Skip to main content Accessibility help

Consolation on Golgotha: Comforters and Sustainers of Dying Priests in England, 1580–1625



The act of comforting soon-to-be executed martyrs was a collective and participatory affair in early modern England, but it was Catholics’ consolation of dying priests that resonated with a sacramental and doctrinal meaning all its own. This article seeks to highlight the late medieval traditions as well as contemporary Tridentine practices that infused such acts of comfort, particularly as they were negotiated in a time of Catholic persecution and upheaval. Of prime importance in instructing consolers, however, was Ignatius of Loyola's Spiritual exercises, which, as this essay argues, provided a guidebook for behaviour and an answer to suffering for priests and followers alike.



Hide All

1 Clare Gittings, Death, burial and the individual in early modern England, London 1984, 102; Bruce Gordon and Peter Marshall (eds), The place of the dead: death and remembrance in late medieval and early modern Europe, Cambridge 2000, esp. pp. 4–5.

2 Dillon, Anne, ‘Praying by number: the Confraternity of the Rosary and the English Catholic community, c. 1580–1700’, History lxxxvii (2003), 451–71.

3 Christopher Haigh, ‘The continuity of Catholicism in the English Reformation’, in Christopher Haigh (ed.), The English Reformation revised, Cambridge 1987; John Bossy, The English Catholic community, London 1975.

4 Marie Rowlands, ‘Hidden people: Catholic commoners, 1558–1625’, in M. B. Rowlands (ed.), Catholics of parish and town, 1558–1778, Durham 1999.

5 Walsham, Alexandra, ‘Translating Trent?: English Catholicism and the Counter-Reformation’, Historical Research lxxviii (2005), 304.

6 Peter Lake and Michael Questier, ‘Agency, appropriation and rhetoric under the gallows: Puritans, romanists, the state in early modern England’, Past and Present cliii (Nov. 1996), 64–107. See also Michael Questier, ‘“Like locusts over all the world”: conversion, indoctrination and the Society of Jesus in late Elizabethan and Jacobean England’, in Thomas McCoog (ed.), The reckoned expense: Edmund Campion and the early English Jesuits, London 1996, 265–84.

7 John Morris (ed.), The troubles of our Catholic forefathers, London 1877, 38.

8 Catholic Record Society Miscellanea xxxii (1932), 404–5.

9 Unpublished documents relating to the English martyrs, ed. J. H. Pollen, London 1908, i. 61.

10 Anthony Munday, A discouerie of Edmund Campion and his confederates, London 1582 (STC 18270). In addition, numerous instances of suicides by Catholic priests were recorded: Catholic Record Society Miscellanea xxxii (1932), 410.

11 Bernard Basset, The English Jesuits, London 1967, 123.

12 See, for example, Mary C. O'Connor, The art of dying well: the development of the ars moriendi, New York 1942, ch. i.

13 Nancy Lee Beaty, The craft of dying: a study in the literary tradition of the ars moriendi, New Haven 1970.

14 Atkinson, David W., ‘The English ars moriendi: its Protestant transformation’, Renaissance and Reformation vi (1982), 110.

15 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian religion, trans. Henry Beveridge, Grand Rapids, Mi 1989, ‘Of faith’, bk iii, ch. ii, section 31 at pp. 495–7; section 12 at pp. 479–81. See also Snyder, Susan, ‘The left hand of God: despair in medieval and renaissance tradition’, Studies in the Renaissance xii (1965), 18 59, and Pincuss, G. M., ‘“The heavenly comforts of despair” and Measure for measure’, Studies in English Literature xxx (1990), esp. pp. 303–5.

16 Victor Houliston. ‘Why Robert Persons would not be pacified in Edmund Bunny's theft of The book of resolution’, in McCoog, Reckoned expense, 159–78.

17 For a discussion of Persons and the ars moriendi tradition see Beaty, Craft of dying, ch. iv.

18 Robert Southwell, An epistle of comfort, ed. Margaret Waugh, Chicago 1966, 3. See also Nancy Pollard Brown, ‘Robert Southwell: the mission of the written word’, in McCoog, Reckoned expense, esp. pp. 200–4.

