This year marks an anniversary for Catholics in Britain: 230 years since the first Catholic Relief Act. In 1778, the law banning Catholic worship and making it a capital offence to be a Catholic priest was relaxed for the first time since the reign of Elizabeth I.
For several years I worked at the House of Commons as secretary and research assistant to a Member of Parliament. My daily routine took me through an entrance just under Big Ben and, brandishing a special pass, I’d soon be in Westminster Hall.
And there, almost invariably, I’d stop. It was impossible not to do so. This great hall has stood since Norman times. In rounded arches beneath the hammer-beam roof are statues of our ancient kings. Here, with some interruptions — a fire in the 19th century, bomb damage the Second World War — the walls have echoed to great events in our nation’s life. Here, King Charles I was tried. Here the body of our last king-emperor, George VI, lay in state in 1952, and that of his Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill, in 1963. Here, in my own lifetime, Queen Elizabeth II received greetings from Parliament on her silver jubilee in 1977.
But for Catholics, this hall means much more. Here, our heroic martyrs spoke in defense of our Faith and heard the sentence announced of their deaths by the most hideous form of torture — to be hanged, drawn, and quartered after being dragged through the streets of London. Here, the great drama of English religious history was played out, word by word.
A plaque on the floor marks where Sir Thomas More, chancellor of England, stood at his trial in 1535. Anyone who has seen the film A Man for All Seasons will know the scene. All that has substantially changed since More’s trial is the great stained glass window at the rear. Erected after 1918, it carries the coats of arms of sons of members of the House of Lords who fell in the First World War. On a bright day, light filtering through the glowing colors throws bright gleams.
As chancellor, More was given the privilege of an execution on Tower Hill — the swiftness of a headsman’s axe rather than the horror of the butcher’s knife and the cauldron at Tyburn gallows. Not so St. Edmund Campion, whose name no plaque commemorates. He was a Jesuit, deemed a traitor because he had gone abroad to train as a priest, and returned to reconcile Christians in England with the universal Catholic Church under the successor of St. Peter. He was tried here, with fellow Jesuits St. Alexander Briant and St. Ralph Sherwin. When sentence was pronounced, Campion, who had been very severely tortured, could not raise his hand, as the law demanded, to acknowledge it. Ralph Sherwin took his mutilated hand, kissed it, and held it aloft for him.
All three of these heroic priests suffered at Tyburn. They leave their legacy behind. It was while working at Westminster that I first read Evelyn Waugh’s biography of Campion — and found it so gripping that I could not stop reading it, holding it on my lap beneath the desk. Later, I memorized the words of his glorious declaration at his trial: “In condemning us, you condemn all your own ancestors . . . all that was once the glory of England — the island of saints and the brightest jewel in the crown of St. Peter.” He spoke of the Catholic Faith that Englishmen had held and cherished for centuries, the Faith centered on a Church founded and established by Christ and not by any worldly king, the Faith that rested on Peter and his successors.
As my knowledge of London developed, I learned about the other landmarks a Catholic should cherish: the brass cross set in a traffic island at a road junction in Bayswater that marks the exact spot of Tyburn Gallows; the pub near Lincolns Inn Fields where Bishop Richard Challoner used to meet Catholics for secret catechism lessons; the church at Spanish Place that has its origins in an embassy chapel, in which Catholics could pray safely, as it was technically foreign soil.
Catholics in London today mostly don’t think about all this very much. We take our modern comfortable lives for granted like everyone else does. We have our churches and a great cathedral, built in the 1900s and now a standard part of the London scene. We go to Mass and meet friends there and have parish activities and complain about the hymns, and hold fundraising events for various projects like Catholics the world over.
But London holds its messages for us all the same. And today, as political pressure builds against the Church — criticism of our Catholic schools for being “fundamentalist” and not allowing certain forms of sex education, denunciations of Catholic-backed pro-life groups for “interfering” in the national debate about the creation of human/animal embryos — we remember. Centuries ago, we were set examples of valor that every subsequent generation of Catholics can — and must — honor and cherish.
The Faith was passed on to us at this huge cost, and must not now be betrayed.