SAINT HENRY MORSE – OUR PARISH SAINT
The courage, suffering and devotion of the 40 English Martyrs won for us the freedom to practise our Catholic faith. We are privileged and rejoice in our good fortune that one of the 40, Saint Henry Morse, was born in our parish in 1595 and martyred at Tyburn in 1645. This most extraordinary saint continues to inspire us, and our new church, completed in 2012, is dedicated to him. It is impossible to appraise his life without a good understanding of the times in which he lived. They were of long-lasting turbulence and violence.
THE EARLY DAYS
In 1534 Henry VIII, a devout Catholic monarch who had been given the title 'Defender of the Faith' by the Pope, decided to divorce his wife and remarry. This required the Pope's permission, but it was refused and the angry king took matters into his own hands. He declared himself 'Supreme Head of the Church' and instituted the Oath of Supremacy – which had to be taken by every person in the land. All who refused were persecuted and hunted down, from monasteries and churches, those in public life and ordinary people. This meant social exclusion, constant hounding and breaking up of communities and families.
There now followed a period of great upheaval for the Catholic Church, with extreme religious intolerance and cruelty which was to last more than 100 years. Government enforcers and their spies were relentless in hunting down Catholics and priests.
Among the first of the 40 Catholic martyrs were three Carthusian priors: John Houghton, Robert Lawrence and Augustine Webster who together travelled to London to seek a form of the Oath acceptable in conscience to their communities. Instead they were imprisoned in the Tower of London, found guilty of treason and hanged at Tyburn on May 5 1535.
In 1554, Mary I succeeded her father. Also a devoted Catholic, her supreme vision was to reverse his wrongs, but instead she became a tyrant when her reign of terror against Protestants began. Heretics and clergy were burned at the stake in great numbers so, not surprisingly, these acts of extreme cruelty led to anti-Catholic feeling for many years.
Simultaneously with these two reigns a powerful anti-Catholic movement of protest was gathering momentum in Catholic Europe. Instigated by a German theologian, Martin Luther, it had already gained a strong hold in England and was flourishing well.
In 1558 Mary's half-sister, Elizabeth, inherited a country divided by religion. One of her first duties was to resolve this problem by establishing Protestantism as the national religion, and so the Reformation was completed.
In 1595 Henry Morse was born at the home of his grandmother in Brome, Suffolk in the parish of Diss. He was the seventh son of Robert Morse, a well-to-do Protestant landowner who lived nearby with his wife and 14 children and who was known to have been in sympathy with the Catholic Church for years.
When Henry was 16 years old he went to study Law at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge and continued at Grays Inn, London. About this time his father died and, on 5 June 1614, Henry left for Douai Seminary, France where he found his older brother William studying for the priesthood. In a short time Henry was received into the Church and before long decided to become a priest. But the Seminary was not wealthy and those students who could were expected to support their training. So Henry decided to return to England to transfer his inheritance and to say farewell to his family before returning to Douai in the autumn to study.
He landed at Dover only to find that violently anti-Catholic town in the midst of a new purge and, following his refusal to take the Oath of Allegiance, he was arrested and put in Southwark gaol. He was just 19 years old. In the gaol he found many priests, among them a great number of Jesuits – the most hated of all. During his four-year incarceration his faith deepened and he remained determined and impatient to fulfil his intention to serve God and His people.
Henry was released when James I granted an amnesty to more than 100 priests, all of whom were sent into exile in France. This should have suited him well – except that he had lost much time. He was still not ordained and had not settled his estate or seen his family. He arrived in Douai in August 1618 – in time to see William, his older brother, now ordained, preparing to leave for England. The Seminary was now very overcrowded with students who had also escaped from England and some were despatched either to Rome or Spain. Henry, now 23 years old, was sent to the English College, Rome to begin his studies, which were to last six years. To hide his identity from spies he took the name Henry Claxon, by which he was to be known for the rest of his life.
A LIFE OF CARING AND SACRIFICE BEGINS
Henry was an excellent student of ardent faith and was ordained in Rome in 1624. He came under the guidance of the Jesuits and sought to join them but was advised to wait and start his studies in England. He was sent to St Anthony's Centre in Newcastle-upon-Tyne where the Jesuit priests ministered to local people, many of them coal miners and their families, and also to seamen arriving at the port.
