When Queen Elizabeth I came to the throne in 1588, she set her British kingdom against the pope by declaring herself “Supreme Governor” in matters spiritual and temporal, and denouncing loyalty to the Bishop of Rome as an act of treason. Thenceforth all Christians in the realm were required to follow the state religion or else …
Many Catholics, motivated by stark fear of the monarch, did enroll in the Church of England, but a good many refused to do so. These were branded as “recusants” (that is, “refusers”), and subjected to various discriminatory laws.
George Napper (or Napier) belonged to a Catholic recusant family of considerable prominence, (and was grand nephew of the English Franciscan cardinal, William Peyto). Born at Holywell Manor in Oxfordshire, he managed to secure entrance in 1565 at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, but was expelled in 1568 as a recusant. In 1580 he was arrested as a recusant and imprisoned for over eight years.
Weary of imprisonment at the end of that time, Napper decided to capitulate, and declared his acceptance of the religious supremacy of the Queen. But after his release from jail, he became increasingly ashamed of having given in. Determined to make generous amends for having rejected the pope, he decided to study for the Catholic priesthood. God had given him a second chance.
Crossing the English Channel to Douay in Flanders, he now sought admission to the English College there. Ordained a Catholic secular priest in 1596, he was sent back to England in 1603 and spent the remaining seven years of his life on the mission in his native Oxfordshire.
English Catholics abroad had begun in the 1570s to establish schools on the European continent like the English College in Rome and the English College in Douay for the training of young British Catholics for work as priestly missionaries in the homeland. Upset by this undertaking, Queen Elizabeth had enacted in 1585 new anti-Catholic legislation, which established as an act of treason punishable by traitor’s execution the return of any native-born men ordained Catholic priests outside of Britain to carry on in England a Catholic ministry. Many more English recusants would die for their faith thereafter, not only the courageous priests but the lay people who abetted them.
Father Napper naturally followed the policy of working in secrecy, but like many another brave priest, he was at one point apprehended by the police as a suspect. They caught up with him outside a village near Oxford early in the morning of July 19, 1610. Those who had stalked him failed in searching him to find two Eucharistic hosts and a small reliquary that he carried concealed on his person. They did find, however, his breviary and set of holy oils. These provided evidence enough to his priesthood to present at the next court session.
Napper’s friends managed to obtain a stay of his execution when he was arraigned, and were working for a total reprieve. But while in prison Father George ministered to a certain condemned criminal, who died declaring himself a Catholic. Now, “reconciling” a fallen-away Catholic was a particularly heinous crime according to the current anti-Roman legislation. The Anglican clergy therefore raised a row with the court, demanding capital action against the prisoner. Under cross-examination, Napper admitted that he had reconciled the man in question. He even said, wittily, that he would be glad to do the same for the judges. Somehow he was again reprieved. But then he refused to take the oath of allegiance that described the pope’s power to depose as “impious, heretical and damnable”. That was too much for the court to take. George Napper was condemned to death.
“Seminary priest” Napper was executed at Oxford on November 9, 1610. Elizabeth herself was by then seven years dead, but the victim priest in his last remarks, prayed publicly for her successor, James 1.
A fellow prisoner later wrote about Father Napper’s missionary career, that he had been “remarkably laborious in gaining souls for God.” Even in prison he had been the soul of compassion. “His charity was great, for if any poor prisoner wanted either meat to fill him or clothes to cover him he would rather be cold himself than they should.”
It is clear that Blessed George Napper fully deserved the second chance that God had seen fit to give him.
–Father Robert F. McNamara