Wednesday 8 January 2020

THE MARTYRS WALK- Tower Hill to Tyburn

The execution site on Tower Hill.
Monday 18th November,  11am, emerging from the tube station on Tower Hill, a few hundred metres north of The Tower of London. John Lodge and I crossed the road towards the Merchant Seamen’s War Memorial, an area of pale cream Portland stone walls, benches and statues covered in darkened bronze plaques with  thousands of names of seamen, their ships and the ports they originated from. It is a surprising multitude of names , ships and ports across the British Isles. The memorial completely surrounds and engulfs you as you walk through its sombre precinct. It makes you wonder at its enormity and its meaning.
Just to one side of this vast  edifice is a small garden with a cobbled square surrounded by looping chains. Within this  area are bronze plaques with the names of famous Lords, bishops, courtiers and ministers  with the dates that each individual was beheaded on this spot. Thomas Cromwell, Thomas More, John Fisher, Thomas Wyatt, Thomas Laud and many more. This representative list of names are just some of the 125 who met their end here. Each one paid the price for treason.
Half starved, week and in rags the person to be executed would be carried from the Tower to this spot. Some would bravely give a speech, often humble and pleading their allegiance to the monarch. Crowds of thousands would gather to see them die. 20, 000 spectators on Tower hill has been estimated at any one time. What did the crowds of onlookers feel and think?

John and I had begun, The London Martyrs Walk, the British Pilgrimage Trust provide on their website with maps and information. A martyr is somebody who has suffered and sometimes died for a cause they believe in.  The walk includes execution sites where criminals were executed too. You could argue that the taking of any life is a sort of martyrdom. What is the morality of taking a person’s life for whatever reason?

Some of the people executed on Tower Hill, in particular Thomas More and John Fisher were later created saints by the Catholic Church. Is making somebody a saint akin to advertising the church and a set of beliefs through celebrity? They were turned into high profile people.  A bit like a You Tube influencer today.  Saints ,”sell,” Catholicism.

John looking at the statue of Samuel Pepys in Seething Lane.

We walked a short distance from Tower Hill to Seething Lane. Samuel Pepys worked at the Navy Board from 1660, located in Seething Lane, as Clerk of the acts. He lived on the site of his office and attended church at St Olave’s Church, across the road. He is buried in St Olave’s.

 The churchyard and entrance to St Olaves Church in Seething Lane.

 Samuel Pepys cannot be described as a Saint, more a likeable rogue. He was an ordinary man, with strengths, as well as faults and failings. He was greedy, lecherous, kind, thoughtful, critical of others, mocking, friendly and liked his food and drink and loved a good party. He was also secretive in his attempts to protect himself from his King discovering his personally held views. He wrote his famous diary in a sort of shorthand  so very few people could  read it, and of course he didn’t want his wife to know about some of his nefarious activities. He was apparently religious, probably because he had to be, to avoid censure from the authorities.

 Just on the corner of Seething Lane, next to Pepys Navy Office was located, in Elizabeth I’s  time the town house of one of her most loyal and powerful courtiers, Francis Walsingham. From 1570 onwards he was the spymaster, torturer and sent many to their deaths.
 Saints and sinners, you wonder what makes them what they are? What sort of person will die for their beliefs? What sort of person will destroy another because of their beliefs? What sort of person remains merely ordinary?

The ,"Gift of Cane," memorial to 18th century slaves.


In amongst shiny glass and steel office blocks we came across a modernist set of sculptures, the memorial to slavery.  Long slender pillars represent sugar cane. The words of a poem by Lemn Sissay, entitled, “Gift of Cain,” is  carved into a stone pulpit beside the slender pillars and extend onto the  pillars themselves.  The theme of the poem is the power of money and the power of brotherhood. It also commemorates William Wilberforce, the  18th century emancipator. It reminds us of how human beings can be sacrificed, for, not just beliefs but for money and wealth. The monument was unveiled by Bishop Desmond Tutu, in 2007, in commemoration of the bicentenary of the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade.