The Centre was home to a Catholic widow Dorothy Lawson, who had built a chapel and a house for the priests who said masses, gave religious instruction and supported their parishioners in their hard lives. The authorities were well aware of these activities but turned a blind eye, fearing they might have a riot if an attempt was made to close it down.
Later that year the first attack of the northern plague occurred in Newcastle, caused by an invasion of black rats arriving on board boats from the continent and carrying the deadly rat flea. Those affected became very ill and many died, and Henry and his fellow priests nursed them all.
The following year brought a resurgence of persecution of Catholics, and priests in particular. Having already been exiled this meant deep trouble for Henry. Eventually he was arrested and put in Newcastle gaol, and later transferred to York Prison, said to be the worst in the country, with no ventilation or light, and often flooded. Here he found the inmates desperately sick and, with another Jesuit priest, John Robinson, worked tirelessly to relieve suffering among the sick and dying. As before masses were said and instruction given, and many were converted to Catholicism – facts which, amazingly, were kept secret, showing the great esteem in which the priests were held.
Henry had not had time to begin the Spiritual Exercises fundamental to his Jesuit training. So now Fr Robinson was assigned the task of instructing him, and gave him 30 days of absolute solitude to complete his studies. But in 1630 at York Assizes Henry was again exiled and returned to Belgium where he was despatched to care for English and Irish soldiers fighting on the borders and attached to the Spanish army there. This arduous work took an immense toll on Henry's already fragile health and he became so ill he was not expected to survive. But he was nursed back to health by the devoted care of his fellow priests and after some time he returned to England to resume work in the St Giles-in-the-Fields area.
Two years later, in 1635, the London plague broke out, introduced as before by black rats arriving on boats from the plague-stricken Flanders area. For years the population had suffered from boils and carbuncles and so the outward signs of the plague caused no alarm, being indistinguishable from typhus. Slowly the plague gained ground and when the warmer weather came the infection increased, soon reaching epidemic proportions.
Quarantine was imposed at channel ports, but proved ineffective. Medical opinion was totally ignorant of the cause and eventually decided the infection was air-borne. Wood fires were lit but only served to pollute the already foul atmosphere more. Conditions for the poor inhabitants were impossible to imagine and ensuing unemployment brought lawlessness, misery and starvation. Catholics dared not come forward to nurse their own for fear of reprisals so the work fell to the Catholic priests in their area.
Meanwhile rubbish piled up providing ideal breeding grounds for the black rats. At St Giles-in-the-Fields conditions were pitiful and the poor starving victims living in slum tenements, or worse in wooden shacks on marshland, had no defences against such a virulent infection and died in their thousands.
THE PRIEST OF THE PLAGUE
It was to St Giles-in-the-Fields that the Jesuit Superior appointed Henry to organise care and ministry to the stricken inhabitants. No Catholics appeared on parish registers and therefore were excluded from plague relief, so the Jesuits made a countrywide appeal for funds to buy food and medicines. A good response came from both Catholics and Protestants. Henry's team included fellow Jesuit John Southworth and a small group of well-trained Catholic doctors whose special work was to lance carbuncles and boils. All worked unceasingly, washing fevered bodies, changing dressings and bringing what comfort they could. A desperate shortage of nurses made their work even harder as they laboured hours on end in the face of continued harassment by the authorities.
Whatever their denomination Henry treated the sick equally and he made many converts. Exact numbers are not known but those working alongside him attributed these conversions to the impressive example of his great devotion to God and his fellow man. It is not surprising that Henry himself became ill with symptoms of the plague. His Catholic friend Dr Thomas Turner begged him to take time off but after only five nights' rest he was working as usual by day and night.
About this time his co-worker Fr Southworth was arrested and later imprisoned for proselytising among the sick, leaving Henry alone and particularly vulnerable at night as he went through the black streets bringing the Blessed Sacrament to the dying. With spies everywhere he was at times forced to swallow the host to prevent its desecration.
Having not recovered completely from the first attack Henry once more felt the plague symptoms upon him, this time severely. His Superior demanded he stop all work, telling him he was asking for prayers to be said all across the city for his recovery. Upon reading his letter, Henry's illness reached its crisis and his recovery started that instant, and he quickly regained his strength. All those around him were amazed at this most unusual rapid turn his health had taken and spoke of it as miraculous.
