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Stories taking their bearings from a martyr™s name, as this does, were a
striking way of rendering someone memorable; and they would also have
played to the strong Renaissance interest in onomastic theory “ the theory
of naming “ which so often drew correspondences between nomenclature,
character and destiny.60 These could operate on several levels, from the
literary to the pseudo-scienti¬c; and even those most sceptical about the idea
that names were always appropriate to natures would have been sensitive
132 Oral Culture and Catholicism
to the value of having, as William Camden put it, ˜good, hopefull, and
luckie signi¬cations, that accordingly we do carrie and conforme our selves;
so that wee faile not to be answerable to them, but be Nostri nominis
The ideal of a cheerful martyr crossed denominational boundaries, and
for martyrs and confessors to pun on their names was not an especially
Catholic activity in itself.62 However, those Catholic priests who had to
operate under pseudonyms when ministering in England had a distinc-
tive opportunity for testifying to the exemplary value of particular names,
often to a degree that must have worked against the need to keep one™s
religion inconspicuous: for instance, the surname ˜Campion™ was taken as
a pseudonym by several priests on the English mission.63 While descriptive
names in literature emblematise personality as it is, a pseudonym often
shows one™s aspiration towards certain characteristics and ideals, and so is
not dissimilar to the process “ again Catholic “ of taking a name in religion;
unlike the process of naming a baby, one names oneself, and there is no gap
between the choosing of a name and having to prove oneself answerable to
it.64 Inventors of pseudonyms would have found themselves rediscovering
the ¬rst purpose of names, since aliases were often chosen because they ¬g-
ured a direct relationship between designation and user, perhaps alluding
metaphorically to the holder™s occupation. Arriving in England, the priest
William Freeman, ˜fallinge into acquaintaunce with a goode ould man, was
demaunded by the same how he would be called. “Call me,” quoth he . . .
“how you will, you shall geive me my name.” “Why then,” said the other,
“you shall be called Mason, for that yow are to be a workman & layer of
stones in the buildinge of God™s Church.”™65 Puns were an alternative to
other common sources for aliases, like distant family names, names indi-
cating place of origin, or names taken when priests entered on the religious
life; and like these, they helped to soothe the casuistical anxiety that aliases
should be true in some sense.66
In this context, it is hardly surprising that martyr-narratives so often
point up the power of names; one can guess that conversation around the
scaffold would often have centred round the anecdotal correspondences
between the martyr™s name and his life and death.67 These would sometimes
have been very easy to identify: ˜Campion is a champion™, the ¬rst line of
one of the ballads on Edmund Campion™s martyrdom, does no more than
point to the felicitous correspondence between his name and his heroism,
since ˜Campion™ was a variant form of ˜champion™ in the late sixteenth
century.68 Another, less immediately obvious onomastic pun of this kind
Martyrs and confessors 133
is preserved within the ballad on John Thewlis quoted earlier. Thewlis™s
limbs are damaged by those who bear him to execution:

In wrastinge of[f] his bondes
somwhat too hastilie
they hurt his tender leggs
whereat they seemd sorie
Then smylinglie he said
forbeare to mourne for mee
smale hurts doe little greeve
when great on[e]s are soe nye
I thanke my saviour sweete
from these bonds I am free
soe soone I hope I shalle
from all extremitie
(Part 1, stanzas 23“5)

