Joseph Gillow.

St. Thomas's Priory, or The story of St. Austin's, Stafford online

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And I too dream'd, until at last
Across my fancy, brooding warm,

The reflex of a legend past.
And loosely settled into form.

— Tevnvson.









Magna est Veritas, ct prcEvalebit.

The following pages are the outcome of a visit
with a friend to the remains of St. Thomas's
Priory, and originally were written at his re-
quest to awaken in the Stafford congregation
an interest in the story of how their forefathers
handed down to them the Teaching of their
Redeemer. What the Faith was in pre-Re-
formation days is so evident to the Catholic of
to-day that it would be a needless encroachment
upon time to exemplify that period. It is
sufficient to say with Verstegan : —

Thus was the Faith, this is the Faith of old,
Held by the whole, now by the parte control'd.

The history of Stafford Mission \'~, facsimile in
outline with hundreds of others that mi^ht have

viii Preface.

been culled from my collection towards a de-
tailed account of all the Missions, Chaplaincies,
and Missionary Stations that have existed in
England and Wales since the so-called Re-
formation or Overthrow of the Ancient Faith.
The record is sadly incomplete, and yet too
vast, may be, ever to be displayed in its entirety.
Therefore, from time to time, I have ventured,
almost haphazard, to draw a few illustrations,
and have issued them in some similar form to
this, in the belief that Light discovers Truth,
and that, thereby, others may be led to exclaim
with the eminent antiquary, poet, and exile,
previously cited : —

And live that Faith, whereof Christ gave the ground,
As long as Faith may on the earth be found.

J. G.

Woodlands, Dunham Massev,


Stafford's great name in old records did sleep,
And lay regardless 'mongst the common heap.

— Nathaniel Thompson. 1685.

Hitherto, I believe, there has been no

attempt to throw light upon the obscure

history of Catholicity in Stafford. We are

living in an age remarkable for its spirit of

inquiry and its honest endeavour to brush aside

the cobwebs of prejudice and ignorance, which

so long have darkened the religious history of

this country. In furtherance of this object the

following jottings in my note-book are set down

in chronological order, but without the formal

pretension of a history, being presented rather

as historical finger-posts to direct the future

historian in his path.

It is unnecessary for the present purpose to

enter into the origin and ^rowth of the novel

doctrines foisted upon a simple people by tyran-


2 S^. Thomas's Priory.

nical sovereigns and their attendant mercenaries.
It is sufficient to note that all the property of
the Church, with the people's real and in-
alienable interest in it. was either confiscated,
or transferred to a new religion, set up and
established by the State, to which the people
were forced to bow under penal laws framed
and administered in a spirit rivalling that of the
pagan persecutor. Every kind of abuse and
calumny was heaped upon the ancient Faith ; its
professors were proscribed and outlawed, and
the rising generation assiduously inoculated
with the heresies of the reformers.

By Law we'll bring't within the reach

Of Death for papist priests to preach,

Say Mass or even to be found

In any place on English ground.

Nor will we Mercy have, or spare them,

Who either harbour priests, or hear them.

— Ward, Canto ii. 1710.

Hence it is that our first glimpses into the
history of the Stafford mission only reveal
pictures of a crowded gaol, barbarous execu-
tions of priests, and other cruelties devised
to deter people from exercising the rights of
conscience. These scenes are too numerous

Sf. Thomas's Priory. 3

to be recorded in the space at our disposal.
Sometimes it is an account of a sudden raid
upon the houses of those who clung to the
Faith, by pursuivants in search of evidence
against the proscribed religion, or in the hope
of catching a priest ; at others, a harrowing-
description of poor recusants being despoiled
of their goods, and even homes, on account
of their inability to pay the penalties indicted
upon them for non-attendance at the estab-
lished service. A few such examples will
suffice, for —

To bring the number in accompt,

Unable is my skil :
Of all such glorious martirs names.

