Roman Frescoes and the English Martyrs

When considering candidates for sainthood, the custom in the Church is to consider evidence in support of the candidate's sanctity and exercise of virtue to a heroic degree; various miracles posthumously performed are also required, varying in number throughout the history of the Church depending on circumstances. In the case of martyrdom, however, the most important point to establish is not necessarily miracles or a life of heroic virtue, but the fact of martyrdom - that is, it has to be established beyond any doubt that the candidate (1) was in fact directly put to death, and (2) that this death was suffered on account of some point of the faith. This can seem pretty straightforward, but meeting the criteria can be surprisingly demanding in situations where no documentary evidence was kept of the martyrdom, or when much time has elapsed. The case of the martyrs of the English reformation is a classic example.

The cases of the English martyrs killed during the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI and Elizabeth (1534-1603) provide certain challenges from a documentary standpoint, making it very difficult to establish with certainty the fact of martyrdom.

First, the legal proscription of Catholicism in England from 1534 to emancipation in 1829 means that it was not always possible to carry out investigations into the causes of these martyrs. In the times when harboring a priest was a capital crime and even attending Mass punishable by a fine of 1600 shillings, carrying out these investigations under proper canonical form was simply not possible. Free and open inquiry into the cases of the English martyrs and access to the documentation regarding their deaths was not available until the restoration of the English hierarchy in 1850, by which time over three centuries had elapsed since the time of most of the martyrs.

Second, because the persecution of the Catholic Church in England was carried out under a fundamentally political program, those convicted and punished under the penal laws are often listed as cases of 'treason' or 'conspiracy' in the official records, which are often the only records. Though we know that the threat of Catholic conspiracies was extremely overblown and many "plots" were even fabricated (the Titus Oates Plot, for example), there were nevertheless certain Catholics who were involved in clandestine political activities. The result is that it is very difficult to tell the exact details when both organizing a political conspiracy and simply saying Mass are both classified as "treason" in the official record.

Finally, in many cases, there was no official record kept whatsoever, making reconstructing events extremely difficult. The reason for this has to do with the means employed by Henry VIII and his successors in suppressing the religious houses. When Henry ordered the dissolution of the minor monasteries in 1536, the actual act of inspecting the monasteries, cataloging their treasures and passing judgment on them was farmed out to a class of commissioners under the authority of Thomas Cromwell. These commissioners were often little more than hired thugs, employed by the crown to do an unpleasant but lucrative job. Commissioners were often compensated based on how much treasure they could procure from a monastery, or sometimes were allowed a slice of the loot themselves - or more often than not, helped themselves to the loot even when not allowed. Thus, even though the order of dissolution was grounded in royal law, the manner in which it was carried out was very underhanded, as those charged with judging which monasteries fell under the royal ban also profited if a positive verdict was rendered. The commissioners were judge, jury and executioner in a system which gave monetary rewards for guilty verdicts.

Thus, it was not uncommon that monasteries should be dissolved and their abbots charged with "treason" when in fact they did not fall under the royal ban. This occurred no doubt when commissioners wanted the plunder but could find no legal technicality under which to dissolve a religious house. When all else failed, abbots could always be loosely accused of treason, quickly dispatched, the house dissolved and the treasures plundered. Some of this loot would make its way up to Cromwell, and a good deal to the crown, thus guaranteeing no protest from London. In these sorts of situations, when the motive was pure plunder without even the facade of any legal backing, no records were kept at all. The matter was handled quickly and quietly, and even contemporaries had a hard time discerning the truth, let alone churchmen three centuries later looking to establish the facts of a martyrdom.

A classic case of this last problem are the three Benedictine abbots of Glastonbury, Reading and Colchester, all put to death quietly for treason in 1539 and all of which lack any official documentation.

This, then, is a brief summary of some of the difficulties the restored Catholic hierarchy of England faced when it first began to push for the causes of the English martyrs. Despite the English Church's admirable desire to raise many of its heroic sons to the altars, the Sacred Congregation for Rites was characteristically slow-moving and skeptical of proceeding to beatification when so much documentary evidence was lacking. In fact, when the English hierarchy sent off the available documentation on 353 martyrs Rome in 1880, 76 applications were rejected for lack of sufficient historical evidence. These rejected martyrs are known as dilati, those whose cases are referred back to the Ordinary for insufficient evidence.

But was this lack of documentation the roadblock it appeared to be? It is well known that many martyrs were venerated as saints prior to the institution of the canonization process, and that many of the martyrs of the Roman period enjoy universal veneration, even mention in the Roman Canon, despite the lack of any documentary evidence. This is due to the Church's admissibility of so-called "equipollent evidence."