This is a conversational exchange suf¬ciently distinctive for a factual basis
to be likely; but at ¬rst it seems odd that the author should have recorded it
in so much detail, given that martyr-ballads tend to concentrate on praise
and economise on factual reportage. The reason is that, perhaps deliberately
on Thewlis™s part, the conversation draws attention to a correspondence
between his confessorship and his name. ˜Thewlis™ connotes ˜thew™, which
in early modern English had two main meanings: a man™s bodily powers,
as when Falstaff says in 2 Hen. IV, ˜Care I for the limb, the thews, the
stature, bulk and big assemblance of a man?™,69 or more generally a man™s
distinctive characteristics, particularly his good qualities. The meaning of
bodily ability is the stronger in the ballad, which sets out by conceptu-
alising execution as an enforced disability, or condition of thewlessness:
the writer laments, ˜Thy lambes their lyms70 have lost / through Tyrants
Cruelltie / One Thewlis is the man / which makes me call & cry . . .™
(stanzas 2“3). But as the words attributed to Thewlis make clear, a martyr
thinks of the body only as a form of bondage which he longs to escape: a
meaning which is accentuated by the double meaning of ˜extremitie™, refer-
ring both to Thewlis™s limbs and to the fate he is about to suffer. The way
in which damaged limbs are made to signify Thewlis™s bravery suggests one
direction that onomastic interpretation should take, and rules out another,
pre-empting what is actually the more common meaning of ˜thewless™, weak
or cowardly. Instead, the damage to Thewlis™s legs is made proleptic of his
death and triumph.71
134 Oral Culture and Catholicism
This way of using the onomastic pun is a vernacular counterpart to the
international language of rebus, the enigmatical representation of a name,
word or phrase by ¬gures or pictures suggesting the syllables from which it
was made up.72 Some of the better-known English Catholic martyrs were
celebrated in rebuses from the ¬rst: famously, Thomas More “ Morus or
mulberry in Latin “ became a bleeding mulberry tree.73 Another can be
seen in a description of how patches of grass started sprouting in the shape
of a crown in front of the house where the Jesuit Edward Oldcorne was
captured.74 On one level, this is a typical providentialist anecdote of the
kind recently identi¬ed by Alexandra Walsham, seeking out supernatural
messages in unusual features of a landscape;75 but its original inspiration
seems likely to have been the corona graminea described by Pliny in his
Natural History.76 Made of grass or wild ¬‚owers, the corona graminea was
presented by a beleaguered army to the general who rescued them. The
link between the corona graminea, notions of spiritual generalship and
Oldcorne™s gramineous name would have been irresistible to the more
learned among Oldcorne™s supporters, while the idea of a grassy martyr™s
crown was an imaginatively delightful one at every level.77
Similarly, the referential ripples extending outwards from names could
determine the form and meaning of relics: a way in which Catholic popular
onomastics would certainly have been different from Protestant. The mir-
acle at the execution of the martyr Henry Garnet, celebrated across Europe
at the time, is still well known: a piece of straw near the scaffold was said to
have been splashed with blood in such a way as to give a likeness of Garnet™s
face.78 John Gerard gives an account of the miracle, explaining how it was
found by a young man hoping to secure a drop of the martyr™s blood, who
was standing by the basket where the martyr™s head was cast:

Out of this basket did leap a straw, or ear void of corn, in strange manner, into
the hand of this young man, which he beholding, and seeing some blood upon
it . . . carried it away safely, and delivered it unto a Catholic gentlewoman of his
acquaintance . . . after three or four days, a devout Catholic gentleman coming
thither, she showed him the bloody straw . . . beholding the same more curiously
than the others had done, he saw a perfect face, as if it had been painted, upon
one of the husks of the empty ear, and showed the same unto the company, which
they all did plainly behold, and . . . did acknowledge the mighty hand of God,
Who . . . is able both out of stones and straws to raise a suf¬cient defence for His
faithful servants.79