And their endured il.

— Rich. Vet'stegan, Odes, 1601.

In or about 1586,^ Sir Robert Parton, a
venerable old priest, presumably assisting the
Catholics in the town, was apprehended and
thrown into Stafford gaol. Some time previous
to this he suffered four years' incarceration in
Newgate, whence he was set at liberty, and, full
of zeal and courage, he had come down to

' Strype, Annals, 2nd ed., iv. 184.

4 S^. Thomas's Priory.

Stafford, where he had probably held some cure
in Queen Mary's reign, to devote his remaining
years to the preservation of the ancient Faith.
For six long years he patiently endured the
horrors of Stafford gaol, encouraging the
numerous recusants, who suffered a living death
rather than conform to the new religion,
ministering to their spiritual wants, and com-
forting them in their extremity. Probably it
was on this account that the good shepherd
was transferred by his relentless persecutors to
the Marshalsea in London at Christmas, 1592.
There the old man was immured, awaiting his
martyr's crown, at the time of a report issued
i" 1593' — his longings for the heavenly Hieru-
salem being aptly pourtrayed in "A Prisoner's
Songe," penned by a priest and fellow-confessor
about 1615.^

My thirstie soule desyres her drought

At heavenlic fountaines to refreshe,

My prisoned niynd would faine be out

Of chaines and fetters of the flesh.

—F. B., Priest.

An ancient manuscript,^ written in the last

1 Brit. Mus. Add. MSS., 15,225.

- Foley, Records S.J., iii. 232, iv. 493; Morris, Troubles, iii. 8.

St. Thomas's Priory. 5

decade of the sixteenth century, tells us how
Erasmus Wolseley, of Wolseley Hall, about
eight miles from Stafford, William Maxfield,
or Macclesfield, of Chesterton Hall, esquires,
Edward and Francis Thornbery, two brothers,
and Edward Sprott, of Ashenbroke, gentlemen,
and William Myners, yeoman, besides others,
all prisoners for conscience sake, were met
together in a closed chamber in Stafford gaol,^
attending the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, at
which the venerable martyr, Robert Sutton,
was officiating, when the pursuivants or gaolers
rushed in and arrested them. They were all
tried, at the Stafford summer assizes in July,
1587, and condemned to death, — the martyr, as
we shall see, on account of his priesthood, and
the others for aiding and relieving him. Father
Sutton suffered at Stafford on the 27th of that
month ; but though the other prisoners were
likewise sentenced to death as felons, the judge,
seeing that popular feeling was strongly in their
favour, for most of them were highly esteemed
in the town, thought fit to reprieve them.

'Stafford gaol at this time, and down to the year 1700,
stood in the Broad Eye, near the site of the Wesleyan chapel.

6 SL Thomas's Prioiy.

They were, nevertheless, detained in custody ;
and it is said that Mr, Maxfield, whose property
was forfeited, passed the remainder of his Hfe in
Stafford gaol. His wife was condemned with
him ; and their son Thomas, who is believed
to have been born in prison, subsequently
became a priest, and suffered martyrdom at
Tyburn in 1616.

Though the eldest son of Anthony Wolseley,
Esq., Erasmus would seem either to have been
disinherited or to have had his estate forfeited
in consequence of his recusancy ; for Wolseley
Hall passed to the Protestant descendants of a
younger brother of his father, to whom a
baronetcy was granted in 1628. This branch
happily returned to the Faith upon the conver-
sion of the late Sir Charles Wolseley in 1837.
Both Erasmus and his wife ^ endured many years'
imprisonment for the Faith in Stafford gaol.
This lady was Cassandra, daughter of Sir
Thomas (jiffard, of Chillington, Co. Stafford, by
Ursula, daughter of Sir Robert Throckmorton,
of Coughton Court, Co. Warwick, and by her
Mr. Wolseley had two or three sons and two

' Bridgewater, Cuticerhitiu, 1594.

