The strictest monastic order in the Western Church is that of the Carthusians. St. Bruno founded them in 1084 at the remote spot in the French Alps called “Carthusium” in Latin, “Chartreuse” in French. The Carthusian monasteries spread internationally, and still function today, although in a diminished number. They were different from most monasteries in that, while housed at a single site, the monks did not really live a community life. They were rather hermits, each spending most of his time working and praying in a private hermitage. Precisely because their rule of life was so austere from the start, it has never been reformed because it has never been deformed.
At the outbreak of the English Reformation, England had ten of these hermitage-monasteries. They were commonly called “Charterhouses,” a corruption of the French name “Chartreuse”. The hermits were held in the highest esteem. That is one reason why King Henry VIII set out to win them over or destroy them. The first Catholic martyrs under him were not St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More, but a group of English Carthusian hermits.
In 1533, King Henry, desirous of wedding Anne Boleyn, flouted the pope by having Archbishop Cranmer of Canterbury, his tool, declare null and void the king’s long-term marriage to Catholic Queen Catherine of Aragon. He then Married Anne, and proclaimed that she was the rightful queen, and her children sole heirs to the throne. Every person over the age of 16 was required to take an oath to uphold this “Act of Succession.” Bishop John Fisher and Sir Thomas More refused the oath because it implied a denial of papal authority. The Carthusians thought that they, as nonpolitical figures, would be exempted from taking an oath to this political decree, but the king wanted them to take it because they were so highly respected. Led by the Carthusian prior of London, John Houghton, the hermits agreed to take the oath only with the added proviso, “as far as the law of God permits.” But that was not the end of the issue, as Prior Houghton well knew.
On February 1, 1534, Henry issued another proclamation, the “Act of Supremacy.” This declared it high treason to deny that the king was head of the church in England. Now no conditional oath was allowed. The Carthusians therefore refused to take the oath. Houghton and two other Carthusians, Robert Lawrence and Augustine Webster, along with Richard Reynolds, a learned Bridgettine monk, and John Haile, an aged secular priest, (both of whom also rejected the oath), were tried for treason, condemned to death on April 29, and on May 4, 1535, executed most brutally by hanging, drawing and quartering on Tyburn Hill in London. From the scaffold, Prior John declared that he was being executed for upholding a doctrine of the Catholic Church, but he forgave his executioners. On the following June 19, three more Carthusians were hanged. The king himself had visited one of them, Sebastian Newdigate, to persuade him to recant, but this former courtier had stood firm. Even after that, the king’s men still hounded the monks. Two more were executed in May, 1537.
Eventually, sheer pressure brought 19 Carthusians to accept the oath. Eleven still would not yield. Three of them were priests; one, a deacon; the rest, lay brothers. These were left in prison, where they died of neglect and starvation during the summer of l537. Brother William Horn, the sole survivor among the eleven, was hanged on August 4, 1540.
Pope Leo XIII approved the title “blessed” for these 18 Carthusian martyrs, defenders of the papacy, along with the Bridgettine monk Richard Reynolds and the secular priest John Haile, who had died with Bl. John Houghton. On October 25, 1970, Pope Paul VI canonized SS. John Houghton, Robert Lawrence, and Augustine Webster, (as well as Richard Reynolds).
May these holy martyrs continue to intercede not only for Britain but for the whole Church, that we may never weaken in our loyalty to the successor of St. Peter.
–Father Robert F. McNamara