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all the countrie talketh
everie way one walketh
what in Sefton wee endure,
for no strange opinion
But that ould Religion
Austin planted here most sure.109

Though the re¬‚ections are deliberately generalised, the composition
exploits autobiographical pathos: for instance, the reference to mothers
in jail probably alludes to an occasion during the Sefton persecution when
Blundell™s wife was imprisoned. If Blundell wrote the ballad “ as seems
likely “ his self-presentation as confessor would have been obvious to any-
one who knew its author, which suggests how this often impersonal form
could take on autobiographical signi¬cance.
But if Blundell™s verse looks forward to the confessor- and martyr-ballads
which form the subject of the next chapter, this chapter ought to end by
remarking how ¬ercely contested the martyr-ideal was. As the introduction
Answering back 113
to this study commented, Catholic and Protestant word-choice was polemi-
cised to a high degree, and one of the ¬ercest terminological battles of all was
over the term ˜martyr™.110 The notion that the cause and not the punishment
made the martyr “ to use St Augustine™s formulation “ could inspire com-
parisons of heretical martyrs to suicides, undertaken in everything from
sophisticated polemical treatises like John Donne™s Pseudo-Martyr (1610)
to crude individual character assassinations and blanket condemnations.111
˜Com forthe fond ffox, w[i]th all [th]e rable rowte / of monstruouse Mar-
tyres, in thi brainsicke booke™, declared one Catholic versi¬er, ˜compare
them to, this gloriowse Martir stowte / and thou shalte see, how lothly
fowle [th]ei looke.™112 The quarrel over martyrdom could extend to other
kinds of Catholic exemplarity, and a spat over whether Bishop Bonner
achieved a good death or not called forth epitaphs and libels from both
sides.113 Halfway through the last Catholic intervention in the argument,
anti-heretical abuse becomes a declared willingness to die for the faith, and
libel and martyr-ballad “ close relations at the best of times “ ¬nally merge.
Turne over the chaine, good Jacke an ape,
But keepe well cut behind thee,
Least Smith¬eld fyre doe burne thine arse:
If Hereticke it ¬nde thee.
God graunt her highnesse, long to raigne,
Not onely here but evermore:
Yet must we not foresake our fayth,
Though we be martred therefore . . .
Our Martridomes we see you meane,
Yet Martirs names, you do envie us:
And therefore dunghils be devised,
with toyes to make you fooles, defye us.
Well shameles marchants play your parts,
As impudently as you will:
We thrist (sic) for that which you do threat,
Let come the cup, and then be still . . .114
Genre can oscillate outrageously in these controversial productions, and
bravery is often less stately than hagiographers could wish “ which is why,
when the cup came, it could be accompanied by repentance for one™s more
unguarded utterances. Perhaps the most ¬tting end of all is the Catholic
schoolmaster Richard White™s: accused at his trial of making rhymes against
married priests and ministers, he was to ask God™s forgiveness before his
execution for his songs and jests.115