St. Thomas's Priory. 7

daughters, one of whom, Grizle, became the
wife of Ralph Fitzherbert, Esq. The children
appear to have shared the sufferings of their
parents. Two of the sons, John and Humphrey,^
escaped to the Continent, and entered the
English College at Rheims. There the former
was ordained priest, but the latter proceeded to
the English College at Rome, where he died in
deacon's orders in 1589, aged twenty-three.

It is also stated^ that about the same period
Nicholas Thornes, a pursuivant of infamous
memory in Staffordshire, drove away at a time
hundreds of cattle belonging to Catholics, even
all that many possessed, and afterwards turned
the unfortunate owners with their families out
of their homes. Amonost those so wronged
were " Knolles, Widow Wade, George Cooke,
William Poker, John Coher, Timothy Browne,
Mr. Richard Fitzherbert, and many others ".
Elsewhere^ we find that William Knowles, of
Kidware, yeoman, a married man, a native of
the county, and a good Catholic, was committed

^ Douay Diaries ; Foley, Records S.J., vi.

- Foley, ibid., iv. 492 ; Morris, Troubles, iii. 23.

^ Foley, ibid., iii. 226.

8 St Thomas's Priory.

on account of his religion to Stafford gaol, where,
In about a year's time, he died, and was buried
in 1587 at the Friary. Miss Joan Vyze,^ a very
virtuous lady, also died a prisoner in the same
gaol, after more than four years' imprisonment,
in 1589; and Mr. Edmund Vyze, of Stoke,
gentleman, of an ancient family seated at
Staundon, was apprehended at his residence,
committed to prison in Stafford, and after three
months died there in 1592. Alice Palin, a
devout Catholic, probably of Dearnsdale, near
Stafford, where the Palins maintained a chap-
lain at a later period, after two years' imprison-
ment died in this gaol, and was buried in the
Friary.'^ This was the usual burial place for
the Catholic prisoners, who were not permitted
to be interred in any churchyard in the town.
The document first cited speaks of many others
dying in Stafford gaol at this time : "In
Stafford imprisoned thirty, whereof six yet re-

^ Foley, Records S.J., iii. 226-7.

-The Friary was that of the Franciscan, or Grey Friars, ex-
tending along the present Greyfriars Street from Browning
Street to beyond the houses built by the late Mr. John Sharp.
Within recent years many human remains have been disinterred
on its site.

SL TJiomas's Priory. 9

main, the others for the most part dead ".^ But
of this enough has been said : — -

Some maried were, and some were maydes,

Their suffrance sundry wayes :
Their cause all one, their only King

Did all to glorie raise,

— Verstegan, Odes.


Ingland, loke up, thie soyle ys steinde with bloode,
Thow hast made martyrs manie of thine owne,

Yf thow hadst grace, theire deathes wuld do thee good,
The seede wyll take wich yn such blood ys sowne.

— Blessed Campion's Epitaph. 1581.^

The venerable martyr, Robert Sutton.^ to
whom we have already alluded, resided in
Stafford with a relative of Fr. John Gerard for
a considerable time, possibly from his first
coming to the English mission in 1578. He
probably acted as tutor in the family with which
he lived, and at the same time attended to the
spiritual wants of the town and neighbourhood,
besides secretly administering the comforts of

^ Foley, Records S.J., iv. 493.
-Bodleian Lib., Rot. F., i, 2.

