6 Monastic Martyrs Under Henry VIII
The drama of the Catholic martyrs under the Tudors begins with an incredible first act: the glories of the Carthusian protomartyrs, Thomas More, and John Cardinal Fisher, the Observant Franciscans, and others who refused to take the oaths that Henry VIII demanded. Their heroism and loyalty to Jesus and the unity of His Church are extraordinary: several of the Carthusians were starved to death in prison.
There is a second act, however, of martyrs who had taken those oaths and perhaps thought they could negotiate the religious changes occurring after their monarch had taken over the Church. On Nov. 15, 1539, the Abbots of Glastonbury and Reading Abbeys and their companions were hanged, drawn, and quartered. Blesseds Richard Whiting, John Thorne, and Roger James were executed on Glastonbury Tor near their empty and soon to be desolated abbey, and Blesseds Hugh (Cook) Faringdon, John Rugg and John Eynon were executed at Reading Abbey.
Reading Abbey: The Last Abbot and the Lost King
In 2013, history buffs were mesmerized by the activities surrounding the discovery of Richard III’s bones in the parking lot built on top of the former Franciscan friary in Leicester. Debate about where the last Plantagenet king should be buried and how (Anglican service or Catholic) raged. There was a compromise of sorts (he was buried in Anglican Leicester Cathedral with the Archbishop of Westminster preaching at Compline—Night Prayer from the Liturgy of Hours— there and offering a Requiem Mass in the nearby Dominican friary).
There’s a similar search now for the remains of King Henry I, the youngest son of William the Conqueror, who had founded Reading Abbey, dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. John the Apostle, to be his resting place. His grave was lost when Reading Abbey was destroyed during the reign of Henry VIII.
The remains of the last abbot of Reading Abbey, Hugh (Cook) Faringdon, have also been lost. He had been elected the Abbot of Reading in 1520 and Henry VIII had visited him in 1521, selecting Faringdon as a royal chaplain and giving him a 1532 New Year’s gift of L20 in a white leather purse. In other words, Abbot Faringdon was much in Henry VIII’s favor. As an Abbot, he sat in the House of Lords and participated in the Convocation of Bishops. Faringdon helped his king as much as he could with Henry’s Great (marital) Matter. He did nothing to oppose Henry VIII’s agenda in Parliament to separate the Church in England from the Catholic Church and he took the oaths as required in Convocation in 1536.
As one of the royal chaplains, he sang one of the Requiem Masses for Jane Seymour, Henry’s third wife and mother of his only surviving son and was present at her burial in St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle in 1537. Faringdon continued in the royal favor until he refused to surrender Reading; he was charged with giving funds to the rebels in the Pilgrimage of Grace, but the guilty verdict and his execution were meted out before he went to trial. As a member of the House of Lords Faringdon was entitled to a trial by his peers but Thomas Cromwell skipped that step. (It was unlikely that Faringdon had supported the Pilgrimage of Grace because he had not opposed either of the Acts of Suppression of the monasteries in 1535 or 1539 in Parliament.) Perhaps Faringdon finally realized the bad bargain he had made when it came time to surrendering his own monastery.
His history of working with Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell, which included offering Cromwell a stipend, did not save Faringdon from the consequences of one act of disobedience. He was hanged, drawn, and quartered outside the Abbey Gateway with two companions, John Eynon, a Benedictine priest serving the Church of St. Gile’s in Reading and John Rugg, a scholarly priest living in the Abbey at the time. With Cromwell serving as prosecutor, jury, and judge in this case, we don’t know exactly what they had done wrong: somehow, they had displeased their king.
Their bodies were left hanging in chains against the Abbey Gateway to warn everyone else against displeasing their king. The monks of Reading were dispersed without any pension.
Glastonbury Tor in Somerset
On the same day, the last Abbot of Glastonbury Abbey, which had been founded before the eighth century (there was a legend that St. Joseph of Arimathea had established a monastery there in 63 A.D.), was drawn up the hill to Glastonbury Tor. Like Hugh Faringdon, Abbot Richard Whiting had been as loyal as he could be to Henry VIII. He had also gained a reputation of being an excellent Benedictine abbot; Cromwell’s visitors could find no infractions or irregularities in his management of the Abbey or in his administration of the Rule of St. Benedict, much to Cromwell’s disgust. They did find beautiful vestments and precious chalices and other liturgical objects, however, much to Cromwell’s delight.
Under the pretext that everything in the Abbey must be surrendered to Cromwell’s agents as property of the king, Cromwell accused Abbot Whiting of theft when his visitors had found some valuables hidden, as documented in this letter to Cromwell:
Came to Glastonbury on Friday last at 10 a.m. . . . Visited the abbey, searched his study, and found a book against the King's divorce from the lady Dowager [Catherine of Aragon]. . . His answers which we send will show his cankered and traitorous heart. . . we have conveyed him from hence unto the Tower, being but a very weak man and sickly. Will now proceed to discharge his servants and the monks. . . . Have found a gold chalice and other articles which the abbot hid from previous commissioners, and as yet he knows not we have found it. Desire to know to whom to deliver the custody of this house. It is the goodliest house of the sort we ever saw,—meet for the King and no man else . . .
Richard Whiting and his companions did at least receive a trial, although he should have been tried in the House of Lords. Whether it was a fair trial is questionable, however, for as one of Cromwell’s agents reported on Nov. 16, 1539, the jury should be commended. So he “Sends the names of the inquest that passed on Abbot Whytyng (sic)—as worshipful a jury as was charged here these many years. Never was seen in these parts greater willingness to serve the King. Many bills were put up against the abbot by his tenants for wrongs done them.” The vultures surrounded the elderly abbot even on the scaffold before his execution as Richard Pollard wrote to Cromwell on the same date: “Examined the late abbot before his execution on divers articles, but he would accuse none but himself and confess no more gold and silver than he did before your lordship in the Tower.”
Rendering to Caesar
Among the thousands of monks, nuns, and friars whose houses were suppressed, very few stood up against the king for his usurpation of the authority of the Vicar of Christ (St. John Stone, for example). Several died as a result of their participation in the Pilgrimage of Grace, like the Cistercian abbots of Jervaulx, Adam Sedbar, and of Fountains, William Thirsk.
These six martyred monks—and one more abbot who suffered on Dec. 1, 1539—may have rendered too much that was God’s to Caesar in a time of crisis, but the Church has judged that in the end, they died for Jesus and for love of His Church. Pope Leo XIII beatified them in 1895.