At a fitting age he was sent to the University of Cambridge, of which the Blessed John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, was then Chancellor, and in due course graduated in Civil and Canon Law.
His piety matured with his years and intelligence, and when, on the completion of his studies, he found that his parents were planning for his future by endeavouring to secure for him a suitable marriage, he fled from his home, and took refuge with a devout priest, to whom he confided his desire to serve God in the sacerdotal state. In this concealment he remained until his ordination. Then he returned to his home and was easily reconciled to his parents.
For four years he continued to lead the life of a holy secular priest. No details have been preserved of this period of his life, but it is clear that God was leading him on step by step in the ways of sanctity; for now he determined to leave all things, even his father's house and the joys of natural affection and the innocent use of his own liberty, and serve God in the most perfect life of prayer, penance, and detachment which he could find. And so passing by even the many religious houses of various Orders then happily flourishing around him on all sides in high repute of virtue and fervour, he betook himself to the Carthusians of the Charterhouse, near West Smithfield, a little way out of London, as it was then, and after a long trial, as we are told, was granted the habit, after which he was elected Prior of the Chartreuse (Charterhouse) of Beauvale, in Nottinghamshire, in the year 1531.
He had governed that house, however, but a few months when John Batmanson, his late Prior at London, died, and he was by a unanimous vote elected to succeed him. Thus recalled to his old home he continued in it till his holy death; but shortly after his election by the nomination of the Prior of the Grande Chartreuse he became also Visitor of the English Province of the Order.
In the offices of trust and authority to which he was now raised, the virtue of the holy Prior shone more brightly than ever. His patience was not less than heroic. Once when a fallen religious attacked him not only with the grossest insults, but with blows and violence, far from resisting, he threw himself at his feet, and when his brethren hastened to his rescue, earnestly took up the defence of his assailant. His piety was manifested by an abundant gift of holy tears which would sometimes force him to rise from his place in the refectory and hide himself in his cell, but which especially visited him during the holy Sacrifice of the Mass. He was a vigilant and zealous Superior, continually guarding against the least defects in the sacred psalmody, inquiring into the use of each one's time, assisting the tempted, stimulating the lukewarm, and ever a perfect pattern to all his sons, factus forma gregis. His favourite virtue would seem, however, to have been humility. He was much disturbed if any one gave him any title of honour. " It is not lawful," he would say, " for a poor Carthusian monk to broaden the fringes of his garment or be called by men Rabbi." Whenever his brethren made him the obeisance according to custom, though he would not dispense himself from receiving it or them from giving it, he made it the occasion of deep inward self-abasement. When alone with a religious in his cell he would behave as if simply one of the brethren, saying he had left his Prior's rank in his own cell; but on other occasions he kept up the honour of his office, though ever with humble modesty. And indeed he seldom had to contend for it, for the brethren vied one with another in reverence and devotion towards him.
To such a life might be applied what St. Ambrose says of holy virginity—that it deserves our praises, not because it is found in the martyrs, but because it makes martyrs. Non ideo laudabilis virginitas quia in niartyribus reperitur, sed quia ipsa inartyres facit. It was the divine training by which God was preparing the Blessed John for martyrdom.
Martyrdom in Christian Catholic England ! The idea would have seemed a strange one in the early years of the century which was then but three decades old. But strange things were happening in England now. Perhaps in the life of solitude and prayer of the Charterhouse they were unknown, or unheeded by the faithful sons of St. Bruno, near though they were to the busy life of London. But if so their happy ignorance was not to last. In July of 1533 proclamation was everywhere made of the new law requiring all persons who were sixteen years of age, when called upon, to swear that they would maintain the Act of Succession, which declared that none were heirs to the crown but the children of the King's "lawful wife. Queen Anne." The Carthusians do not seem to have been molested about this law until the next year; but various revelations and portents are spoken of as having prepared their minds for coming trouble. It came upon them at last. The royal Commissaries appeared at the Charterhouse and required the Prior and his monks to swear to the Succession as declared by the Act. The Prior answered that neither he nor his had any vocation to interfere in the King's business; and that it did not concern them what wife he put away or whom he married, as long as they were not asked anything on the subject. Pressed further by the Commissaries, he admitted that he could not understand how the first marriage solemnized by the Church and so long subsisting could be annulled. On this he, together with Dom Humphrey Middlemore, the Procurator, was carried off to the Tower.