* Pollen, Acts of Eng. Martyrs, 323 ; Challoner, Memoirs, ed.
1741, i. 193 ; Foley, ibid., iii. 231 ; Dodd, CJi. Hist., ii. 94.

lo SL Thomas's Priory.

religion to the crowds of poor recusants who
were wearing away their lives in Stafford gaol.
His father is said to have been only a car-
penter atBurton-on-Trent; but if so he was able
to provide his sons with an excellent education.
Robert, the eldest, after studying humanities in
his native town, was sent in his fifteenth or
sixteenth year to Oxford, where he was ad-
mitted a scholar of Christ Church. In due
course he proceeded in arts, and obtained re-
pute as lecturer in logic, philosophy, Greek
and Hebrew. After remaining at the university
for eleven or twelve years he was rewarded
with the important rectory of Lutterworth, Co.
Leicester, formerly held by the heretical John
Wycliffe. There he spent six years, till, through
the mercy of God, he received grace to see the
falsity of his position, and strength to abandon
his benefice. His younger brother, Abraham,^
was also beneficed in the Anglican Establish-
ment, and the two resolved to forsake their
worldly prospects to follow Christ by devoting
their lives to the reclamation of the scattered
sheep of His fold. Their conversion was in-

' Bridgewater, Concertatio, ed. 1594.

SL Thojiias's Priory. 1 1

strumentally brought about by the letters of
their younger brother WilHam, formerly of
Trinity College, Oxford, but then studying for
the priesthood at Douay College/ The latter
was ordained priest, and came to England in
July, 1577, and some three years later became
tutor to Sir Thomas Gerard's son John, the
renowned Jesuit. About 158 1, he was exiled,
and in the following year was admitted into the
Society at Paris, and eventually was drowned
on the coast of Spain in March, 1590. A.
fourth brother, John,- subsequently became a
lay-brother in the Society, and was first socitis
to Fr. John Gerard in London, and then for
many years lived with the venerable martyr
Henry Garnett, SJ., up to the time of his
arrest in 1606.

Under Fr. William Sutton's advice, the rector
of Lutterworth^ announced from the pulpit to
his assembled parishioners his intention to leave
them. Overcome with grief, he began by beg-

^ Douay Diaries; Foley, Records S.J., vii. 750; Uodd, Cli.
Hist., ii. 137.

2 Morris, Condition of Catholics, Ixvi. ; Morris, Life of Fr.
John Gerard.

^ Pollen, Acts, 323.

12 SL Thomas's Prio7y.

ging pardon for having been so long not only
a blind sfuide, but one who had led them into
pitfalls and noxious errors. Then he declared
that there was no hope of salvation outside the
Church of Rome, and explained the reasons
thereof Finally he offered up a prayer for his
deluded people much to the following effect : —

God grant you grace still in your hearts

False doctrine to refrain,
And hold the true Catholic Faith

Which Christ did once ordain.

— Ven. John Thules' Song. 1616.^

Upon the conclusion of his pathetic address
he quickly descended the pulpit stairs, threw
off his gown, and, being otherwise ready booted
and girt for a journey, joined his brother Abra-
ham, who by arrangement had come to him.
Without delay the two brothers mounted their
horses, which a trusty servant held in waiting
outside the churchyard, and rode in hot haste
to London, whence they set sail at once for

The two brothers arrived at Douay College

1 Brit. Mus. Add. MSS., 15,225.
- Douay Diaries.


67. Thomas s Priory. i


23rd March, 1577, and were admitted to the
community on the following day. There they
applied themselves to the study of divinity ;
were ordained 23rd February, 1578 ; celebrated
Mass for the first time on 7th March ; set out
together for England on 19th March ; and
proceeded to the mission in their native
county. About seven years later both fell
into the hands of the persecutors, and were
banished the realm, with a number of other
priests, in 1585. Fr. Abraham was betrayed
by the notorious Bess of Hardwick, then wife
of George, sixth Earl of Shrewsbury. ^ Not-
withstanding, both returned to the scene of
their apostolic labours, — the elder to Stafford,
and . the younger perhaps to Padley Hall,
Co. Derby, for he was certainly at one time
tutor to two of the young Fitzherberts.
Fr. Abraham lived till the time of James I.,
and was one of the forty-seven priests who,
being confined in various prisons in the begin-
ning of that reign, were sent into perpetual

^ Morris, Troubles, iii. 26.

