roam free).
This is London in 1636 and 1637, just a decade after another even more deadly outbreak of the Plague. Of course, foreigners in general and “papists” in particular were blamed for it. The wealthy fled from London before the restrictions came in, and without magistrates around or the courts sitting, law and order began to break down. Two groups of professionals did stay around, though: Puritan ministers and Catholic priests. Both came out of the crisis with their reputations enhanced, although the two men we will think about here both ended up in prison.
There were an unknown number of Catholics in London in 1636: but enough to require the services of about 60 of the 400 priests in the country, so perhaps 10,000. Many of them (including a lot of refugees from Ireland) were among the poorest of the poor. And it was to them above all that Fr Henry Morse and Fr John Southworth ministered with extraordinary devotion and courage – in two ways. They were courageous in that they went into the fetid buildings (sealed up and without sanitation) to nurse the afflicted, to comfort their families locked up with them, to hear the confessions of men and women covered in excruciating subcutaneous swellings and to put the host, the token of Christ’s saving presence, onto their fevered tongues. Courageous, too, because both men had, years before, been arrested and convicted and sent into perpetual exile on pain of death if ever again found in the country. Both men accepted the charge of their superiors not only to return to England, but to the most dangerous place of all for Catholic priests – Westminster and Southwark.
When the plague, which had devastated London in 1625, returned in 1636 and 1637, the two senior figures in the English Church – that is, the provincial of the Jesuits and the leader of the secular clergy – each selected one man to have the responsibility of visiting those with the plague.
They selected Henry Morse, a convert originally from East Anglia, and John Southworth, born into a strong Lancashire recusant family. And so Frs Henry and John set about their work of visiting, tending, bringing comfort and sacramental grace. But they had to alleviate suffering by feeding starving bodies as well as troubled souls.
Their first task was to raise money to help the destitute – who, if they were Catholic, were denied state relief. The government ordered a collection from all those not in receipt of alms to help the victims, and Catholics were expected to pay up along with everyone else. But without a certificate to prove they had received Holy Communion in the Church of England (which no Catholic could), poor Catholics were ineligible to receive alms. So Morse and Southworth had to raise an additional collection just for them. (It should be noted, though, that when they encountered desperate and destitute non-Catholics they relieved them, too).
The two priests launched an appeal in a printed single-sheet broadside, in which they spoke of “so great a desolation among our poor brethren, joined with the small means and power we have to relieve [those in torment]”; of those well-born and bred being compelled “through extremity of want to sell or pawn all they had, remain shut up within the bare walls of a poor chamber, having not wherewithal to allay the rage of hunger nor to scarcely cover nakedness”.
They also could not resist a theological point. Many Protestants – although they “acknowledge no merit in good works” – were giving generously; how much more “should be expected at the hands of Catholics who profess to believe the doctrine of merit”. It seems to have worked: with the money raised from the Catholics of the land, led by generous gifts from Charles I’s French Catholic Queen Henrietta Maria (to whom history, or at least historians, have not been kind), they Saints and the plague took food for the body as well as for the soul with them on their relentless missions into the slums north and south of the Thames.
The pest-houses, and the hovels in which plague victims were sealed, were guarded by local officials who were not supposed to let through a Catholic priest – so Morse and Southworth would call themselves alms-givers. There is no doubt that, almost all the time, those officials knew or suspected their real identity, but respected their courage and let them through. Nevertheless, both spent time in prison when a more vindictive functionary took against them. As was common, prisoners not yet tried and convicted were allowed out during the day but had to be back for nightfall – so imprisonment limited but did not prevent their ministry; and in both cases, senior ministers in Charles I’s government eventually secured their release.
Morse had two mild and one severe bouts of plague (the death rate for those who caught it was about 70 per cent). During the severe attack, a leading doctor tended him, lancing and dressing his excruciating “bubos”. When Morse paid him for his services and in fact for saving his life, the doctor immediately handed back the fee to be used for the priests’ relief fund.