They remained prisoners a month, and then yielding to the judgment of certain good and learned men, who told them that this was no sufficient cause for the sacrifice of their lives, agreed to take the declaration with the saving clause, "as far as it was lawful."
Their brethren received them with joy, and, though not without some trouble of conscience, acquiesced in their advice and took the oath with the same reservation. This was on the 29th of May, 1534." For the moment the danger was over, but they knew now that the conflict was only delayed. The Prior told them indeed that the night before leaving the Tower, he had been warned in a dream that within a year he should return to the same prison and there finish his course.
Early next year the Royal Supremacy was made the law of England by Parliament, and its denial was declared high treason. The Prior called his monks together, to prepare them for what was before them. With one voice they cried : " Let us all die in our simplicity." But the holy Prior was torn with anxiety for the many young religious in the community, now leading so holy a life, but who would soon be forced to leave God's house, and be thrown amid the dangers of an irreligious world. " Would," he said, " that it might be as you say; and that one death might for all of us be the way to life, but I fear they will not do us so much good nor themselves so much ill. I fear they will put you ancient Fathers and me to death, and send out these youths in terraui non suaiii, into a world not theirs." He felt so keenly their danger that he seemed almost tempted to comply with the King's demands, but he ended with our Lord's words: Qiu aliqind amat plus quam me, non est me digmis —" He that loveth aught more than Me is not worthy of Me;" and thus resolved he exhorted his brethren to join him in making diligent preparation for their approaching combat. This preparation lasted three days. On the first he urged them all to purify their hearts by a general confession : on the second day he made them a pathetic address on the necessity of charity, patience, and a firm adherence to God in the day of trial, ending with the words, " It is better for us to undergo a short suffering here for our sins, than to lay up for ourselves eternal torments." Then he added : " Dearest Fathers and brethren, what you see me do, I beseech you do likewise," and immediately rising from his seat he went towards the oldest monk of the house and kneeling down before him, humbly asked his forgiveness for all the excesses and offences he might have committed against him in thought, word, or deed. He went thus to each religious, one by one, on both sides of the choir, down to the last lay-brother, all the while shedding abundance of tears. All the others followed his example, each in turn asking pardon of his brethren. The third day being come, he offered a solemn Votive Mass of the Holy Ghost, to obtain the special graces they would all need. When all hearts were thus fervently disposed, we are not surprised to learn from Dom Chauncy that the Holy Spirit vouchsafed them a very special grace. At the moment of the Elevation there was heard the sound of a gentle wind perceptible to the bodily ear, but much more to the hearts of all present. The holy Prior at the same moment was visited with such an abundance of devout tears that for a long time he was unable to go on with his Mass, and all the rest were filled with a spirit of joy; whilst afterwards as they spoke of what had happened there was a holy strife of humility among them, the Prior attributing it to the devotion of his sons, and they to the sanctity of their Father.
During the following days Divine Providence sent on a visit to the Charterhouse the two brethren predestined to be the companions of Blessed John's martyrdom. These were Dom Robert Lawrence, Prior of the Convent of Beauvale, formerly a religious of the London Charterhouse, and, two days later, Dom Augustine Webster, a monk of the house of Shene, and Prior of the Convent of Axholme, in Lincolnshire.
The two visitors seem to have learned for the first time on their arrival the danger hanging over the convent, a danger which had now become immediate. For the King had heard of the Prior's preparations to resist his will, and was enraged against him. It was by no accident that the storm first broke over the poor religious of St. Bruno. The whole of the King's tyrannical pride and strength of will was now committed to carrying through the schism. For his success in this it was all-important to bend to his will, or to strike down ruthlessly, those who stood highest in the estimation of the people. It was no doubt this consideration which determined the first victims of the persecution.
Meanwhile the three Priors, to leave nothing undone that offered any hope of peace, went together to implore Cromwell, the King's " Vicar General," to obtain for them some mitigation of the oath which they knew was about to be tendered to them. But his only answer was to order them at once as prisoners to the Tower.