- Challoner, Memoirs, ed. 1742, ii. 14.

14 SL Thomas s Prior-y.

Wee that are heere in banishment

Continuallie doe moane,
Wee sighe and sobbe, wee weepe and waile,

Perpetually wee groane.
—The, Exile's Song, by F. B., Priest. About 1615.1

This was in 1606; but Fr. Abraham's zeal
for the salvation of souls daily increased in
intensity, and would not permit him to stand
idly groaning, so that the following year saw
him once more braving the dangers of the
English mission ; and from this time the
apostolic man is lost to sight.^

Fr. Robert, whose zeal and piety were un-
surpassed, was markedly successful in reclaiming
his deluded countrymen from the snares of
the new-fangled doctrines. In his care for
the faithful he was undaunted by the terrors
of the penal laws, and even ventured into the
very prison itself to minister to the suffering
recusants. At length, apprehended as we have
seen in Stafford gaol, he was straightway
dragged before Sir Walter Aston, a justice of
the peace, and a virulent persecutor, who, in
the words of the manuscript relation, ^ " writ his

1 Brit. Mas. Add. MSS., 15,225.

2 Dodd, Ch. Hist., ii. 386.

a Foley, Records S.J., iii. 231.

SL Thomas's P^'iory. 15

examination as pleased himself, and when he
read it to the said Mr. Robert, he utterly-
denied it to be his confession ". Thereupon
the irate knight uplifted his staff, felled the
helpless priest to the ground, and forthwith
committed him to gaol. This happened in
July ; and the summer assizes being at hand,
the holy martyr's detention previous to his ap-
pearance at the bar was of but short duration.
Meanwhile, he was visited in his cell by
William Overton, the Protestant Bishop of Lich-
field, who " came hither, and disputed with
him of many things, but of what matters I
cannot learn," says the contemporary narrator,
"but in the end, by every man's saying, he put
the bishop to silence ". The valiant confessor
was then arraigned at the bar, and with him
the prisoners previously cited who were found
in the chamber at the time of his apprehension.
The verdict of the jury was " Guilty " in each
case — the martyr of high treason, on account
of his priesthood, and the others of felony, "for
aiding and relieving him," that is for being
present at his xMass. Sir Walter Aston was
vehernent in denunciation of the priest, and

1 6 SL Thomas's Priory.

protested that if his evidence was ineffective
he would never more sit on the bench. Neither
did he, tradition says ; the wretched perse-
cutor was soon afterwards seized with sickness,
and was buried on May-day, 1589. All the
prisoners were condemned to death ; but the
gentlemen, as we have already seen, escaped
the extreme penalty ; for, in the words of the
manuscript relation,^ " the judge, seeing the
people flock about them much lamenting for
them (for they were well-beloved in the town),
was moved to some compassion, and so re-
prieved them."

Many, too, were the lamentations that so
learned a man as Fr. Sutton should suffer ; but
in his case no mercy could be shown unless he
would renounce the authority by which he re-
ceived his sacred orders, to which, like a fellow-
martyr, he could only reply : —

Yet that shall never fayle

Which my faith bare in hande; *

I gave my vow ; my vow gave me ;

Both vow and gift shall stande.

— Ven. Robert Southwell. 1595.

^ Foley, Records S.J., iii. 232.

SL Thovias s Priory. 17

" In the night preceding his passion," writes
Fr. Gerard, an intimate acquaintance of the
martyr,^ " he was heard by some Catholic
prisoners in conversation with others ; but
they, knowing that he was in strict solitary
confinement, and fearing lest some attempt
might be made against him secretly, descended
to the door of his cell and found it securely
shut ; but looking through a window, they saw
him enveloped in light and praying. Next
morning the Catholics waited at the door of
the prison to see the martyr go forth, and to
commend themselves to his prayers ; on seeing
them the ofood father commended himself to
theirs, that God would be pleased to grant him
constancy and perseverance to the end, ' from
Whom,' he said, ' I have this night received
greater consolation than I deserved.'" This
account is corroborated by another contempor-
ary writer," who says: "Truly the prisoners
there do assure themselves he had some special
comfort in prison the night before he suffered ;
for in the morning, being ready to go towards
execution, he turned him towards his fellow-

' Pollen, Acts^ 325. ^ Foley, Records S.J., iii. 231.