19 Southwell, Epistle of comfort, 223.

20 Ibid. 29, 177–8.

21 Susannah Brietz Monta, Martyrdom and literature in early modern England, Cambridge 2005, 120, 124.

22 Unpublished documents, i. 87.

23 Ignatius of Loyola, The spiritual exercises of St Ignatius, trans. George E. Ganss, Chicago 1992, 126–9.

24 See David Lonsdale, Eyes to see, ears to hear, Chicago 1990, 73–6.

25 Southwell, Epistle of comfort, 89v.

26 Records of the English province of the Society of Jesus: historic facts illustrative of the labours and sufferings of its members in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, ed. Henry Foley, London 1877–83, i. 173.

27 Unpublished documents, i. 87.

28 Lonsdale, Eyes to see, 119–20.

29 Records of the English province (1877), 50.

30 Scott R. Pilarz, Robert Southwell and the mission of literature, 1561–1595, Brookfield, Vt 2004, 201.

31 See Mitchell Merback, The thief, the cross and the wheel: pain and the spectacle of punishment in medieval and renaissance Europe, Chicago 1999, 142–8. See also Acts of English martyrs, ed. J. H. Pollen, London 1891, 161.

32 Pincuss, ‘“Heavenly comforts of despair”’, 303–13; Hawkins, Harriet, ‘Measure for Measure and the art of not dying’, Texas Studies in Language and Literature xxvi (1984), 7493.

33 Diarmaid MacCulloch, The Reformation: a history, New York 2005, 16–26.

34 Philippe Ariès, The hour of our death, New York 1981, 186.

35 Samuel Edgerton, Pictures and punishment, Ithaca, NY 1985, ch. v. See also Christopher F. Black, Italian confraternities in the sixteenth century, Cambridge 1989, 217–19.

36 See Eamon Duffy, The stripping of the altars: traditional religion in England, 2nd edn, New Haven 2005, 141–54.

37 See Clive Burgess, ‘“Longing to be prayed for”: death and commemoration in an English parish in the later Middle Ages’, in Gordon and Marshall, The place of the dead, 44–65.

38 James R. Banker, Death in the community: Memorialization and confraternities in an Italian commune in the late Middle Ages, Athens, Ga 1988, 51.

39 Burgess, ‘“Longing to be prayed for”’, 44–65.

40 David J. F. Crouch, Play, fraternity and power: religious guilds in late medieval Yorkshire, 1389–1547, York 2000, 170–1.

41 Ibid. ch. vi.

42 Ibid. 225–36.

43 On Devereux see Bettie Anne Doebler, ‘Rooted sorrow’: dying in early modern England, Rutherford, NJ 1994, ch. ii.

44 R. Po-Chia Hsia, The world of Catholic renewal, 1540–1770, Cambridge 1998, 202–3. See also Michael A. Mullett, The Catholic Reformation, London 1999.

45 Robert Bireley, The refashioning of Catholicism, 1450–1700, London 1999, 115–16.

46 Po-Chia Hsia, World of Catholic renewal, 204–5.

47 Joseph de Guibert, The Jesuits: their spiritual doctrine and practice, trans. George E. Ganss, St Louis 1964, 176–81.

48 John O'Malley, Religious culture in the sixteenth century: preaching, rhetoric, spirituality and reform, Burlington, Vt 1993, 5.

49 Quoted from Lonsdale, Eyes to see, 19–20.

50 Capuchins were also known for their comforting work: MacCulloch, Reformation, 218, 323.

51 For comforter manuals in Italy see Kathleen Falvey, ‘Early dramatic traditions and comforting rituals: some initial considerations’, in Konrad Eisenbichler (ed.), Crossing the boundaries: Christian piety and the arts in Italian medieval and renaissance confraternities, Kalamazoo 1991, 34–43.

52 John O'Malley, The first Jesuits, Cambridge, Ma 1993, 174–8.

53 Idem, Religious culture, 17–19. See also William V. Bangert and Thomas M. McCoog, Jerome Nadal, 1507–1580, Chicago 1992, 46–9.

54 Peter Lake and Michael Questier, ‘Agency and appropriation at the foot of the gallows: Catholics (and Puritans) confront (and constitute) the English state’, in The Anti-Christ's lewd hat: Protestants, Puritans and papists, New Haven 2002, 266.