dmThe conflict which the Blessed John had long foreseen was now upon them. After a week's imprisonment the King's Commissaries and with them Cromwell himself, came to demand of them the oath, by which they were to renounce and deny the authority and jurisdiction of the Holy See and acknowledge the King as the supreme head of the Church in England in spiritual as well as temporal things. They offered to comply if they might add the saving clause " as far as the Divine law permits."' If we are surprised to find men of God, men so soon to lay down their lives for His cause, ready to make a concession which seems to go so near compromising the faith and the unity of the Church, we must bear in mind the perplexities of an untried situation, the anxiety for others dependent on them, and especially that we have the very best proof that the reservation was, and was well understood to be, a solid reality; for Cromwell peremptorily refused to accept it. " I will have no condition," he said, " I care nothing what the Church has held or taught. Will you agree to the oath or not ? " Then they firmly declared that the fear of God would not allow them to contradict or abandon the Catholic Church, of which St. Augustine had said that he would not believe the Gospel of Christ unless the Church so taught and instructed him. This answer sealed their fate. On the 29th of April, they were brought to trial in Westminster Hall. The indictment against them is still extant and accuses them of declaring, on the 26th of April, at the Tower of London, that " the King our Sovereign Lord is not supreme head in earth of the Church of England.'"- The offence against the Statute law was of course evident, and moreover the holy confessors resolutely persevered in the offence. But an unexpected difficulty arose. The jury refused to give a verdict against them, and put off their finding till the next day. In vain did Cromwell send to demand the cause of their delay; in vain did he send again to threaten them with a like fate if they did not forthwith bring in a verdict of guilty; the whole of the next day was spent in discussion, these worthy men recoiling from the guilt of giving up the servants of God to a cruel death. At length Cromwell in a rage came himself, and so terrified them that he succeeded in overbearing their resistance, upon which sentence of death was passed on them as in cases of high treason.
Their martyrdom, a memorable one, the first of a long series, as glorious as it is sorrowful, extending over a century and a half, was fixed for the fifth day from their condemnation, the 4th of May. Two other confessors of the Faith were to suffer with them, Richard Reynolds, a Bridgettine monk, and John Haile or Hall, the aged Vicar of Isleworth.
By special order of the King, as it would appear, the martyrs were not only to suffer to the utmost extent the cruel agony of the execution, but everything was to be done to degrade them in the eyes of the people. Accordingly, our holy Prior was laid upon a hurdle in his religious habit, and thus, followed by his blessed companions, dragged at the horses' tails for three or four miles through the rough and dirty roads to the place of execution at Tyburn, where many great lords and avast crowd of other spectators were assembled.- After the execution
- The Spanish Ambassador writes to Charles V. on the next day : " It is altogether a new thing that the Dukes of Richmond and Norfolk, the Earl of Wiltshire, his son, and other lords and courtiers,
tioner had knelt down and asked and received his forgiveness, he was told to go up the ladder dressed as he was, for in pursuance of the plan already mentioned, the martyrs were to be hanged in their religious habits. A thick rope too had been prepared in order that they might not be strangled by the fall but kept alive for the butchery afterwards. Whilst he was on the ladder, one of the King.'s councillors present among the throng urged him to yield to the royal command, promising him pardon. He in reply, addressed the spectators, of whom several thousands were present, in very few words: " I call God to witness, and beg of you all likewise to bear me witness at the dread judgment day, that here, about to die, I declare publicly that I refuse to comply with the will of our Lord the King, not out of any pertinacity, malice, or rebellious disposition, but only from the fear of God, lest I should offend His Sovereign Majesty, seeing our holy Mother the Church has decreed and determined otherwise than the King and his Parliament has ordained ; wherefore I am obliged, in conscience, and am also ready and not dismayed, to suffer these and all possible torments rather than oppose the teaching of the Church. Pray for me, and pity my brethren whose unworthy prior I have been." He prayed aloud for some time, reciting the psalm, " In Thee, O Lord, have I hoped." When he had said the words, " Into Thy hands I commend my spirit," the ladder was turned, but the rope was immediately cut, and falling to the ground, he began at once to revive. Then he was dragged to the quartering block, and with rough violence stripped of his clothes. The ignominious and barbarous dismemberment followed. The executioner ripped him up, tore out his entrails and cast them into the fire. The blessed martyr during this agony uttered no complaint, but prayed incessantly. When almost at the point of death he cried out with fervour, " Most holy Lord Jesus, have mercy on me in this hour." And as the hangman seized his heart with his hand to tear it out, he said, " Good Jesus, what will ye do with my heart?"
A moment more and the first palm was won, the first martyr crowned in the terrible persecution on which the Church was entering. The holy remains underwent the usual indignities of being cut up into quarters, parboiled in a cauldron, and set up upon spikes in different parts of the city. But Blessed John Houghton was conqueror in the fight, and as we are now able to declare with the authority of Holy Church, reigns among the princes of God's Kingdom.