After many months the plague abated and mercifully the numbers of deaths declined. But Henry's troubles were far from over as, sometime after, he was once again pursued and imprisoned.
HENRY MORSE IS MARTYRED AT TYBURN
In late January 1645 while being held in Newgate Prison, Henry Morse was found guilty of treason without a trial, solely for being a Catholic priest. According to Parliament this was sufficient to warrant the death penalty to be carried out at Tyburn four days hence.
His last days were filled with streams of visitors who came to give their support and receive his blessing, including European ambassadors and a group from Rome. But what must have lifted Henry's spirits most were the hundreds of ordinary citizens gathered outside the prison walls from early morning until late at night. The whole crowd – among them Jesuit priests and survivors of the plague who had come to support their hero – seemed unconcerned at the great risk they were taking in exposing their Catholicism. There could have been no greater tribute to the saintliness of Henry's devotion to the priesthood.
On the evening before his execution he said his last Mass and received his final visitors – his own brothers, fellow priests and personal friends – with such affability and calm that all were greatly moved, and commented that “there is nothing belonging to the world in his expression”. It was most fortunate that this special quality was captured in a portrait painted by a Mr Gifford, a fellow Catholic prisoner.
At 9 o'clock next morning the Sheriff came to take Henry to Tyburn. On hearing of his arrival Henry knelt and thanked God for the relief he felt. Then he was taken into the street and tied to a hurdle and drawn by four horses through the city streets to the gallows. He mounted the platform and the noose was put around this neck.
On being granted permission to speak he began: “The Kingdom of England will never be truly blessed until it returns to the Catholic Apostolic Faith under its head the Bishop of Rome … All glory I ascribe to God who was pleased to make use of such a weak instrument, and I therefore pray that my death may be some kind of atonement for the sins of this Kingdom and if I had as many lives as sands on the seashore I would willingly lay them down for this end to testify to the truth of the Catholic faith.”
He then asked God's forgiveness for his sins and finished: “In manus tuas, Domine, commendo spiritum meum.” (Into your hands, Lord, I commend my spirit.)
The cart was then moved, the noose tightened and Henry was left to hang, mercifully until he had died, before the barbaric ritual of drawing and quartering began. A tribute from a witness at the time states: “In the presence of an almost infinite multitude of people looking on in silence of deep emotion Fr Henry Morse, a saviour of life into life, died.” His remains were hung on the city gates, this being the ignominious end accorded traitors. And so ended the life of our parish saint, Henry Morse, on February 1 1645, in his 50th year.
The 40 martyrs of England and Wales were canonised on October 25 1970 by Pope Paul VI.
This short version of the life of our parish saint was taken from the book Priest of the Plague by Fr Philip Caraman SJ, published in 1952 by Longman, now out of print but still in circulation. Please ask if you would like to borrow my copy.
When I first started researching the life of St Henry in 1999 I found that his archives were held in the Carmelite Convent at St Mawgan in Cornwall. On writing to the Reverend Mother she was very pleased to hear that the parish of his birthplace was promoting awareness of him and his life, and offered to help. Among items she sent was a photocopy of the picture painted in prison by Mr Gifford, a fellow prisoner, some days before Henry's death.
I showed the picture to a friend of mine, Dr Eric Eckersley, who was most intrigued to hear that a Catholic saint had been born near his home. He borrowed the picture and some months later I received a beautiful present he had made for me in stained glass of St Henry. After a few months of enjoying my picture I decided to give it to our parish, which I think is its rightful place. It now hangs in our new church, dedicated to St Henry.
Devotions to St Henry are said every Saturday morning at 9.40am where the Rosary is said before Mass. All are invited to join us.
PRAYER TO ST HENRY
Bless our parish, St Henry, that in our own times we may give fearless witness to the Catholic Faith. May we be inspired by your good works and unfailing sacramental ministry in the celebration of Mass and the absolution of the dying.
Grant that we might have that same conviction and clarity of thought to pierce the confused mists of our age with the light of truth that shone in your mind and radiated out through the works of your hands.
May we learn to give comfort to those who have been afflicted by the modern plagues of doubt and despair. Let us lead them, by your glorious example, to a sure knowledge of Christ, our Lord, for love of whom you so willingly surrendered your life.
We make our prayer through that same Christ, Our Lord. Amen.