Today’s Catholics, whose religious liberties—to say nothing of their lives—are under threat from antagonistic secularist and Islamic governments have a courageous compatriot in the Elizabethan priest-martyr Cuthbert Mayne (1544-1570), whose feast day is November 29.
When Mayne was born, King Henry VIII, who had broken England’s communion with the Holy Father in 1535. His son and successor, Edward VI (1547-1553), had persisted in the schism. Edward’s successor was his Catholic sister Mary (1553-1558), who restored England to the Catholic Church. Mary’s death, however, ended the prospects of a Catholic England. At the beginning of her reign, her sister Queen Elizabeth I (1558-1603), a Protestant, reversed Mary’s restoration of Catholicism. The Act of Supremacy of 1558 had reestablished Elizabeth as head of the English church, and the Act of Uniformity of 1559 had made Archbishop Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer the only lawful liturgical book in England. Like her father Henry VIII, Elizabeth brooked little opposition. Catholic priests who had been educated and ordained at William Allen’s seminary for English priests at Douai, in Belgium, particularly incensed her regime. Priests who had been in the country during the reign of Mary (1553-1558) were grudgingly permitted their lives; émigré priests, however, were hunted down and disembowelled.
The religious reign of terror of the regime forced the vast majority of Englishmen, Catholic though they were in their religious preferences, to conform to the “Elizabethan Religious Settlement.” Pockets of Catholics nonetheless soldiered on. As the scholarship of Eamon Duffy shows very clearly, Cuthbert Mayne’s native shire of Devon was particularly loyal to Catholic Christianity. Mayne was raised by an uncle, a priest who had conformed to Anglicanism. Mayne was likewise ordained a priest of the Anglican Church at about eighteen years of age. After ordination, he studied at Oxford University. By 1570, Mayne had received a Master of Arts degree, and in the meantime made the acquaintance of Edmund Campion, a Jesuit. Campion and other Catholics at Oxford had made a deep impression on Mayne, who came to believe in the truth of Catholic Christianity.
From the new seminary for English Catholic priests at Douai, in Belgium, Campion wrote and encouraged Mayne to emigrate and study there for the priesthood. In 1573, Mayne was formally received into the Catholic Church, and became a seminarian. By 1576 he was ordained, and became the fifteenth of the Douai priests to return to England. A Catholic estate-owner by the name of Francis Tregian accepted Mayne as a member of his household. Mayne served outwardly as Tregian’s steward, while secretly ministering as priest. Protestant locals must have grown suspicious and reported the possibility of a Catholic priest in Tregian’s household to the authorities, and pursuivants, as Elizabeth’s secret religious police were known, arrested Mayne for having a copy of the Agnus dei written on a parchment he wore around his neck. Late medieval English Catholics often wore prayers around the neck, as protection against sin and misfortune, a practice Protestants despised as superstition.
The conditions of Mayne’s imprisonment were appalling. Since the case against him was weak, prosecutors were in no hurry to file formal charges against him. In the end, was indicted for “crimes” he had committed while a prisoner. The government accused Mayne of advocating for the papal supremacy among his fellow prisoners, and of having celebrated the Mass in his cell. Irregularities of procedure plagued the case against Mayne, but the government was determined to take his life, and the court condemned him to death. The day before his execution, the government offered to spare his life in exchange for acknowledgement of the queen’s supremacy. Mayne said that the queen was never, and would never be, head of the Christian church in England.
The following day, Mayne was hanged for about one minute, cut down still alive, and butchered. Pope Paul VI canonized him in 1970. No one whom Mayne, the first of the Elizabethan priest-martyrs, received into the Catholic Church ever relapsed. Not even persecution could rob his ministry of its fruits.