Little is known Of the English martyr Blessed Edward Waterson before 1588. In that year this young English Protestant, apparently a man of some status, stopped off at Rome on the way back from a trip he had made to Turkey in the company of some British merchants. He had an unusual story to tell about the Turkish visit. There he had met a wealthy Turk who had taken such a shine to him that he offered him the hand of his daughter in marriage. With one proviso. If he chose the girl, he must first become a Mohammedan.
Whether the young lady appealed to Edward, the proviso did not. Sorry, he answered, he would not abandon his faith in Christ.
Waterson must have told the tale of his refusal at the English College in Rome. This college was an ancient hospice for British pilgrims, which in 1579 had also been turned into a seminary for the training of English Catholic young men for the secular priesthood and the dangerous apostolate of the English mission. Even though now a seminary, the college still had accommodations for pilgrims to Rome and visitors. Edward’s name is entered in its Pilgrims’ Book from November 29 to December 11, 1588.
For the young Englishman who had refused to convert to Islam, that was a momentous fortnight. While at the College, he asked to be instructed in the Catholic beliefs. He received the instructions and converted to the Catholic faith of his English forefathers. Whether this decision was impromptu or long-maturing is not known.
Edward was not even content to remain a layman. In December he left Rome for the English College at Reims, France, to enroll as a student for the priesthood. On completing his training, he was ordained a priest on March 11, 1592. He had not shown himself to be a brilliant student, but he was acknowledged to be a model of humility and self-denial.
In June 1592, the church authorities at Reims sent the new priest to England to begin his work. He knew, of course, that he was courting death. Particularly over the past seven years, many English seminary priests had been executed for treason as a result of a law enacted against priests in 1585. But so great was Edward’s zeal that he declared that if given the choice between owning all France for a year or going to England on the mission, he would choose the latter.
Father Waterson’s stint as a missionary was very creditable. It was also very brief. In the summer of 1593 he was arrested and put in harsh confinement at Newcastle-upon-Tyne. At Newcastle, too, he was tried and condemned to death for functioning as a priest. Execution was set for January 7, 1594.
Those who attended his execution at Newcastle reported some unusual happenings. Catholic Archdeacon Trollope said that when the young priest was tied down to the hurdle (the wicker sled used to drag traitors to the place of execution), the horses refused to pull it, so he had to be walked to the scaffold. At the gallows, too, the ladder by which he had to mount the platform began to jerk free and twist about on its own. Only when Father Waterson made the sign of the cross over it did it come to rest against the stage. According to the law of execution in treasonable cases, his body was cut down from the hangman’s rope before he was dead, disemboweled, and cut into four quarters.
Edward Waterson was beatified by Pope Pius XI in 1929. Twice tested for his Christian faith, he had passed the test. He is an interesting illustration of how varied in background were the men and women who were martyred during the English Reformation. Their witness to the faith is a many-splendored memory.
–Father Robert F. McNamara