Straws were quite commonly gathered up for relics at executions, but it is
only of Garnet that a tale of this nature survives.80 To the twentieth-century
Martyrs and confessors 135
scholar, the name of Garnet suggests the semi-precious red stone “ and not
inappropriately for a martyr, given the equation of jewels with blood in
baroque poetics. The introduction of the idea of straw seems arbitrary
enough to suggest, at ¬rst, that the story is simply an eyewitness account of
a bizarre phenomenon. But this is not a record of arbitrariness, or even an
attempt at mimesis; instead, it is a revelation of meanings already inscribed
in Garnet™s name.
At the time, a second meaning of ˜Garnet™ would have been as apparent
as that with which we are now familiar.81 A garneter was the overseer of a
granary, and the idea of priests reaping the English harvest of souls was a
commonplace metaphor which Garnet himself used. A letter of Richard
Verstegan™s, which partly quotes another of Garnet™s, illustrates this. Both
men, as usual in missionary correspondence of this date, are employing
codes for priestly activity, and using ˜corn™ as a code for conversion, Garnet
writes: ˜Concerning our marchandise . . . We are lyke to have heare a very
plentifull yeare, so that we may make great comoditie of corne, yf we be
secret in our course.™82 When it came to his martyrdom, his audience took
up the conceit in both hagiographical and unsympathetic contexts. The
best-known contemporary reference to the execution, alluding to the fact
that one of Garnet™s aliases was ˜Farmer™, comes from the porter in Macbeth,
who describes Garnet as ˜a farmer that hanged himself on th™expectation
of plenty™.83 But reinterpreted in terms of a sacred onomastic pun, Garnet
ensured the fullness of the granary by being cut down, sacri¬cing himself
and inspiring others: an image common within imaginative depictions of
the persecution in England, and one which, as Anne Dillon has recently
commented, lends itself well to an eucharistic interpretation.84 To adapt
Tertullian™s famous saying, the blood of the martyr Garnet literally became
the Church™s seed by springing onto the husk of corn and rendering it
fertile again.85 None of this discounts the possibility that, on the day of
Garnet™s execution, his spattered blood actually did create the likeness of a
face. Contemporary Catholics hailed the straw as a miracle, contemporary
Protestants assumed that it had been faked, and even a twenty-¬rst-century
sceptic has to allow the possibility of a freakish accident, of a kind which the
popular press still enjoys. We may never know what happened, especially
since the straw itself has been lost, but the referential ¬eld of Garnet™s name
does, perhaps, help to explain why Catholics should have been looking at
straw so attentively in the ¬rst place.
In the letter quoted above, Verstegan also gives news of a fellow priest,
exploiting the idea of the clergy as ¬shers of men: ˜Mr. Garlyke the ¬sh-
monger was oute of towne, but he saith he will very shortly be there and
136 Oral Culture and Catholicism

3. Garnet™s straw: a contemporary engraving, reproduced in Henry Foley, Records of the
English Province of the Society of Jesus (1878), vol. 4 (ninth, tenth and eleventh series),
plate opposite p. 133.

give order for our affaires.™86 As this demonstrates, harvesting souls and
¬shing for men are interchangeable metaphors in this or any other evangel-
ical context. Just as with Garnet and farming, a priest™s name could generate
metaphorical associations with ¬shing; and evidence of this survives in a
cluster of stories about the priest and martyr Thomas Pilchard, given in John
Martyrs and confessors 137
Gerard™s catalogue of martyrs.87 Though substantial, the relevant passage
deserves to be quoted at some length.

Thomas Pilchard Preist, quartered at Dorchester at Lent Assice. Most cruelly mangled,
for beinge cut downe alive and layd on his backe the executioner beinge a cooke
and unskilfull or careles ¬rst cut him over thwart the belly, withowt he offering
to rise the executioner cut him all over the hand. Then the people cryinge owt
uppon him, he began to slit him up the belly and to pull owt his bowels. The Priest
reised himself and putting owt his hands cast forward his owne bowells cryinge
owt Miserere mei . . . The of¬cers retorninge home, many of them died presently
crying out they were poisoned with the smell of his bowells. The chiefe keeper of
the prison where he was kept, goinge into his gardaine somewhat late, saw one
comminge towards him like Mr. Pilchard, and being astonied asked him what
he did there. ˜[I] goe in to Mr. Jesoppe (a gentleman Catholicke prisoner), and
presently I will retorne to you.™ The keeper went in and sickned, Mr. Jesop died,
and the keeper alsoe, who refused the preachers when they offered to come to
him. An old prest there in prison in his sleepe was sodenly wakened, and sawe his
chamber full of light and a thinge like a ¬she bigger then a man from which the
light proceeded. There was a gentleman prisoner there then (who tould me all this)
whose wife, alsoe prisoner for the cause, was greate with child & neere her tyme,
she wakened one night suddeinly in greate fright, and beinge demanded of her
husband what she ailed, she af¬rmed she had seene Mr. Pilchard whoe tould her
she must come to him. She fell that night into her labour and died in childbirthe.
A laye man was executed there some 4 years after . . . whoe being asked at his
deathe, [what] had moved him to that resolution, etc., he saide, ˜Nothinge but the
smell of a pilcharde.™88