Equipollent evidence (aequi = "equal", pollere, "to be strong") is evidence of martyrdom of a non-documentary nature that can be admitted when documentary evidence is lacking. By longstanding tradition, equipollent evidence in the case of a martyr means proof of a cult going back at least one hundred years prior to the opening of the martyr's cause. This proof is usually liturgical (local feasts, records of homilies in praise of martyrs, hymns) and sometimes architectural (shrines, art, etc). It was on this sort of evidence that the martyrs of the Roman persecutions were venerated; for example, St. Lawrence, martyred around 258, is venerated in poems written by Pope Damasus (366-84) and Prudentius (c. 390), is eulogized in the works of St. Ambrose, and had a church built over his tomb by Constantine and Pope Sixtus III (432-440). The celebration of his feast day almost universally on August 10th is attested from 354. All of this evidence is equipollent and serves to provide proof of cult.

But was such evidence available in the case of many of the English martyrs? If there were liturgical celebrations, they were necessarily carried out in secret due to the penal laws. Chapels? Again, due to the penal laws, formal chapels dedicated to specific martyrs would not be found in Henrician and Elizabethan England, as Mass was usually said secretly in the family rooms of manor houses. Art? The Henrician and Elizabethan persecutions were certainly no time for Catholics to create art that publicly venerated the martyrs of the Reformation. Even had such art existed, the iconoclasts of Cramner would have destroyed it. Thus, it seemed as though the existence of equipollent evidence of many English martyrdoms was just as elusive as the documentary evidence. Would many of the English martyrs forever remain unrecognized dilati?

The push for beatification of the English martyrs had begun in 1866 with a request from Cardinal Wiseman for the Holy See to establish a single feast day commemorating all of the English martyrs. The Sacred Congregation would not permit this, however, owing to the paucity of documentary evidence surrounding many of the cases. Various attempts were made again in 1871, 1874, and 1880 to get around this problem, but by 1881 almost a quarter of the English martyrs were still classed as dilati, and even those cases which were not seemed stalled.

Then, in 1880, the Promotor Fidei (Devil's Advocate) in the causes of the English martyrs was made aware of some extraordinary evidence of cult (equipollent evidence). This evidence was not found in England but, surprisingly enough, in Rome.

Following the overthrow of the Catholic religion in England, Cardinal William Allen founded the famous English College in Rome in 1579 for the purpose of training English and Welsh priests for the English missions. Many of the students of the seminary subsequently would join the ranks of the English martyrs. In 1880, the rector of the College was Msgr. Henry O'Callaghan who called attention to the existence in the College of a series of frescoes depicting the sufferings of the English martyrs. The history of the frescoes was well documented: they were painted between 1580-1582 by Italian artist Nicholas Ciciniani and paid for by a Mr. George Gilbert, a personal friend of St. Edmund Campion. The frescoes depict traditional English martyrs such as St. Dunstan and St. Thomas Becket, but they also include depictions of the Reformation era martyrs such as More, Fisher and many others.

Even more telling was the existence of an inscription on the frescoes which read, "Martyr saints, who in ancient or more recent times of persecution have suffered in England for Christ and for the defense of the Catholic faith." The titles "saint" and "blessed" appear on many of the depictions. Furthermore, contemporary letters were discovered describing the frescoes as being made at the request of Pope Gregory XIII (1572-1585). This was extremely strong evidence of proof of cult, going back almost to the times of the martyrdoms and including a papal sanction.

In 1886, Pope Leo XIII summoned a special session of the Sacred Congregation to reconsider the causes of the English martyrs. In light of the equipollent evidence of cult provided by the frescoes, the Promotor Fidei recommended proceeding with the causes, and the Congregation agreed. On December 9, 1886, Leo XIII signed the commission for the introduction of the cause of 261 martyrs, officially establishing them as venerabiles. On the same day, and as a direct result of the Roman frescoes, 54 additional martyrs were upgraded from dilati to venerabiles, based on the fact that there was clear evidence of public ecclesiastical honor. Many of these would eventually move onto beatification and canonization; the three Benedictine abbots of Glastonbury, Reading and Colchester, mentioned above, were among those depicted in the frescoes who were subsequently beatified.

Unfortunately, the original Roman frescoes of the English College no longer exist, having been destroyed in the late 18th century; even at the time of the beatifications, the Promotor Fidei and the Sacred Congregation were working from copies of the frescoes preserved by subsequent generations of artists. The story of the Roman frescoes demonstrates how Catholic art, besides being used to educate and inspire, can be a powerful historical testimony.

Below are some copies of a few of the English frescoes, painted by early 18th century artist John Baptist Cavalieri:



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