The secret lives of 6 Elizabethan heroes who risked death to remain Catholic

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Whatever your spiritual commitments are, these brave souls will inspire you.

Reformation Day was this past week and a number of my friends were celebrating. As a convert, I have many Protestant friends who see the history a bit differently than I now do. I’m happy enough to see them celebrate what, to them, is the anniversary of a positive historical development, but I’m a bit more conflicted when my fellow Catholics seem to be celebrating it because I know how much converts struggle and how much they leave behind to join the Church.

My own background is Anglican, which comes from the part of the Reformation that took place in England. Philip Kosloski recently wrote an excellent introduction to the English Reformation, which points out there was a dark side to it, and “Good Queen Bess” and her Elizabethan England had a secret history of heroes and martyrs. During her reign, it was illegal for a priest to even step on English soil. Once caught, most priests were imprisoned in the Tower of London, tortured, and eventually drawn and quartered (dragged, hanged until near death, then cut down and disemboweled alive). Most lay faithful weren’t hunted down, but they were taxed into poverty and discriminated against, and faced torture and execution should they be discovered giving shelter to priests. It wasn’t an easy time to be Catholic and what I gave up to convert pales in comparison, but here are a few of the heroes I very much admire who never gave up their faith.

William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

All clues point to Shakespeare’s being a committed Catholic. He couldn’t admit it for fear of being financially ruined by anti-Catholic taxes as his father was, so throughout his life he walked a fine line — staying true to his faith but not openly declaring it. He was a steady supporter of the Church and purchased a property that he allowed to host clandestine Masses. Scattered throughout his plays are sympathetic treatments of religion and allusions to Catholic poets. Though his talent and ingenuity, he kept Catholic culture alive.

William Byrd (1539-1623)

William Byrd was a music composer who somehow survived while living in Queen Elizabeth’s court even as he was openly writing Catholic Masses. These Mass settings, written for as few as three singers because the secret Masses didn’t have full choirs, are still sung today. They’re widely considered masterpieces. Like Shakespeare, Byrd lived a double life, and through cleverness was able to provide the tired, worn out priests who were offering Masses in the dead of night music more beautiful than what was being used in the Royal worship services.

St. Nicholas Owen (1562-1606)

As a child, Nicholas worked in his father’s carpentry shop, where he acquired a number of skills in spite of the fact that he was limited physically due to his small stature and a lame leg. This diminutive, limping carpenter later became the genius who designed priest-holes in the walls of houses. These hiding spots were disguised and fortified to hide priests when the Queen’s spies came looking to arrest them, and they had to be incredibly well concealed because the houses would be torn to the studs and brickwork during the searches that would last for days. Eventually he was arrested and died while being tortured. He died, though, knowing that he had helped saved the lives of hundreds of priests.

St. Robert Southwell (1558-1595)

Southwell was a well-born gentleman who felt that, by betraying the Church, the government had betrayed England. He left the privileges of wealth behind to become a priest and was immediately sought out by the Queen’s spies. While evading them, he would hide in priest-holes and compose poems. His famous cousin William Shakespeare was heavily influenced by Southwell’s poetry and heavily quotes him in his plays. His poetry is still well-regarded today. In the end, he was captured and put to death.

Anne Vaux (1562-1637)

The fact that any priests survived the English penal laws at all is because they were taken care of by a number of brave women who fed them, gave them money, and hid them. Anne Vaux was one of these. She came from a Catholic family and was unabashed about proclaiming her faith and doing whatever she needed to do to help priests. She even exchanged secret messages with an imprisoned priest, Henry Garnet, while he was in the Tower of London. This earned her a spot in prison herself. Once released, she continued to assist priests and continued to be convicted of crimes for doing so. She was unwavering, though, and remained true to her beliefs until her death. (How interesting — and wrong — is it that Anne Vaux was one of the most remarkable women of the Elizabethan age, and yet there is no portrait to show in this list, and no marked grave?)

St. Edmund Campion (1540-1581)

As a young man at Oxford, Campion had a bright future. A rising star and ordained minister in the Anglican Church, it was widely thought that he would make a good future Archbishop of Canterbury. He had even been given the honor of debating before the Queen and her court. His life took a drastic turn, though, when he threw it all away and became Catholic. During his time in England as a priest, he wrote a letter to Queen Elizabeth known as “Campion’s Brag,” in which he writes that he and the other priests will “cheerfully carry the cross you shall lay upon us, and never despair your recovery, while we have a man left … to be racked with your torments, or consumed with your prisons.” True to his word, he stayed until the bitter end. He was eventually imprisoned, praying for England and the Queen even as his life was taken away by a hangman.

Whatever your spiritual commitments are, these brave souls can inspire us all. Their steadfast, nonviolent witness to freedom of religion and the importance of staying true to their conscience is an example that isn’t limited to the past. Each and every day you and I are asked to make choices. May we be strong enough to stay true to our beliefs despite any social pressure, discrimination, or discomfort that comes our way.

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