1 8 S^. Thomas's Priory.

prisoners, giving them his blessing, then said
these words : ' God comfort you all, for I am
comforted ; ' and so went most cheerfully and
boldly towards the end ".

The same writer continues : "When he came
to the place he desired he might speak, but they
would not permit him. Then he took his hand-
kerchief out of his pocket, lapped it together,
made a fine discourse of the candle we receive
in baptism and in the hour of death ; and in
remembrance of what he said, he held up the
handkerchief in token he lived and died in the
light of the Catholic faith. He was put off the
ladder and cut down very lively, for he stood
upon his feet, was taken by great violence, dis-
membered, spoke these words : ' O thou bloody
butcher ! God forgive thee ! ' So, calling upon
Jesus and Mary, he gave up his spirit."

Such is the graphic account handed clown to
us of the sufferings of this holy martyr. The
horrible tragedy was performed at the ordinary
place of execution just outside Stafford, to which
he was drawn on a hurdle in the customary
manner, on 27th July, the feast of the martyr-
dom of the Seven Sleepers, 1587. After the

S^. Thomas's Priory. 19

lapse of a year, the Catholics, longing to possess
relics of the holy martyr's body, one night
carried off from one of the oates of the town
a shoulder and arm, the thumb from which is
now preserved at Stonyhurst College.

My skaffold was the bedd where ease I founde,
The blocke a pillowe of eternall reste ;

My hedman cast me in a blisfull swounde,

His axe cutt off my cares from combred breste.

— Vcn. Robt. Southwell. 1596.


O God above, relent,

And listen to our cry :
O Christ, our woes prevent.
Let not Thy children die.
— Song of the Death of Ven.John Thules. i6i6.j

A generation has passed before we again
catch a glimpse of missionary work in Stafford.
The darkness meanwhile has become more in-
tense ; scenes of blood throughout the land are
witnessed with ever-increasing rapidity during
the long reign of the modern Jezebel ; and the
respite which was looked for under her more
humane successor has been delayed. It is now

1 Brit. Mas. Add. MSS., 15,225.

20 SL Thomas's Priory.

that we meet with another martyr closely as-
sociated with the local mission — the last to suffer
on the scaffold in the reign of James I. — the
Venerable William Southerne.^

This zealous missioner was born within the
limits of the old diocese of Lindisfarne, and was
probably a son of Thomas Southerne, whose
daughter Isabel married George Killingworth,
Esq., of Killingworth, near Newcastle-on-
Tyne. It is also likely that he was a near
relative to Mr, Southerne, the merchant of
Newcastle, whose daughter and co-heiress,
Eleanor, became the wife of Thomas Forster,
of Durham, gent., in the first quarter of the
seventeenth century. On 15th December,
1 569, Fr. Southerne was admitted into the
English College at Valladolid,"^ whence after
some time he was sent to the English College
at Seville, where he was ordained priest.
He then returned to St. Alban's, Valladolid,
and thence came to the English mission.

So to his native soil, upon command he came,
Of only love to save the souls that fell from virtue's frame.

— Bricj of the Life of Cmnpiun. 1581.

' Challoner, Memoirs, ed. 1742, ii. 118.
- Valliuiulid Diary, MS.

SL Thomas's Priory. 21

His first labours appear to have been in his

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Online LibraryJoseph GillowSt. Thomas's Priory, or The story of St. Austin's, Stafford → online text (page 1 of 9)