Of the process of interpreting early modern history, Robert Darnton has
said: ˜We constantly need . . . to be administered doses of culture shock . . .
Where we cannot get a proverb, or a joke, or a ritual, or a poem, we know we
are on to something. By picking at the document where it is most opaque,
we may be able to unravel an alien system of meaning.™89 This passage is so
very different from later, statelier conventions of martyr-narrative that it is
immediately arresting.90 This is not because punning itself is necessarily low
or indecorous, but because, even at this date, comic references to a pilchard
would seem more natural than tragic or exemplary ones. The manner
of the passage™s composition is also unusual, less a continuous narrative
than a number of generically distinct anecdotes making up a continuum:
the martyr-narrative with the miraculous punishment, the ghost story, the
vision, the prophetic dream, the humorous scaffold-retort. But it is by far
the longest of the entries in the catalogue, and it seems no coincidence
that it relates to the martyr with the most distinctive name. Clearly, two
of the stories would lose their point if Pilchard™s name were changed. But
138 Oral Culture and Catholicism
it is the martyr-narrative, which seems on the surface like a straight piece
of reportage, that may be the most careful typological construct of all, and
the key to how one is to read those that come afterwards.
Pilchard, the ¬sh, links one narrative with another, and the equation
of Catholic with ¬sh has a multiple signi¬cance. Fishing had been the
profession of St Peter and other apostles, and Catholic priests routinely
referred to themselves and each other in Biblical terms as ¬shers of men.91
Fish also had an association with Friday fasting, as well as being the secret
sign of the early Christians: a symbol which had again become appropriate
for those who had to worship in secret. The image was used by Protestants
of Catholics, both priest and lay: Spenser, for instance, uses it to mount
an attack on the marriage negotiations between Elizabeth and the Duc
d™Alencon, while the Jesuitical Mal-engin in The Faerie Queene spreads a
net to ˜¬sh for fooles™.92 But despite this, it was still used within Catholic
codes. Robert Southwell, writing to Alphonsus Agazario in 1586 about some
quarrels between Catholics in the colleges overseas, compares England™s
Catholic martyrs to ¬sh. ˜Be patient, dear Father, with our shortcomings,
if occasionally the breath of storms ruf¬‚e your sea. You have “¬shes” there
greatly wanted here, which, “when disembowelled, are good for anointing
to the eyes and drive the devils away,” while, if they live, “they are necessary
for useful medicines”.™93
Southwell is alluding to the Book of Tobit in the Apocrypha.94 Here,
Tobias is commanded by the archangel Raphael to catch and disembowel
a ¬sh, and to save the heart, liver and gall. Asking why, he is told that the
heart and liver drive away evil spirits when burnt, while the gall will cure a
blind man when it is used for an ointment.95 Tobie Mathew, picking up on
a correspondence suggested by his own name, used the incident in a sonnet
˜To St. Michaell Th™archangell™, where the orthodox plea to be delivered
from sin has intimations of a request for conversion:

And since that glorious feather of thie winge
the Angell Raphaell cured an ould mans eyes
Behold another of that name who lies,
blind in beliefe, bid him like succor bringe
and cure this hart more blind, then that blinde face
not with the gall of ¬sh; but oyle of grace96

The reference to disembowelling also alerts one to the potential connection
of this story with the hanging, drawing and quartering of Catholic priests,
and the narrative presentation of Pilchard™s execution is, like Southwell™s
letter, in dialogue with the story of Tobias throughout. Pilchard is the ¬sh
Martyrs and confessors 139
who allows himself to be caught, and to be gutted on the slab of martyrdom.
The circumstance of the executioner being a cook or butcher must have
strengthened the connection between man and beast.97 When slit up the
belly like a ¬sh, Pilchard even casts forth his own bowels. Reversing the
topos of saints™ exhumations, where perfume emanating from the corpse is
a sign of sanctity, it is the stench of Pilchard™s viscera that bears disease to
the ungodly: that the prison of¬cers are overcome by the smell of his bowels
signals that one is to read them as equivalent to the demons in the Tobias
story. But Pilchard™s disembowelling also, in contrast, con¬rms the faith
of the man who is converted by the ˜smell of a pilchard™. Other subsidiary
narratives demonstrate how blind men™s eyes are opened: they realise the
truth of Catholicism, or see visions, dream dreams and have their deaths
revealed to them. The con¬guration of anecdotes, which seems random at
¬rst, is instead a deliberate means of harking back to biblical precedent. Like
all pious early modern Englishmen, John Gerard and his readers would have
thought in biblical types and been anxious to discern the patterns drawn
by the hand of providence; but Pilchard™s name gives them a broad hint
about where to begin.
One needs to remember how very differently Catholic and Protestant
popular onomastics would have been received, given how radically the
conception of saints differed between the two denominations. The layman
who describes his confessorship and martyrdom as being moved by the
˜smell of a pilchard™ is expressing admiration for Pilchard™s example in a
manner at once reverent and jocular, but in a Catholic context the phrase
also carries connotations of a belief in Pilchard™s saintly intercession. In
addition, the Catholic convention of pseudonyms for priests meant that
metaphors and anecdotes of this kind could be incited by a deliberately
chosen or adapted name, and this seems to have happened here. According
to Pilchard™s biographer, his subject was born Thomas Pylcher but served
the West Country area of his apostolate under the name of Pilchard “ a
decision made easier, no doubt, by the ¬‚uidity of early modern spelling.98
While any name connected with ¬sh could have strengthened a Catholic
priest™s connection with the Apostles, and thus his pastoral utility, Pilchard™s
name is that of a ¬sh rather than a ¬sherman, and therefore takes on its full
appropriateness at the martyrdom that Pilchard must always have known
was a possible fate. Finally, Pilchard is employed in a manner speci¬c to
his breed, and with a striking local relevance to the area of his ministry,
since pilchards were used as bait by West Country ¬shermen to catch other
¬sh; thus, they are a remarkably neat metaphor for the ¬sher of men who
sacri¬ces himself in the process.99 In this context, Dorchester Catholics
140 Oral Culture and Catholicism
would have seen the apparitions of Pilchard as showing how, having been
¬shed himself, he came to fetch others to heaven or to hell.