Martyrs and confessors in oral culture

To acclaim martyrs is to align oneself with them and their cause. To do
so publicly near the time and place of their death is something confessors
do, since the notion of confessorship associates proclamation of one™s faith
with the willingness to remain steadfast in it, risking danger and sacri-
¬ce. The Catholic martyr-ballads of late Tudor and Stuart England, with
their associated oral culture, yield intimate links between the representa-
tion of martyrs and the practice of confessorship: not surprisingly, given the
immediacy of oral declaration and its inseparability from public religious
and ethical commitment.1 The practice of making public or semi-public
oral statements about Catholic martyrs could have had a threefold effect:
commemorating the individuals in question; committing the speaker to
follow their example till death; and stimulating zeal in like-minded hearers
and viewers. Thus, preservation of a martyr™s memory could inspire exem-
plary behaviour in the public arena “ which makes it ironic that the legacy
of martyr scholarship has been such an ethically mixed one.
Over the centuries, remembering martyrs of one™s own camp has some-
times involved denouncing those of rival beliefs, but more often ignoring
them; many Christian denominations have had good reason to forget about
those who died exemplary deaths at their hands. Within the academy, at
least among post-medievalists, hagiography has usually been seen as the
business of denominational scholars “ or even, at times, as what main-
stream historians are there to prevent. Nor can one underestimate the sheer
visceral unpleasantness of the topic, for generations not accustomed to
improving their piety by meditating on godly exemplars or the mutilated
¬‚esh of saints. New historicism on the one hand, and shifts in taste on the
other, have jointly facilitated a rediscovery of martyr-narratives in recent
years among mainstream historians and literary critics. After a grim period
when practitioners of sub-Foucauldian body-scholarship tried their best
to dehumanise the martyrs of the Reformation “ and conference papers
dealing with them were not infrequently played for laughs “ commentary
Martyrs and confessors 115
has progressed past anatomising and hysteria. More humane scholars such
as Sarah Covington, Brad Gregory and Susannah Breitz Monta have taken
the obvious but radical step of considering martyrs and martyrologies from
different denominations side-by-side, unostentatiously reversing St Augus-
tine™s notion that the cause and not the punishment makes a martyr. In
an age uncomfortable with the idea of saints except as media creations,
Anne Dillon has given clear-headed and respectful attention to how the
post-Reformation Catholic martyrological ideal was constructed, in a way
that only serves to con¬rm how the English Catholic martyrs “ like mar-
tyrs from all denominations “ tended to behave in an exemplary manner.2
Thomas M. McCoog has discussed the international interest they evoked,
while Arthur F. Marotti has explored the key role of manuscript trans-
mission in disseminating accounts of martyrdom.3 This chapter attempts
to supplement and continue the work that these scholars have begun, by
showing how the memory of Catholic confessors and martyrs, and a con-
sciousness of the pattern they gave to other Catholics, survives not only in
texts circulated via print and manuscript but in a wide range of material
intended for oral transmission.
One of this chapter™s aims is to examine the relationship between cel-
ebrating martyrs and making confessors, present in all martyrology but
perhaps at its most intense in orally transmissible material. Another is to
survey the sophisticated and astonishingly various techniques by which the
memory of Tudor and Stuart Catholic martyrs and confessors could be
retained in the popular consciousness. Sometimes instigated by the mar-
tyrs themselves, sometimes contrived in their memory, these range from
ballads, psalm-singing and motets to rebuses, punning on names, the erec-
tion of architectural features and the exploitation of local memories. Some
of these techniques, like the Latin motet, were characteristically Catholic;
others, like popular verse, can be paralleled in the English Protestant marty-
rology of this period.4 Though material designed for oral transmission can
be easily identi¬ed, it is more dif¬cult to measure its success or otherwise,
but some evidence of reception does survive. The chapter ends with two
strikingly contrasting instances of Catholic martyrology ¬nding a long-
term place in local tradition: ¬rstly the cult of Nicholas Postgate in the
Yorkshire villages of Ugthorpe and Egton, which continues to the present
day; and secondly, stories surrounding the relics of Ambrose Barlow pre-
served at Wardley Hall, Lancashire. Though one should not underestimate
the degree to which memories of martyrs may be accurate and speci¬c,
one must also be sensitive to the more unorthodox imaginative reverber-
ations they could excite. Secrecy was more often an imperative for the
116 Oral Culture and Catholicism
Catholic community than speaking out, and the story of the skull of Ward-
ley Hall shows how the combination of shouting and whispering could
have remarkably unpredictable effects on popular remembrance.