The Gilt of Cain
By Lemn Sissay, 2007
Here is the ask price on the closed position,
history is no inherent acquisition
for here the Technical Correction upon the act,
a merger of truth and in actual fact
on the spot, on the money – the spread........................

Our journey, was paced out over three consecutive Mondays. It could have taken  less time, however  we came across  galleries and museums, coffee shops and lunchtime pubs which captured our time, and, anyway, we took it easy and enjoyed the mere act of walking, talking and taking in the world around us.,
 Amongst the places we saw and visited were twenty-four churches and one Chinese Buddhist temple. Many of the churches were Roman Catholic. The penal laws which had come about in Henry VIII’s time and had brought about the execution of Thomas More and John Fisher, John Houghton, the Abbot of Charterhouse and other priests and nuns, were started to be repealed in 1766. The most important of the penal laws were removed by the Catholic Relief Act of 1829. We went into churches that were able to be built because of this act.

We came across many of London’s, Medieval,  Stuart and Georgian Churches. One of the key issues that emerged for me from visiting all these churches, were the various shades of Christianity they represented and the freedom this country provides people of all faiths.
St Etheldreda’s in Ely place, which is a medieval church and had been the chapel for the Bishops of Ely from 1250,  was bought by the Rossinian order in 1874 when the Bishop of Ely put the dilapidated church up for sale. The Rossinians were an order of Catholic Priests from Italy who came to England after the 1829 Catholic Relief Act to rejuvenate Catholicism in Britain.
We had some misconceptions as we went along. All Saints in Margaret Street is a point in question.
 All Saints is a very elaborate Victorian Gothic style church. As we entered, a funeral was taking place. The church was packed with a large congregation. One of the funeral directors asked us to stand quietly to one side. A youthful   choir in red cassocks and white surplices sang angelically. A priest dressed in a richly embroidered black Roman chasuble swung a thurible sending clouds of incense around the altar. The officiating priest with assistant priests was intoning the mass in Latin. We didn’t stay long because we thought we were intruding. The requiem mass took John and I back to our youth of Latin, High masses. We imagined whoever the dead person was had requested this Latin Requiem mass.It was only later that John and I discovered that this was not a Roman Catholic church at all. It is High Anglican.  Amusingly they appeared more catholic than the Catholics. When Henry VIII first took over the headship of the church, the changes to religious ceremonies were hardly noticeable. Everything appeared to carry on as before as far as everyday observance was concerned. The headship of the church in England had fundamentally changed from the Pope to Henry but outwardly, to the ordinary person, very little had changed. Here was evidence that a part of the Anglican community has kept Roman Catholic traditions.

All Saints Margaret Street with the entrance to London Fo Guang Shan Buddhist Temple on the left.

All Souls in Langham Place, just north of Oxford Circus and next door to the BBC Centre, is very different. Young enthusiastic parishioners, on ladders and stools were decking the church with Christmas decorations. Microphones and speakers were set up for a vibrant musical experience. This church appeared to be an evangelical young person’s church. A church of action. It too is Anglican. The Christmas decorations, the lack of religious icons, paintings and decorations made it look more like a cosy community hall than a church. I could see no crucifix or stations of the cross as displayed in All Saints Church.  This is a different approach to religion, a more vibrant youthful approach. Singing modern songs, rock groups, youth activities and prayer meetings are the order of the day here.  Comparing it to All Saints Church it demonstrates the breadth of approach to Christianity there is in this day and age.

All Souls, Langham Place.

We also on our walk came across the Freemasons Hall in Holborn. We went in to visit their museum displays. The Freemasons have formed their own set of secretive rituals and keep many of their work and beliefs secret. Only men can become freemasons. They generally hold to old testament principles.