This is such a good story, a story of inspiring courage and unflinching faith. It infuriates me to think that both Fr Henry Morse and Fr John Southworth were, years later, to be martyred for that faith on the gallows. Of course they are glorious saints in heaven, and I have a special personal commitment to visit the body of St John Southworth in Westminster Cathedral whenever I am there. But how does it come to be there?
Southworth was executed in 1654: hanged until dead and then drawn and quartered (better than being half-strangled and eviscerated while still alive and then cut into four parts to be displayed in prominent places as a warning to others). In fact, he was given every chance by the judge to prevaricate about whether he was the man sentenced to death in 1628. He refused to take it. Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell, who knew that persecution was counterproductive (even in Ireland – but that is another story) was unable to prevent the law taking its course. But he personally arranged for the mangled body to be reassembled and embalmed (and one rib removed – by a Catholic surgeon wanting a relic?) and then transported at the state’s expense to Douai, where Southworth had been formed to the priesthood. There it remained until it was repatriated to Westminster (close to where he and Morse ministered) in the 1920s.
And Morse, who died for the faith much earlier, in 1645, was also spared the final agonies. A small boy, almost certainly by collusion, ran from the crowd and jumped up as Morse writhed after a short drop, and caused the priest’s neck to break, causing instant death.
These details matter because they lead us into a murky world beyond the world of personal faith and courage, a world in which the Protestant authorities showed a grudging admiration for Catholic courage. Sometimes it was bribes that got Morse and Southworth safely into and away from the suffering households, but more often it was a recognition that even Catholics needed more sympathy than those in power had legislated for.
Yet if there was Protestant ambivalence, there was also Catholic spite. The reason why the superiors of the London Jesuits and the secular clergy each chose one of their own was precisely because the 40 years of hostility between the two groups had not been reconciled. Relations between Southworth and Morse were soured when the former publicly denounced the latter for thinking it sufficient – to avoid the risk of contagion – to hear the Confessions and offer viaticum to the afflicted but not to anoint them. And at the height of the plague, Fr Peter Fitton arrived from Rome to strengthen the London Chapter of secular priests, and immediately denounced Morse for not seeking his faculties to say Mass and hear Confessions from the London chapter but directly from Rome. Fitton persuaded Southworth to spread word that Fr Morse had no true ‘‘faculties’’ and that consequently all the Confessions he had heard were invalid. Persecution brings out the best in people; but it also brings out human frailty.
As I write this, a historian but also a veteran deacon, self-isolating myself at home, do I feel a complete wimp? Yes and no. Yes: I could (and should?) be risking my health and life to help those who are suffering more than I am. I could (and should?) be taking Communion to those who have no choice but to be housebound, or sitting with the downcast, the panicky, above all with the bereaved. Yes, but I have to consider something that Morse and Southworth did not have to consider. They were all too aware that they might be killed by the plague as a result of visiting the desperately ill in the most wretched and squalid of places. But they did not think that by doing so they might become carriers of the plague, that in trying to accompany the sick they might make other people sick. That is why (being nearly 75) I have obediently self-isolated myself.
I have the advantage that Morse and Southworth did not have of a ministry by telephone or the web – eight people at present and doubtless growing – and of being a sounding board. And I watch in wonder as the parish galvanises itself to reach out through imaginative ‘‘buddy’’ schemes to provide food packs for those who would normally qualify for free school lunches.
Some things change over the centuries; but the striving of flawed humanity to reach out at times of crisis remains the same. Perhaps we should not dwell on the absence of Henry Morses and John Southworths, but on the instinct to kindness and generosity of aso many people trying to live out what their baptisms call them to and their encounter with the Eucharist commands them to: to love God and to love neighbour. Let us, in the words deacons are called to say and to mean in the dismissal of the Mass, ‘‘Go and announce the Gospel of the Lord.”
John Morrill is Emeritus Professor of British and Irish History at the University of Cambridge and (since 1996) a permanent deacon in the diocese of East Anglia
Illustration by James Blackstone
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