Probably because they and we share the same language, the English martyrs of the Reformation have a special appeal to American Catholics.
One of the pioneer priest-martyrs under Queen Elizabeth I was St. Ralph Sherwin. A native of Derbyshire in the English Midlands, his natural talents won him an assignment to Exeter College, Oxford, where he took his M.A. in 1574 with high honors. While at Oxford his religious affiliation had been dubious (as happened with Catholics in many cases during Elizabeth’s first years). However, in 1575 he was not only formally reconciled to the Catholic Church, but also decided to study for the diocesan priesthood-a gamble with death in those days.
No seminaries were allowed in Britain under Elizabeth, so Ralph had to go abroad. After first studying at the English Catholic seminary at Douai in northwest France, and receiving priestly ordination in 1577, he transferred to the English College in Rome to complete his theological education. There he volunteered to set off for the “English Mission” at any time his superiors saw fit.
Father Ralph thus became a member of the first little convoy of missionaries sent to England in the summer of 1580. At Milan the party were for a few days guests of St. Charles Borromeo, the great reforming Archbishop of Milan; and Sherwin preached one day in his presence. When they reached Geneva in Switzerland, they were given stylish French lay clothing to wear. They would never have been allowed into England dressed like clergymen, for priests were diligently excluded from entering the country. Before they crossed the Channel, Fr. Sherwin wrote to a friend to “say his beads” for him, “so that in humility and constancy, with perseverance to the end, I may know God in this vocation whereunto though unworthy I am called.”
They managed to get into England in early August, and Father Ralph began to work in various parts of the country with considerable success. But his apostolate was ever so brief. That same November he was arrested while preaching in a London residence to a Catholic congregation. Taken to the Marshalsea prison, he was clapped into leg-irons – his “bells” as he jokingly called them in a letter to his superior. A worse prison awaited him, however. Sent in December to the Tower of London, he was severely tortured on the stretching machine called “the rack”, and asked to name his “fellow missionaries” and to admit his part in an alleged Catholic conspiracy to invade the British Isles. After being racked the first time, he was left to lie in the snow. Later he was put for a while into solitary confinement, without food. Mental torture was also tried. It is said he was offered a bishopric in the Church of England if he would deny the pope.
After mouldering in prison for a year, Fr. Sherwin and others were put on trial on November 14, 1581, on a trumped-up charge that they had conspired to start a rebellion. Sherwin himself stated at the trial the real cause: “The plain reason of our standing here is religion, not treason.” In the days that remained after sentence, he prayed to God to forgive his persecutors and, if He so willed, to bring them into the Catholic faith.
On December 1, 1581, St. Ralph Sherwin, St. Edmund Campion and St. Alexander Briant were hanged on Tyburn Hill. On the scaffold St. Ralph again professed his innocence, proclaimed his Catholic faith, and prayed for the Queen. Many in the crowd prayed openly for him as the trap fell.
St. Ralph Sherwin is honored by the English College in Rome as its protomartyr (first martyr). That college was to earn the unique official title of “Venerable English College”. With good reason. After St. Ralph’s death over forty more of its students laid down their lives for the Catholic faith in the years 1581-1681. Justly St. Philip Neri used to greet the English seminarians on the streets of Rome: “Hail, flowers of the martyrs.”
–Father Robert F. McNamara