  The people at, The London Fo Guang Shan Temple in Margaret Street near Oxford Circus welcolmed us in. It was located just opposite All Saints Anglican church. This was not part of The Martyrs Walk itinerary but John and I thought it would be an interesting experience if we went inside. A Chinese lady welcomed us into the temple and told us about the Buddha and Buddhism. It occurred to me the philosophy of the Buddha ,the complete personal rejection of material things, greed, hate and delusion is not far removed from  St Francis of Assissi, who also lived a life of frugality, leaving earthly things behind.

St Giles in the Fields.

St Giles in the Fields, is an interesting church. St Giles Church, focusses us back to The Martyrs Trail. The church is located just north of Oxford Street not far from Centre Point. The site was founded by Queen Mathilda in 1101 as a leper hospital. Over the centuries its lurid history developed. On the 20th September 1586 Anthony Babington(1561-1586) and his plotters who were Catholics trying to overthrow Elizabeth and put Mary Queen of Scots on the throne were executed outside the church. One of Francis Walsinghams great successes. In 1665 The Great Plague began in the parish. Twelve Roman Catholic martyrs including Oliver Punkett, who were betrayed by Titus Oates,  were buried in the churchyard.  John Lord Belasye, a friend of Charles Ist and later after the Restoration,  a friend of Charles II, is buried here. A large stone plaque relates the story of his military feats and leadership at the battles of Naseby, Edge Hill and Newbury.

A plaque, displayed inside St Giles describes the military campaigns John Lord Belasye took part in.

Later during the 1830’s  Dickens published Oliver Twist. It was this area, around St Giles,that was the location for Fagan’s pickpocketing exploits. By the 19th century the area was a ,”rookery,” where criminals and the destitute lived. Inside is a pulpit removed from The West Street Chapel from which John and Charles Wesley regularly preached from.

Thomas a Becket was born near this spot next to the Guildhall.

John and I passed the site where Thomas a Becket, the most famous martyr of the Middle Ages, was born, adjacent to the Guildhall.This brings to mind the cult of pilgrimage, perhaps not a bad thing in itself depending on the motivation but also that side of catholicism, in the Middle Ages, the selling of indulgences and the virtual buying a place in heaven that brought about, in 1517, Martin Luther's ninety five theses and eventually the Reformation which of course links back to the main reasons for the martyrs this walk celebrates.

We entered Guildhall art gallery and then descended to the basement  where the ruins of London’s, Roman Amphitheatre built in AD 70, was located. Gladiators fought to the death on this site in front of crowds of thirty thousand. Dying and killing as a spectacle for the entertainment of others, has a long history and does seem innate in the human make up.

The curved line of dark bricks marks part of the circumference of the Roman Amphitheater in the forecourt of The Guildhall.

On we walked to ,”Postman’s Park,” near the Barbican just north of St Pauls Cathedral. This park commemorates people who freely and consciously gave their lives for the lives of others. A different angle on dying. Some of the ceramic tiles erected on a wall in the park read:
 “ James Hewers, on September 24th 1878 was killed by a train at Richmond in an endeavour to save another man.”
“Thomas Simpson, died of exhaustion after saving many lives from the breaking ice at Highgate Ponds January 25th 1885.”

There are numerous plaques remembering acts of self-sacrifice like this in Postman’s Park. It is thought provoking that there are people who will sacrifice their own life in this way. Do we all have that capacity? Nobody can possibly know until the moment comes.

Ceramic plaques on a wall in Postman's Park commemorating those who have given their lives for others.

We moved on to, The Old Bailey, The Central Criminal Court of England and Wales. It is located on the site of what was Newgate Prison. From 1783, Newgate, took over from Tyburn as the public place of execution and was notorious for public hangings.  From 1868 to 1902  hangings  took place within the confines of the prison, because of the civil disturbances that could occur during public hangings. At St Sepulchre Church, nearby, there is displayed the bell rung outside a condemned persons cell the night before they were to be executed.

An entrance to The Old Bailey.

The statue of the Golden Boy of Pye Corner, just along from the Old Bailey, is reputed to be the site where the fire of London was finally extinguished. Nobody knows how many people died in that conflagration but surprisingly it was possibly quite a small number. Most people evacuated London for the fields around the city in plenty of time.

