This begins an occasional series of articles on the lives of the forty English Martyrs of England and Wales, observing their local feasts.
It is very easy to lump together those forty martyrs, canonised by Bl. Paul VI in 1970, as one solid wall of the confession of faith. Each, however tells their own unique story and it is these we hope to explore over the next months.
12th July, St. John Godfrey Jones
John was born into a recusant family in Clymag Faur in Carnaervon in about 1530: his family continued to practice the faith throughout the reformation. During the restoration, John entered the Friars Minor at Greenwich, and there was clothed, taking the name Godfrey. In the novitiate he had a great reputation for personal holiness.
With the death of Queen Mary, and Elizabeth’s accession to the throne, Br. Godfrey, still only a novice, and the rest of the community at Greenwich fled to the continent and Godfrey was professed at Pontoise. He was probably ordained at Rheims, and spent some years ministering in France, before being assigned to Ara Coeli in Rome, the headquarters of the Friars Minor at the end of the 1580s
Fr Godfrey was however filled with a burning desire to return to England and minister to Catholics worshiping in secret; it is easy to imagine him receiving letters from home about the problems recusants were facing, and wishing to be amongst them at least to console them. His order, however, did not share the desire to lose one of their brightest and best to the rack, noose, hurdle, and torturer’s tools. It took an audience with Clement VIII to receive the permission, which he granted gladly, with the words “Go, because I believe you to be a true son of Saint Francis. Pray to God for me and for his holy Church.”
With this he returned to England, arriving in the early 1590s. He ministered primarily in London, always on the move, always vigilant, always careful. Until, at the end of 1595 he was caught by the notorious “Priest Catcher” Richard Topcliffe, a member of parliament and a man with a mania against Catholics. He received information that a priest called John Jones had been visiting two known Catholics and celebrating Mass there. It transpired that this was untrue, as said Catholics were in prison at that time.
This dd not stop Topcliffe from arresting Fr Godfrey. He was tortured and scourged in the hope of extracting information, before being taken to Topcliffe’s house: Topcliffe being possibly the only man in England to own his own rack.
After this, Fr Godfrey was imprisoned for two years, in the Clink prison in Southwark, doubtless having to beg for his food from passers-by through the iron grates. He did at this time sustain another of the forty martyrs in his faith: St. John Rigby.
Finally, on the 3rd July, 1598 the good friar was brought to trial on a charge of “going over the seas in the first year of Her majesty’s reign (1558) and there being made a priest by the authority from Rome and then returning to England contrary to statute”. He was convicted of high treason and sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered at St Thomas Watering.
His initial interrogator, Topcliffe, presided over the execution as a kind of macabre Master of Ceremonies. Henry Garnet, SJ, recounts that Jones was tied to a trellis and dragged to the place of his torment. He was held there for an hour before execution during which time Topcliffe harangued the crowd with his supposed crimes. Garnet recounts that the crowd was touched more by John’s prayers than by the calumnies of his torturer and executioner. His remains were hung up on the road between Newington and Lambeth.
Today is the anniversary of his martyrdom. May he pray for us.