The Isle of Wight Martyrs


Blessed Robert Anderton and Blessed William Marsden by Peter Clarke


This year marks the 75th anniversary of the Beatification of the 136 English and Welsh martyrs who gave their lives so heroically at the time of the Reformation and in the subsequent penal days. Two of the martyrs are particularly remembered on the Isle of Wight where they were executed in 1586. Blessed Robert Anderton and Blessed William Marsden had never intended to set foot on the Island. It was only by a freak storm at sea that their ship took shelter at Cowes. They were betrayed when they were heard praying, "O Lord thy Will be done! But if we are to die, suffer us to die for Thy cause in our own country. Let us not be remembered as the first seminarians who have perished in the waters". Of all the iniquitous laws against Catholics, Statute "27 Elizabeth" was the most ferocious as it made it high treason for a priest ordained abroad to set foot in England. There was generous financial reward for reporting papists so it was no surprise when on disembarking at Cowes they were immediately arrested and sent to Winchester for trial at the Spring Assizes.


Their story however starts when they first met at Rivington Grammer School near Chorley in Lancashire. The two young men immediately became friends. They became almost inseparable. They were to pray, study, travel and ultimate die together as martyrs for Christ. From Lancashire they went to Oxford to continue their education and were enrolled at Brasenose College in 1578. It is recorded that both were "unassuming but full of life and spirits and they were remarkable for their piety, devotion and zeal for all things sacred." (Pollen, Acts 82) They set off together in July 1580 for Douai College near Rheims and offered themselves to Almighty God in the Holy Priesthood. This seminary in France was the venue for many young Englishmen (such as Robert Anderton and William Marsden) who wished to study for the priesthood and return to offer Mass and spread the Faith in their native homeland. It was founded in 1568 by Cardinal William Allen. English Catholics liked to think of Douai as an "Oxford over the water" until happier days should return to the Dowry of Mary.


Robert Anderton in particular proved to be a brilliant scholar and was proficient in Hebrew. After his Ordination he spent two years at Douai assisting other students with their studies. He was a skilful debator and an excellent preacher and was selected out of the whole college to give a sermon before a "noble and learned assembly of churchmen". He was ordained by the Cardinal of Guise on 31st March, 1584. William Marsden was ordained the following year and they both set out by ship for England on 4th Feb. 1586. They both looked forward to offering the Sacrifice of the Mass on English soil. However a cruel fate was to intervene. In a severe storm in the Channel their ship sought shelter at Cowes, where they were betrayed and arrested. They were sent from the Isle of Wight to the assizes at Winchester and then committed to Marshalsea Prison in London on 10th March, 1586. Having been found guilty of treason for returning to England as priests, they were sent back to the Island for execution in order to warn the people of the penalty for becoming a priest and for giving them assistance.


The exact position of their execution has never been established with any certainty. A contemporary account by Fr. Warford S.J. records, "there on some high ground in sight of the moaning sea the scaffold was erected". The venue was probably Cowes where they were arrested. A proclamation was ordered to be read out to those assembled at the place of execution which quoted the relevant Act of Parliament and informed those present that the two priests had: "sought to persuade her Majesty's subjects, under colour of maintainence of Popery, to rebellion". This served to intimidate the Island people to refute all allegiance to the Pope. "Their life was promised if they would recant, but in vain. The nearer virtue comes to triumph the more courageous it grows. Many of those who witnessed the execution returned to their homes striking their breasts". (Stonyhurst MSS. M)


Their Beatification by His Holiness Pope Pius XI on 15th December, 1929 (together with the other English and Welsh martyrs) took place at a solemn ceremony in St. Peter's, Rome in the presence of a vast multitude including thousands of English pilgrims. The Basilica, brilliantly illuminated, enhanced the character of the solemnity. The first Mass in honour of the newly Beatified Martyrs was celebrated with all the splendour of ceremony and music for which St. Peter's is famous. For those present it was natural to think back to those heroic figures whose relics the Vicar of Christ had come to venerate. What a contrast between the triumphant enthusiasm of the present day in Rome and that of their execution when most were dragged through the muddy streets, to their Calvary, where the tall gibbet and the hangman's rope awaited them. The names of their executioners and persecutors are forgotten, buried in oblivion; but God's saints are held in everlasting remembrance, and this was the day of their triumph.


His Holiness reminded the congregation, "The Beatification of these holy men and women who gave their lives so readily for the Faith gladdens our heart as it did the King of Martyrs in His prayer on the eve of His sacrifice, which not only consoled Him in the hour of sadness, but consoled too, by the promised advent of the one sheep-fold beneath the One Shepherd".


It took 417 years for a memorial to these two brave martyr-priests to be erected on the Isle of Wight. Nevertheless a simple marble monument was blessed by Fr. Michael Purbrick, parish priest of St. Thomas of Canterbury Church, Cowes on Sea Sunday in July 2003. Exactly one month later it was fitting that another Oxford graduate, Fr. Timothy Finigan MA, STL should come to pay tribute to these two Oxford men who gave their lives for the Faith. After offering the Sacrifice of the (Latin) Mass in St. Thomas's at Cowes Father led a small procession outside to the memorial and after reciting the De Profundis he gave the following address:


"Having offered the Traditional Sacrifice of the Holy Mass we are now gathered outside the church here at this memorial today to honour the bravery and the sacrifice of our two Isle of Wight martyrs, Blessed Robert Anderton and Blessed William Marsden, who so heroically gave their lives for the Faith in 1586 and to emphasise our unity with them. They belonged to the same Faith and celebrated the same Sacrifice of the Mass that we have celebrated here in this beautiful church this morning. In the dark days of the penal times nothing is more inspiring than the selflessness and devotion of the martyrs who returned to England like Fr. Anderton and Fr. Marsden, to say the immemorial Mass and to keep alive the One True Faith that was once firmly established within these shores for a thousand years until the Reformation. This simple monument placed here in the garden of St. Thomas of Canterbury Church, Cowes; the place where the two martyrs were arrested, is a fitting reminder of their love of Christ and His Holy Church and their determination in adversity to do His holy will. They never had the opportunity of offering the Sacrifice of the Holy Mass in England before they were betrayed and captured here on the Island. As we face today a decline in vocations to the priesthood and the religious life, we pray that young men will be inspired by these two martyr-priests to offer themselves to God in the Holy Priesthood in order to say the Immemorial Mass and help souls obtain their everlasting reward in Heaven.

The heroic sacrifice of the martyrs encourages us to maintain our devotion to the Mass and the Sacraments and Fidelity to the Holy Catholic Church and all that it teaches. We thank God for these two brave young priests and we ask Our Blessed Lord to inspire us with the same zeal that they so honourably portrayed as they suffered death and attained the martyr's crown".


To commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Beatification of the two martyrs on 15th December 2004 the present Abbot of Douai, Rt. Rev. Dom Geoffrey Scott OSB will preach at a Solemn Mass at St. Mary's, Ryde on the Isle of Wight before travelling to the memorial at Cowes to pay tribute to the two former courageous Douai students who laid down their lives for Christ.


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