The Golden Boy at Pye Corner.

The Fortune of War pub near St Bartholomew’s Hospital is where the,” Resurrectionists,” laid out  freshly exhumed bodies from local burials so that surgeons from the hospital could examine them. The surgeons needed the bodies for their research. “Body Snatching,” was an illegal occupation.

On John and I walked towards Smithfield Square and the great Victorian meat market and where meat has been bought and sold since Medieval times. Here we visited St Bartholomew’s the Great, Church. The churchyard is the site of a plague pit. A statue of Henry VIII is positioned above the entrance arch to the precinct of this church. His reformation of the church in England and his taking on the role of the head of the church created a challenge for many high ranking Catholics in the country and brought about their deaths.

 Within the area of Smithfield  is located a plaque commemorating the execution of Robert The Bruce. The area was used for burning people at the stake during Mary Tudor’s reign and during Elizabeths reign people were hung drawn and quartered here too.
A statue in the middle of Smithfield .

These means of execution were incredibly barbaric. The levels of suffering must have been immense. Why were these methods of execution used? This was beyond just ending somebodies life but making every part of them suffer indescribable pain. The people to be executed had obviously become anathema. The Spanish Inquisition, for instance, were experts at eradicating a person’s very existence. This is hard to believe but religions do this. Even today ISIS execute people in the most barbaric ways. There is something in the essence of ,"belief ,"where people think they are so right and that others are so wrong the non believers  are damned.

I wondered about the people who carried out these forms of barbaric executions. Later the nun giving us the tour of the English martyrs relics kept  at Tyburn Convent enlightened me. It seems so obvious. Smithfield was a meat market. The butchery trade was carried on  there. A butcher is an expert at killing animals and dissecting them. They had the tools and the skills, so it was butchers from Smithfield who performed the process of hanging drawing and quartering and burning at the stake. These people thought it an honour.

The entrance to The Charterhouse.

We walked on to Charterhouse and stood at the gates where the abbot of the Carthusians, John Houghton in 1537 had his head displayed after being hung drawn and quartered because he would not sign Henry VIII’s Act of Supremacy. Ten other Carthusians were imprisoned in Newgate Prison at the time, nine of them starving to death and the last beheaded on Tower Hill.

It is here also in Charterhouse Square where a vast plague pit was constructed in 1348 by the Carthusians and where they buried the dead  of the most virulent plague that ever reached England. It has been discovered recently with what great respect and care the dead of the plague were treated. The construction of cross rail in the area disrupted the plague pit and archaeologists were able to examine plague skeletons.

By now on our walk John and I had encountered many sites of death and execution. How does a person face death? John Houghton, the abbot of Charterhouse knew he was going to be brutally killed involving a lengthy process of being hung drawn and quartered. People who caught the plague had hours or days to live. People rotting in prison had a long time to contemplate their fate. Some died because of disease as with the plague but many of the people who were executed were those who kept to their beliefs against the law of the land. Slaves, treated as commodities, not as human beings, died on the slave ships or because of  the harsh punishments given by masters.  I wonder how they  dealt with it? 

A triptych of The English Martyrs in  St James in Spanish Place.

St James in Spanish Place, Mayfair is a  Roman Catholic Church. It is  frequented by the Spanish ambassador and has connections to the Spanish monarchy. The present church is opposite the site of a smaller chapel that was used by the Spanish Embassy when it was located just round the corner in Manchester Square.  St James is connected to the English Martyrs who died at Tyburn. It has a triptych of the English Martyrs and an information board naming them all in a side chapel to the right of the high altar. The Spanish Embassy, during Elizabeth’s reign, supported, clandestinely, Catholics in England. Relics, parts of the martyrs bodies and blood stained clothing had been collected secretly after their executions and removed to the Spanish embassy and then taken to Spain for safe keeping.