loca l sa nc tit y a nd po sth u m o us re putati on :
n ich ol as po stg at e
Pilchard™s local ministry resulted in a posthumous cult that was also largely
local, and Nicholas Postgate, a martyr who suffered later in the century
as a result of the Popish Plot, can serve as a point of comparison here.100
Postgate spent most of his long life as a priest on the Yorkshire moors, and
his close identi¬cation with this locality was signalled, as with Pilchard, by
an alias: ˜Whitmore™, alluding to Blackamor, a Yorkshire village that fell
within the area covered by his ministry. His association with this area, both
during his lifetime and after his death, is strikingly brought out in Thomas
Ward™s poem Englands Reformation (1st edn 1710). This poem, written in
hudibrastic verse and popular throughout the eighteenth century, tells the
story of Catholicism in England from the time of the break with Rome
through to Ward™s own times. The jogtrot metre and clownish satire of
hudibrastic verse, in Ward™s poem and elsewhere, demonstrate a kinship
with the vernacular tradition of English versifying; but just as with ballads,
one needs to be aware that these features need not get in the way of factual
reportage. Though Ward is certainly exploiting burlesque as a comment
on the comic horror of the English Reformation, his choice of hudibrastic
verse is not intended to diminish the seriousness of the subject matter or
the documentary value of his reminiscences; it is both for ornamentation
and factual content that Ward™s account is quoted by Challoner.
Ward gives Postgate more space than any other Popish Plot martyr, claim-
ing in a side-note, ˜I knew him well™,101 and chooses to describe Postgate™s
neighbourhood in as much detail as Postgate™s character, showing how much
the priest™s ministry, and hence his sanctity, was de¬ned in topographical
terms. The humility of the one is embodied in the roughness of the other,
and Ward™s characterisation of Postgate as a contemplative and his house
as a hermitage has the effect of connecting his life and example to those of
medieval English saints:
Nor Spar™d they Father Poskets Blood,
A Reverend Priest, Devout and Good,
Whose Spotless Life in length was spun
To Eigty Years, and three times one.
Sweet his Behaviour, Grave his Speach
He did by good Example Teach.
Martyrs and confessors 141
His Love right bent, his Will Resign™d,
Serene his Look, and Calm his Mind,
His Sanctity to that degree
As Angels live, so lived he.
A Thatched Cottage was the Cell
Where this Contemplative did dwell,
Two Miles from Mulgrave Castle™t stood,
Shelter™d by Snow-drifts, not by Wood;
Tho™ there he liv™d to that great Age,
It was a dismal Hermitage,
But God plac™d there the Saints abode
For Blakamor™s greater Good.102

Postgate™s name is also associated with a locally popular hymn. As this has
come down to us, it is a free adaptation “ by Postgate himself, if the tradition
is to be believed “ of ˜O blessed God, O Saviour sweet™, a Catholic ballad
¬rst recorded in early seventeenth-century sources.103 Given that its original
author “ like so many other writers of early modern English Catholic verse “
will probably always remain unknown, there is an irony in how Postgate™s
name has become attached to what is not entirely an original composition;
but the attribution con¬rms that, though Postgate did not initiate the
poem, his was the life and death that informed people™s reading of it.
The hymn may have been transmitted orally by Catholics in the district
throughout the eighteenth century, though it was consciously revived in
the nineteenth century, and its use thereafter probably had a strong element
of invented tradition. Bede Camm describes it as having been revived by
Nicholas Rigby, a nineteenth-century priest at Ugthorpe, a parish near the
site of Postgate™s ministry, who recited it with his congregation every day
after Mass.104 However, the beginning of the hymn™s use as a part of self-
conscious Catholic revival dates instead from a few years earlier, and its
inclusion in George Leo Haydock™s A Collection of Catholic Hymns. First
published in 1805, this collection was prepared for the press by Nicholas
Alain Gilbert, a French emigr´ priest living in Whitby whose distinctive
brand of missionary spirituality was, as Dom Aidan Bellenger has remarked,
much welcomed by English Catholics in the North-East. According to the
introduction of the third edition, it was Postgate™s hymn which gave the
editors the idea of forming a collection.105 Certainly, in a hymnal where most
verses are anonymously presented, both Postgate™s name and biographical
details are ¬‚agged up: in the ¬rst edition, the verse is headed ˜Hymn, By the
Rev. N. Posket, of Ugthorpe: Who, after having fought a good ¬ght and
kept the Faith, ¬nished his course at York on the 7th of August, 1679.™ As the
142 Oral Culture and Catholicism
hymnbook™s patron saint, Postgate gives a local ¬‚avour to a locally printed

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