Henry Walpole: English Martyr and Saint, and Model for Our Day

The Tower of London. It has quite a name. It is quite a place. From it you see the London Bridge and the Thames and a great deal of modern, bustling London. Today it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a tourist destination. However, its name for most denotes imprisonment, pain, and death. That was not its initial purpose. It was built to show the wealth and power of William the Conquerer. In actuality, few met their deaths within its walls, but it did serve as a prison and a very dark place for many. Among those imprisoned and tortured in the Tower was St. Henry Walpole.

Walpole was born in Docking, Norfolk, England in 1558. He was educated in England at Cambridge and Gray’s Inn to be a lawyer. Much of his life was contemporary with the reign of Elizabeth I. During her reign it was illegal to be Catholic, and it was a death sentence to be a priest. Walpole witnessed the execution of the priest Edmund Campion. During Campion’s execution, Walpole’s clothing was splattered with the martyr’s blood. This experience led to his conversion to the Catholic Church. He gave up his law practice and ultimately departed to Rome for theological study and Jesuit formation. He was ordained a priest in Paris, December 17, 1588. He returned to England to serve the Catholic faithful, but was soon captured. He was first imprisoned in York, then sent to London to be a prisoner in the Tower. In the Tower he was repeatedly tortured on the rack. He was returned to York for trial and there executed. He was canonized by Pope Paul VI in 1970, and is counted among the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales.

This English period of persecution of Catholics, and especially priests, is an area of historical interest to me. During a vacation in England, my wife and I went to the Tower of London. After some time there, we stumbled upon the Salt Tower and entered in through its small door. Soon we discovered that this was where Walpole, and other Jesuits, were held captive and tortured. On the second floor of the Salt Tower’s wall are many carvings done by these men. In fact, Walpole carved his name in the wall. But a different carving was quite moving. This carving is an outline of a foot with a wound — a foot of Jesus Christ pierced to suspend him on the Cross for our salvation. This image was common among these priests. It was a source of courage and consolation as they awaited their own deaths in imitation of their Lord. This image is a type of relic, and sensing its holiness, we venerated it.

My study/library contains several books of the history of this period, and of the English and Welsh Martyrs (among them Evelyn Waugh’s biography of St. Edmund Campion). I am inspired by my fellow priests’ (a Catholic priest shares the same priesthood as an Orthodox priest) faith and courage. What is also striking is that though persecuted by the Crown, they never denounced their country, nor Elizabeth I. In fact they declared their love for England, and told their captors of their prayers for their queen.

Additionally, I am interested in this period of persecution because, frankly, I am expecting an increase of the persecution of Christians in America. It is happening already. There is open psychological persecution, and legal action takes place against Christians who oppose the radical, secular laws of Washington State and elsewhere in this nation. Christianity is mocked and rejected by the greater culture. We are called haters, bigots, misogynists, and homophobes. Of course such reaction and rejection comes in part from ignorance. Our fellow Americans who hate us have created a caricature of the Christian, and constructed a straw man by their observation and ridicule of evangelical fundamentalism. Whatever the cause or source, current animosity is quite real and palpable in the media and the marketplace. We, though, are to act differently as Christ commands us:

You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Matthew 5: 43 – 48).

America and other countries of the West are divided nations. We are split on matters of politics, race, ethnicity. We of faith also experience the great divide between secularists and the faithful of Christianity. All of our contemporary cultural divisions create suspicion and enmity. Suspicion and enmity are not to be held in the minds of the faithful. As did the Catholic martyrs during the reign of Elizabeth I, we are (whenever possible) to exist in solidarity for this present, dark, and toxic culture — in spite of increasing hostility by this culture and government to Christianity. St. Paul offers this to us:

Now I urge you brothers to warn the idle, encourage the faint-hearted, help the weak, and be patient with all. Do not repay evil for evil, but always pursue the good — both for one another and for all. Rejoice always. Pray constantly. Give thanks in all things, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus (1 Thes 5: 14 – 18).

The Apostle calls for solidarity. This solidarity is to be applied even to those who persecute and seem as potential — even real — enemies. This was the strategy put forward by Pope John Paul II and other leaders of the Polish Solidarity Movement of the 1980s. This patient, persistent solidarity in the face of brutal persecution eventually toppled the communist government of Poland in 1989.

We must practice such a solidarity in our day as well. As a clinical pharmacist I take care of a wide variety of patients. Often they are very different from me, and hold quite divergent world views than held by me — many of them seemingly incompatible with Christianity. However, I put aside appearances, T-shirts, lapel pins, etc. The externals are put aside because all these patients bear the image of God. Thus, all are to be treated with dignity and respect. Cultural differences are dismissed by me as I enter into the appointment time with them. Conversely, from their perspective, many of them must see the icons of Christ and his Mother in the eastern corner of my office. They also see a photo of me in vestments with a chalice and spoon in my hands as I give communion to the faithful. By these my faith is declared visually. But my faith must be declared by action, no matter how insignificant it may seem at the time. If I win their trust by good and respectful care, humor, and a friendly demeanor, I have given them the need to reconsider any anti-Christian prejudice they may hold. This is a witness that cannot be played down — for argument rarely works, and it only reinforces held opinions against Christians and our faith.

To conclude, my fellow priests were still martyred, no matter how grace-filled their witness. They died horrible, cruel deaths. It is of note that many who saw their faithful, courageous witness in death converted to the Catholic faith. May our own lesser perseverances in our day win the minds and hearts of many!

In Christ,
Fr. Irenaeus

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