JESUITS "They're behind you."
Nearing the end of our walk John and I visited the Jesuit Church in Farm Street, Mayfair. Jesuit priests made up a high proportion of the English Martyrs executed at Tyburn during the reign of Elizabeth I. They included, Edmond Campion and Robert Southwell amongst others. The Jesuits, many of whom were academics and theologians and philosophers were at the spearhead of Catholic Europe’s response to the Reformation and English Jesuits were at the forefront of trying to infiltrate and set up catholic resistance in Protestant England.

The the chancel and altar in the Jesuits Church, Farm Street.

From here we walked on towards Marble Arch passing the memorial to animals who have suffered and died in military campaigns around the world through the centuries. We walked past Marble Arch and made our way to Tyburn Convent. The Tyburn Convent close to the site of the Tyburn Tree, the place of execution, is run by an order of contemplative Benedictine nuns.  It was founded in 1901 by Mother Marie Adele Garnier and  follows the rule of St Benedict. The order fled to England in 1901 because of the French laws against religious orders. Mother Marie chose the site of Tyburn where many English martyrs had been executed during the Elizabethan age. This monastery is now the Mother House of her Congregation which has convents in England, Scotland, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Italy and France.  John contacted the Mother Superior before we made our final part of The Martyrs Walk to request a guided tour of the convent and to learn more about the English martyrs. We arrived at the convent early for our appointment and had time to visit the chapel and see the monstrance on the altar where the perpetual adoration of Christ goes on. We rang the doorbell to the convent and a nun appeared. We told her our request and within minutes another nun appeared and welcomed us. She took us to the crypt of the chapel to show us the altar with a reconstruction of Tyburn Gallows  erected above it. We saw relics of many of the martyrs, bones, pieces of skull and blood stained fragments of clothing. These were the relics of Jesuits and Catholics executed at Tyburn. Edmond Campion, John Houghton, Oliver Plunket and Margaret Ward and others are commemorated here.  The relics had been  kept in various churches in Spain. When the King of Spain heard that the Benedictine Nuns had set up a convent at Tyburn in 1901 he had them returned to England for the convent to keep.
Relics of the English Martyrs kept by the nuns at Tyburn Convent in their crypt.

The nun who gave the tour was very friendly, extrovert and full of fun. I was slightly disconcerted at the joy and glee she seemed to portray in describing the process of being hung drawn and quartered. She is a nun who leads a contemplative life of mediation and prayer, focussed on her, “bridegroom,” Jesus Christ. The death of the body is low on her scale of priorities. Death to her brings her to her desired destination, heaven and union with Christ of course.  I suppose the executions of the past, in her mind, were merely a step along the way to eternity no matter how painful a process.

TYBURN TREE  where the gallows were.
After leaving the convent we followed the nun’s directions and John and I found the actual site of Tyburn located on a traffic island at the junction of Edgeware Road, Bayswater Road and Marble Arch leading to Oxford Street. Three trees are planted in the shape of the gallows and a stone roundel is laid in the pavement in the centre of the three trees with the words, “The Site of Tyburn Tree,” etched into it. Traffic rushes past. People gather on the traffic island as they cross Edgware Road and hurry on. Nobody stopped to look at the three trees or the roundel. Nobody was aware of the significance of the site they walked over.

A traffic island at the End of Edgware Road and Oxford Street. The three trees mark the shape of Tyburn gallows and the roundel in the pavement between the trees marks the spot.

When the highwayman Jack Shepherd was executed here in 1724 the audience reached 200,000 apparently. Huge crowds followed the condemned person from Newgate Prison to Tyburn. Hanging days were public holidays and crowds turned out. “Speakers Corner,” got its name because of the speeches many condemned people made before their execution.

The walk was rich in experiences for both John and myself. It provided us with a lot to think about;  the inevitability of death, the process of death, the experiences of the executioner, the law maker, the monarch who was the apex of this judicial and sovereign system and the executed.

The site of Tyburn Tree.

    The British Pilgrimages Trust:

"The Gift of Cane," by Lemn Sissey: