Roger Line of Ringwood in Hampshire, England, was a man of means and of good family. He was also a Catholic and refused to conform to England’s established state church. Many suffered death for this “recusancy” (i.e., refusal to give up their Catholicism). Far more suffered lesser but more prolonged penalties — social exclusion, deprivation of civil rights, heavy fines, imprisonment, exile.
Roger had not been married long to Anne Heigham when he was clapped into jail for assisting at Mass. This was in 1585 when he was 19. Roger was not a born Catholic, but a convert to Catholicism. While he was in prison, either his father or his uncle sent him a message that, if he refused to attend the Protestant church, he would be disinherited. Roger would not budge. Although released from jail, he was sent into exile in Flanders. He died there in 1594.
Anne Heigham and her brother William had also become teenage converts. Their parents were Puritans who owned much property that had belonged to Catholic monasteries. When she married Roger, the couple agreed to live together as brother and sister, out of religious devotion.
When her husband died, Anne also lost her home. Furthermore, although still young, she was in poor health. Nevertheless, her Catholicism, which had earlier prompted her parents to disinherit and oust her, had grown all the stronger with the passage of time.
In those days of persecution, priests had to live and move about in secrecy. Now, Father John Gerard, a leading Jesuit missionary, asked the widow Line if she would take the risk of becoming housekeeper of a residence for priests that he was establishing in London. Anne accepted willingly. Thereafter, she managed the household, kept its accounts, answered inquiries, taught catechism and embroidered vestments. “Mrs. Martha,” the priests called her. If her occupation made her liable to martyrdom, that was actually her hope. An earlier martyr, Ven. William Thompson, had promised her that, if he were to win the martyr’s crown, he would pray the same grace for her. Father John Gerard was captured and imprisoned in April, 1597. Although he escaped in the following October, Anne decided she had better move into another house, since the police were suspicious of the first one. She also now took private vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.
On Candlemas Day, 1601, Mrs. Line invited a large number of Catholics to attend Mass in her house. The police got wind of it and raided the gathering. Father Page, celebrant of the Mass, narrowly escaped detection, but the constables arrested Mrs. Line and several others of the congregation.
A friend got a Mrs. Gage released, but Anne was brought before Lord Chief Justice Popham at the Old Bailey Court on February 26. She was so weak that she had to be carried into court in a chair. The charge against her was that of harboring a priest, a “treasonable act.”
The Court asked Anne if she were guilty of the crime of receiving a priest. She replied in a loud voice, “My lords, nothing grieves me more but that I could not receive a thousand more!”
The prosecution presented only one witness, and failed to make its case because the priest she was charged with harboring had not been found. Nevertheless, the judge directed the jury to find Anne guilty, and she was condemned to death. On February 27, 1601, Anne Line was hanged on the scaffold at Tyburn, in London. She had spent her last hours in peaceful prayer, and at Tyburn she kissed the gallows that would fulfill her wish to die for Christ.
Our Lord promised a reward to whoever gave to his missionaries even a “cup of cold water.” Mrs. Line gave more on behalf of the priesthood — her own life. She was declared Blessed by Pope Pius XI on December 15, 1929, and canonized a martyr on October 25, 1970, by Pope Paul VI.
–Father Robert F. McNamara