h istorica l record a nd t h e rece n t sa i nt
The Catholic conception of sainthood is based on a highly interactive
model of the traf¬c between living and dead, and mnemonic responses to
the English martyrs are perhaps most denominationally speci¬c in the rela-
tionship they play to between saint and audience. While both Catholic and
Protestant reminiscences of contemporary martyrs were an exhortation to
the living, Catholics had the additional comfort that their saints held out a
promise of practical succour, and an undertaking that intercourse between
faithful souls did not end with death “ a consciousness which would, in
many cases, have been enhanced by personal memories of recent martyrs.
Thus, the evocation of a recently departed Catholic saint interrogates the
audience in a manner which could not have been replicated in Protestant
popular hagiography; saints are, as it were, listening in on their own his-
tory, and personally inviting the audience to join them. Catholic ballads
constantly pivot between polemic, the subject of the last chapter, and an
optimistic popular martyrology of this kind.
The effect of this would have been particularly intense when bal-
lads describing martyrs in the third person were juxtaposed with bal-
lads authored or voiced by them. In one of the most important surviving
manuscripts of Catholic verse, BL Add. MS 15,225, a ballad attributed to
the martyr John Thewlis is copied next to one on his death, which may
re¬‚ect the sequencing of the two in oral performance.5 The ballad voiced
by Thewlis, ˜True Christian harts, cease to lament™, reads as anticipating
the martyrdom which he is said to have foretold for himself before he was
sent to England.6 The ballad™s affective techniques are those of face-to-face
exhortation, playing off present immediacy against the future certainty of
Marke well my ghostlie victorie
my frendes both great and smale
Bee ¬rme of faith remember me
and dread not of your fale . . .
The saints also did suffer death
and marters as you heare
And I my selfe am now at hande
but death I doe not feare . . .
Martyrs and confessors 117
Thus I your frend Iohn Thuelis
have made my latest end
Desyreinge god when his will is7
us all to heaven send . . .
(stanzas 4, 17, 19)8

The ballad includes a catalogue of martyred saints, St Andrew, St James,
St Bartholomew, St Stephen and others: a standard feature of martyr-ballads
which has the effect both of invoking tradition and of arousing devotion. If
Thewlis was indeed its author, he would have included them as exemplars
to himself, though the effect on the audience would have been very similar
if, instead, the ballad was written as a prosopopoeia voiced by Thewlis.
In either case, once Thewlis had been executed, its audience would have
placed Thewlis himself as the latest of the line.9 The text exploits the cultic
authority given its speaker by the prolonged moment between condemna-
tion and death, which is also the moment of writing; Thewlis is the medium
and the messenger, blazing a connection between his fellow-prisoners and
the saints in heaven.
As for my selfe I™am not affraid
to suffer constantlie
For why due debt must neede be paid
unto sweete god on hye
St: Paule he being ¬rme of faith
hopinge with saintes to singe
Most patientlie did suffer death
lord send us happie ryseinge . . .
(stanza 3)

In the ballad of his death, ˜O God above relent™, Thewlis™s exemplary
behaviour blends with individuation on the part of the storyteller.10
When Thewles was unbarde
a vision there was seene
out of his mouth appeard
of couller bright and sheene
Most lyke the glorious sunne
shyninge in clearest skye
downe over his bodie ranne
and vanish from their eye . . .
(Part 2, stanzas 23“4)

It is simplistic to dismiss this as pious myth, more helpful to try and
recover the ways that piety could have brought about the anecdote, since
118 Oral Culture and Catholicism
the miracle described is “ as so frequently “ speci¬c in a way that suggests
phenomenological observation. Thewlis™s mouth-haemorrhage ˜of couller
bright and sheene / Most lyke the glorious sunne™ was perhaps nothing
more than vomit; but the Catholic witnesses of a priest™s execution would
have been alert for signs from heaven, and, interpreted as a providential
sign, it would have testi¬ed to the orthodoxy of his verbal witness, his
prophetic authority, and his exhortation of his audience in the ballad he
wrote.11 As described in the ballad, it gives authority to oral anecdote and
The ballad continues, relating another miracle:

Then were his quarters set
upon the Castell hye
Where hapt as strang a thinge
as ever man did see
A ¬‚ight of Ravens came,
and pyked ¬‚esh from bones
In the Church yarde ye did light
& scraped there deepe holes
O Christian hartes, relent
prepare your soules to save
When fethered foules shall help
for us to make a grave!
(Part 2, stanzas 27“9)