55 Lisa McClain, Lest we be damned: practical innovation and lived experience among Catholics in Protestant England, 1559–1642, New York 2004, 144–7.

56 For cases of prison conversions see, for example, Records of the English province, iv. 56.

57 Apart from jailers themselves, quasi-official individuals were expected to chaperone and keep watch over the prisoner in his last hours of imprisonment. Specifically employed for their task, their function was not to comfort but rather to ensure against the priest's suicide, which was unlikely, or his escape: Woodward, Donald, ‘“Here comes a chopper to chop off his head”: the execution of three priests at Newcastle and Gateshead, 1592–1594’, Recusant History xxii (1994), 16.

58 Luisa de Carvajal merits special note not only for the aid she provided – in her will she bequeathed 14,000 ducats for the founding of a novitiate of English religious, which would lead to the establishment, under Robert Persons, of a seminary at Louvain – but also for her direct involvement in the collection and transmission of relics: Margaret A. Rees, The writings of Doña Luisa de Carvajal y Mendoza, Catholic missionary to James I's London, Lewiston, NY 2002, introduction.

59 Acts of English martyrs, 169–70.

60 Ibid. 162–3.

61 See Katherine Eisaman Maus, Inwardness and theater in the English Renaissance, Chicago 1995. See also Ramie Targoff, Common prayer: the language of public devotion in early modern England, Chicago 2001, ch. i.

62 Samuel Clarke, The marrow of ecclesiastical history, London 1650 (Wing C4545), 417–18.

63 Acts of English martyrs, 342.

64 Life and martyrdom of Mr. Maxfield, priest 1616, ed. J. H Pollen (Catholic Record Society iii, 1906), 30–58.

65 Lives of the English martyrs, ed. Bede Camm, London 1904, ii. 231.

66 Ibid. ii. 260.

67 See Basset, The English Jesuits, 113.

68 Acts of English martyrs, 318.

69 Prominent women such as Anne Vaux, the countess of Arundel, Lady Montague and Gertrude Ward also harboured fugitive priests: Arthur F. Marotti, ‘Alienating Catholics in early modern England: recusant women, Jesuits and ideological fantasies’, in Arthur F. Marotti (ed.), Catholicism and anti-Catholicism in early modern English texts, New York 1999, 3–34.

70 John Mush, ‘A true report of the life and martyrdom of Mrs Margaret Clitherow’, in Morris, Troubles of our Catholic forefathers, 331–440. See also Anne Dillon, The construction of martyrdom in the English Catholic community, 1535–1603, Aldershot 2002, 277–322.

71 John Dauncey, The history of the thrice illustrious princess Henrietta Maria de Bourbon, queen of England, London 1660 (Wing D293). See also Dolan, Frances E., ‘Gender and the “Lost' spaces of Catholicism”’, Journal of Interdisciplinary History xxxii (2002), 72.

72 McCann, Timothy J., ‘Some unpublished accounts of the martyrdom of Blessed Thomas Bullaker O.S.F. of Chichester in 1642’, Recusant History xviiii (1988), 178.

73 Acts of English martyrs, 310.

74 Bireley, Refashioning of Catholicism, 118.

75 Unpublished documents, i. 286.

76 See, for example, Henriette Peters, Mary Ward: a world in contemplation, trans. Helen Butterworth, Leominster 1994, and Jeanne Cover, Love the driving force: Mary Ward's spirituality: its significance for moral theology, Milwaukee 1997.

77 Acts of English martyrs, 342.

78 Equally telling was one gentleman, who ‘like Veronica in another Via Dolorosa, most courteously wiped his face, all splattered with mire and dirt, “for which charity,” says the priest who saw the deed, “may God reward and bless him”’: ibid. 351.

79 See Thomas McCoog, ‘“Sparrows on a rooftop”: “How we live where we live” in Elizabethan England’, in T. M. Lucas (ed.), Spirit story: essays honoring John W. Padburg, S.J., Chicago 2002, 237–64.

80 See Walsham, ‘Translating Trent,’ 295–6.

81 Ibid. 167–8.

82 John Gerard, The autobiography of a hunted priest, trans. Philip Caraman, New York 1965, 49–50.

83 Louis Martz, The poetry of meditation, New Haven 1954, esp. ch. v. See also Pierre Janelle, Robert Southwell the writer, London 1971, ch. vi.

84 When Crashaw thus wrote of tears in metallurgical terms as molten ‘warm silver show'rs’ or ‘her richest pearles, I mean thy tears’, he was not simply evoking metaphysical incongruities or conceits, but summoning the language, however jarring, appropriate to tears as a transformative, alchemical and grace-imbued substance – or, in Richard Rambuss's words, ‘metaphorizing spiritual processes and truths into viscerally charged somatic displays or emblems’. As Rambuss has argued, against Barbara Lewalski and others, Crashaw's rhetorical extremes in this and other poems capture a kind of ‘baroque vertigo’ that reflects the ‘weird and lurid’ qualities embedded within Christianity itself; moreover, tears for the poet have not merely material or bodily qualities but spiritual and intellectual aspects too, uniting them all in a fully incarnational manner: ‘Sacred subjects and the aversive metaphysical conceit’, English Literary History lvvii (2004), 497–530.

85 Alison Shell, Catholicism, controversy and the English literary imagination, 1558–1660, Cambridge 1999, esp. pp. 77–92.

86 See, for example, Robert Persons, Letters and memorials of Father Robert Persons, ed. L. Hicks, London 1942, 133.

87 Diane Apostolos-Cappadona, ‘“Pray with tears and your request will find a hearing”: on the iconology of the Magdalene's tears’, in Kimberley Christine Patton and John Stratton Hawley (eds), Holy tears: weeping in the religious imagination, Princeton 2004, 205–8.

88 Gerard, Autobiography, 147.

89 Craig Monson. ‘Byrd, Catholics, and the motet: the hearing reopened’, in Dolores Pesce (ed.), Hearing the motet, Oxford 1997, 348–74; Joseph Kerman, ‘William Byrd and Elizabethan Catholicism’, in Write all these down: essays on music, Berkeley 1994, 77–89.

90 Robert Southwell, Marie Magdalens funeral teares, London 1591 (RSTC 22950), sig. F7.

91 Ignatius, Spiritual exercises, 122.

92 Lake and Questier, ‘Agency and appropriation’, 229.

93 Morris, Troubles of our Catholic forefathers, 331–440.

94 Unpublished documents, 147.

95 See McClain, Lest we be damned, 155–6.

96 Walsham, Alexandra, ‘Miracles and the Counter-Reformation mission to England’, HJ xxxxvi (2003), 779–99.

97 Records of the English province, i. 55–7.

98 Unpublished documents, i. 207.

99 Acts of English martyrs, 169.

100 Ibid. 326.

101 See Alison Shell, ‘“We are made a spectacle”: Campion's dramas’, in McCoog, Reckoned expense, 103–18.

102 Lake and Questier, ‘Agency and appropriation’, 249–54.

103 Records of the English province, 52.

104 Acts of English martyrs, 360.

105 Basset, The English Jesuits, 119.

106 Gerard, Autobiography, 123.

107 See Thomas McCoog, The Society of Jesus in England, Ireland, and Scotland, Leiden 1996, 274.

108 Pilarz, Robert Southwell, 185; McCoog, The Society of Jesus, 132.

109 See John O'Malley, ‘Early Jesuit spirituality: Spain and Italy’, in Louis Dupré and Don E. Saliers (eds), Christian spirituality, III: Post-Reformation and modern, New York 1989, 15–17.

110 Records of the English province, ii. 47.

111 Acts of English martyrs, 357.

112 Ibid. 343.

113 Ibid. 166–7.

114 See John O'Malley, John W. Padberg and Vincent O'Keefe (eds), Jesuit spirituality: a now and future resource, Chicago 1990, 5.

115 See Ignatius, Spiritual exercises, 54.

116 Dillon, ‘Praying by number’, 464.

117 Acts of English martyrs, 320. See also Peter Marshall, Beliefs and the dead in Reformation England, Oxford 2002, 244–5.

The author would like to thank Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch and the participants in his seminar on the English Reformation, sponsored by the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC, in June of 2004, when an early version of this article was given.

Consolation on Golgotha: Comforters and Sustainers of Dying Priests in England, 1580–1625



Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed