I can’t say that I knew what to expect when I joined members of St. Mary’s and Sacred Heart on a pilgrimage to walk the sites of Christian martyrdom in London, at the end of June.
Simon Butler and Deacon Michael Kennedy guided us and the first stop was the junction of Albany Road and the Old Kent Road.
To be honest, Christian martyrdom did not spring to mind when we were standing across the street from a Tesco, an Argos and a Kwik Fit, alongside the pub, the Thomas A’Beckett, which had once been closed down for drug dealing and is now a bar club restaurant.
What we learned was that this junction was where the ancient City of London’s authority ended, it was here Henry V met the returning troops from Agincourt, and here, at this boundary, once called St Thomas-a-Watering, that was also a place of execution.
Criminals were hung and their bodies left on gibbets as a warning to those travelling the main road to London.
Now my notes in my notebook get wobbly, I can just read that on 8th July 1539 Griffith Clerke, vicar of Wandsworth, and his chaplain and two others were hung, drawn and quartered for not acknowledging the royal supremacy of Henry VIII.
I notice that throughout the pilgrimage my handwritten notes go wobbly—not only because I was trying to write when walking, but also because I was more upset than I realized by the wretchedness of the events Simon described. In fact, I found it hard to both take notes and to contemplate the suffering while considering Simon’s question: what drives people to be willing to die for their faith?
Each of us walked at our own pace, considering the stories of torture, of hangman’s ropes, of axes chopping off heads or opening body cavities, we were each individually contemplating what Simon called ‘centuries of butchery.’ From the Old Kent road down to Tower Bridge, we walked to Traitor’s Gate on the Embankment. Then we walked up and around the Tower to a small park dedicated to
those who died but were not executed inside the Tower.
I found it a dislocating experience to be stopping, on a gorgeous sunny June day, as the tourists walked past our group waving their iPhones, talking videos and selfies, while we listened to stories of religious martyrdom.
We all stood beside the stone that marks the site of an ancient scaffold in a small park surrounded by low bushes. At our feet, in a larger surrounding square, were all the names, including religious martyrs, carved in stone, with the dates of their death. Simon told us
some of the brave words that were spoken before execution, but all I can make out in my notebook is the phrase: “I’m come hither to die…but I die in the faith.’
This was the site where more than 125 people were put to death, for their faith. As Simon talked his voice was interwoven with the sound of buses, the whirr of cranes busy building buildings across the Thames and a helicopter flying overhead.
From the Tower memorial park we walked on, stopping at Smithfield, that smooth field, yet another boundary area, a market place and place for public spectacles, a place of public executions, this time by fire.
What is so odd, to me, was that not one of the places we stopped—but for the fact had I not been on this pilgrimage—nothing of the surroundings would have hinted at the religious carnage that had taken place. You had to know about it or you passed it by and I
found it hard to reconcile our modern life and faith to this time when faith was a matter of life and death—because it is so clear that the city of London has absorbed these traumas, moved on, if not built over and through, so much religious bloodshed.
This feeling became even more overwhelming at our next stop, a well-lit and provisioned Pret-a-Manger, where we stopped to use the loo, check our emails and get a coffee and some of us bought sandwiches for lunch.
The next stop on the pilgrimage was Charterhouse, whose physical beauty was made, for me, more poignant by the wrenching story of the martyrdom of the Carthusian monks.
From 4 May 1535 to 20 September 1537, these monks, were hung, disemboweled while still alive and then quartered or starved to death, all for refusing to recognize King Henry VIII’s right to divorce Catherine of Aragon and his supremacy.
After this talk we broke for lunch, in the nearby park, and, as our group chatted and ate, we discussed the questions Simon was raising, of what brings one to the place where one would be willing to die for faith—but then slowly, slowly, after touching on the topic of the continuing and brutal war in the Middle East, our conversation moved on to the idea of what does it mean to stand in God as the world turns.
There were benches, butterflies and lavender and the words that I can see are my notes: ‘Gladly to be thinking of God.’
I don’t know if this change in conversation happened or was helped by a lunch, or by Simons questions or because we were surrounded by a gorgeous park with the people luxuriating in the shade—all so very different from the idea of scaffolding, racks, beheadings and disemboweling. But as we all talked, sharing our reactions to the stories, it was if all the stories of those martyred for their faith became, not just part of our conversation, but also a part of the hot wind and the turning world.
Our next stop was St. James, Clerkenwell, which, like Saint Mary’s Battersea, is another Georgian Church. Here we were invited in and then able to read the names of the modern memorial plaque to the 66 Protestant martyrs, from 1400 to 1558, all who died in the fires
of Smithfield: ‘For the word of God and for the testimony of Jesus Christ’ Rev 1-9. At St. James, Simon shared with us the story of Ann Aske, a poet and preacher— martyred in 1545, the only woman to be racked, which so destroyed her body that she had to be tied to the chair that carried her to the fire and her death.
This is a link to her poems:
After this church visit, we hopped on the tube to Tyburn – walking out from Marble Arch and into the Hyde Park where Simon gathered us together once more to share the stories about the Tyburn martyrs – https://www.tyburnconvent.org.uk/martyrs-martyrs
We all stood in a circle, in Hyde Park, at the top of the park, where a public execution site existed from 1196 to 1783. During the Reformation, 105 Catholics were hanged and sometimes drawn and quartered on the Tyburn Tree gallows where now people walk their
dogs and children play.
Simon asked us to think about the freedom we have today to practice our faith in safety and then, we were led in prayer by Michael.
We prayed together for all of the martyrs, both Catholic and Protestant, and for those dangerous political and physical boundaries where violence and religious conflict still exists in the world.
Our prayers, said aloud, were carried on the summer wind, and passing tourists, startled by our voices, looked up from their phones, towards our group, though no one stopped to ask us why or for whom we were saying the Lord’s Prayer.
We crossed over Bayswater Road for our last stop, where we sat in silence in the visitors chapel at the Tyburn Convent, witnessing the 24/7 praying for unity, between the Catholic Church and the Anglican, by the cloistered Benedictine nuns.
It was a powerful moment, to sit and watch a single nun pray at the altar, but behind bars.
Here was the place where all the days stories, came into my mind, a mind, which was jumbled, tumbled and I admit, disturbed by upsetting thoughts about the role religion can play in persecution and suffering.
I sat and drew a picture of the praying nun as she prayed for unity, behind the tall barred gate. I drew a small lock and made a note: ’this lock needs a key.’ I became aware that Christ is that key.
To have walked around London, with fellow pilgrims, both Catholic and Protestant, guided by Simon and Michael, and to hear the martyr’s history so vividly brought to life, and then to end the pilgrimage witnessing the prayers of the Benedictine nuns—nuns who chose every day of their life, to pray continuously for the glory of God, and the needs of the whole human family, was a great gift.
I found it hard to face the end of my prayers and and my inevitable return to my daily and secular life. But then, as I left, I found myself smiling because to the right of the convent’s main door was a sign. The notice said that said the Tyburn Convent nuns are in need of money for a new boiler – so if anyone feels so inclined, do feel free to make a donation:
So thank you to all who came and walked and to Simon and Michael and David Britten for organizing such a memorable pilgrimage.