Stories of this kind often derive from environmental quiddities observed on
the day. One famous example of this is the unusually high tide in London
on the day Edmund Campion was executed, which was incorporated into
his hagiography, and interpreted as a violation of the natural order in a
manner which makes it very hard to distinguish between literary conceit
and providentialist observation.12 Here, the behaviour of ravens is accorded
a similar importance. This anecdote may be based on an actual observation “
after all, there is nothing intrinsically improbable about ravens pecking at
¬‚esh and then ¬‚ying off to a nearby churchyard.13 But the very exemplarity
of martyrdom invites the imposition of universal tropes onto particular
occasions. Here, the report of the ravens™ behaviour both invokes and
reverses standard lamentations about how the bodies of martyrs are thrown
to the birds and beasts. A near-contemporary analogy, using the trope in a
more straightforward manner, would be the motet ˜Deus venerunt gentes™
by the recusant composer William Byrd, which has been linked by scholars
to the Catholic community™s shock at the death of Edmund Campion: this
Martyrs and confessors 119
sets the biblical text Posuerunt morticina servorum tuorum escas volatilibus
coeli, carnes sanctorum bestiis terrae (They have laid out the dead bodies
of thy servants as food for the birds of the air, the ¬‚esh of thy saints for
the beasts of the earth).14 Lighting in the graveyard, and appearing to pick
holes in the soil, Thewlis™s ravens normalise a world where the remains
of martyrs are not buried, but publicly dishonoured “ indeed, one where
there could be dif¬culties about burying any Catholic in the graveyard of
the parish church.15 Ravens suggest the miraculous feeding of Elijah by
these birds in 1 Kings 17, itself interpretable as a type of the Eucharist; and
as with the Eucharist, disgrace is here turned into vindication through the
process of eating.16 Every time pious local Catholics passed the graveyard,
this symbolically resonant story would have reminded them of Thewlis.
There is no necessary connection between the use of metre and poetic
licence, and the fact that a report was metrical did not necessarily invalidate
it as evidence for historians of subsequent generations. The early eighteenth-
century antiquary John Knaresborough, making his collections on post-
Reformation Catholic history within living memory of the last Catholic
martyrs in England, gives ˜an Old Copy of verses™ “ probably those discussed
above “ as his authority for John Thewlis™s head and parts of his body being
¬xed on the walls at Lancaster, and used a ballad as the main source for
his manuscript biography of the martyr Edward Reading or Bamber.17 The
account given by Knaresborough of the materials he has used reminds
one that though ballads were highly suitable for oral transmission, they
would also have been written down, and thus have had greater authority
among historians who regarded oral reminiscence as a second-class source
of evidence.

The short Account inserted here concerning the Two Priests of the Secular Clergy, is
very imperfect, being grounded upon, the Information of some ancient Catholicks
of Lancashire now living who either remember™d the Martyrs themselves, or heard
the few particulars hereafter mention™d, from such as had been present at their
Tryal and Execution. The rest I have transcribed from a Manuscript penn™d by an
Ancient Priest,18 who Stiles himself their Fellow Prisoner in Lancaster Goal (sic);
where he was even ™till their Execution. (p. 406)

Bamber™s last moments, in which he exhorts some Protestants who are
exhorting him, are summarised from it: ˜But . . . The (sic) Sheriff call™d
out hastily to the Executioner to Dispatch him. And so turn™d off he was
that moment. But then either the Sheriff or the Hangsman were a little too
Expeditious in their Dispatches; for the poor Gentleman was but permitted
to hang a very short time, when the Rope was cut, the Confessor yet alive;
120 Oral Culture and Catholicism
and thus was He Butcherd in a most cruel and Savage manner, as my Author,
a Priest and Confessor then actually prisoner at Lancaster, has avowed, in
the paper above mention™d, which he drew up upon that Subject, and
which is yet carefully preserv™d™ (p. 414). This rewords and expands upon
two verses from the ballad itself, sadly the only two which Knaresborough
quotes verbatim:
Few words He Spoke they Stop™d his mouth
And Choak™d him with a Cord;
And least He shou™d be dead too Soon
No Mercy they afford.
But quick and live they cut him Down
And butcher him full Soon
Behead tear and Dismember Straight
And laugh when all was done.

conf essorsh ip: ide al s i n prac ti ce
Bamber™s is not the only case in which martyrs were hymned by other
prisoners. Another topical poem, on the martyrdom of Peter Elcius, has
been attributed to Thomas Pounde, a confessor renowned for having been
imprisoned over a period of more than three decades.19 This ambitious
piece, clocking in at eighty-¬ve stanzas, is in no sense a ballad, but does
suggest why ballads, over and above the ease with which they could be
memorised, would have been considered an appropriate kind of verse for
those wishing to spread the martyrological message. Despite the fact that
ballads and other popular verse often make sophisticated use of metaphor,
allusion and other literary devices, they were still thought of as an unpre-
tentious literary genre by both writers and audience; and the conclusion
of this poem has an affectation of homeliness, using the trope of autho-
rial incapacity to suggest that literary ¬‚ourishes would be inappropriate
to the subject matter, even a handicap to veneration. In a context of
this kind, a Catholic was just as capable of invoking the plain style as a
So these no dowbte, w[hi]ch seased have the skyes
and rest in peace, w[i]thin the porte of blisse
p[re]sent your prayeres, your teares, your groanes & cryes
to him of helpes, the only helpe w[hi]ch ys
and yf yow worke, they labour all theire beste
to bring yow lykewyse to the land of reste . . .
Heare w[i]th our Saviours speeche I will co[n]clude
Martyrs and confessors 121
& yow renoumed co[n]fessors, do requeste
in humble sorte, my homely meeteres rude
To take in gree,21 and conster [i.e. ˜construe™] to the beste
for zeale, not skill, did make me take my pen[ne]
to stirre my selfe by stirring other men
ffor as the tru[m]peter whose lym[m]es be lame
to battailes broyles, encouraging the knighte
som comforte, takes, pertaking of the fame
yf foes be foyle, & gans [i.e. ˜gains™?] the spoyle by ¬ghte
So I in hope, that yow of pray(?) righte sure
will helpe w[i]th, prayeres, my lamed lymes to cure
(fols. 108a, 110b)

A poet, while he remains a poet, is only capable of exhorting rather than
acting, and must necessarily rank lower than a martyr. This has an impact
both on the genre he chooses, and on the reader-response he seeks to elicit.
He is at his most honest about the limitations of his calling when he is most
unpolished; one can speculate that popular verse may sometimes have been
employed not only as an effective means of publicity, but as a way of ensur-
ing humility for the author. Besides, his task is not accomplished until he has
successfully affected the behaviour of others: a process which involves them
in construing and improving the verses, supplying the author™s de¬ciencies
but also legitimising what he does.
Even if a poet is less praiseworthy than a martyr, his proclamations enable
him to partake in the martyr™s fame and stir up well-affected members of
his audience. If Puritans dubbed themselves saints, Catholics “ as here “
often used the term of confessors to describe their own kind. The title
of confessor, technically one who suffers privations for the Catholic faith
without becoming a martyr, was attainable by more people than the martyr™s
crown. Everyone who laid themselves open to privation by committing
an illegal act for the sake of Catholicism was, in one sense, a potential
confessor; but in the passage above, the poet is exploiting an ambiguity
in the term, since it is often also used to denote someone who makes a
public acknowledgement of his or her religion. Conscious that his subject
matter is dangerous, the poet acknowledges that all those who willingly
read or listen to his poem are confessors. Since the whole intention of
the poem is to have an impact on everyday speech and behaviour, this
is both an honour and a responsibility for the audience. Parrhesia, the
notion of public declaration, is the ideal that Catholic moralists are setting
out in texts of this kind; and these heightened acknowledgements, arrived
at in the context of the martyrs™ trials and executions, need to be read
122 Oral Culture and Catholicism
against a time when “ as both writers and audiences would have been
aware “ most early modern English Catholics would have made constant
compromises with the ideal of confessorship in day-to-day conversational
interchange.22 Yet ideal behaviour occurred in real life, quite often; the
martyr-ballad is an obvious example of its reportage, and one which stirs
the audience to quieter feats.
All Catholic oral commonality “ listening, speaking, singing and inter-
preting “ refers to an ideal which, above all, is liturgical and collective.
But texts of this kind blur the distinction not only between audience and
congregation, but between earth and heaven, powerfully reminding the
listeners that their prayers and praises should be united with those of the
saints. The most famous martyr-ballad of all from this period, written to

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