A brief history of St. Cuthbert Mayne
Priest and Martyr
Feast day 29th November
St. Cuthbert Mayne was born on March 20th, 1544 (feast of St. Cuthbert) in the parish of Shirwell, in North Devon. The eldest of three brothers, Edward and James, Cuthbert was both of humble origins and of humble nature. His father, William Mayne, seems to have been a simple countryman probably in the service of the Chichester family. His uncle was a Protestant minister who singled out Cuthbert to follow in his footsteps, paying for his education. In the year 1561, at the age of 17, Cuthbert became an Anglican rector of the village of Huntshaw and he admitted with great sorrow later that at this time, he knew neither what Ministry nor Religion meant. St. Cuthbert was then sent by his uncle to study at Oxford, as it was not uncommon in those days to first be given a living and then to study the theology afterwards! At Oxford he became the Chaplain to St. John’s College. Here there was a good deal of sympathy for the Catholic religion and many of its members rejected the new doctrines and left Oxford. St. Cuthbert was mild of nature and at Oxford he was loved both by the Protestants and by the Catholics who advised him of the error in which he was living. They persuaded him that the new doctrine was heretical and so he eventually became a Catholic. Two friends in particular who had a great influence on Cuthbert Mayne at Oxford were Gregory Martin and Edmund Campion.
The unjust laws put in force against the Catholic priesthood after the Reformation in England, prohibited the saying of the Mass and the exercise of any religious function and even forbade the education of young candidates for the priesthood. Therefore seminaries for the training of English secular priests were established in different countries. Douai College, in France, was established by Cardinal Allen in the year 1562 and it became the seed-bed of many noble and courageous English martyrs who died to keep the Catholic Faith alive in the hearts and minds of their own people. Between 30 and 40 priests were sent back to England from Douai each year to minister to the people and sustain the Faith in this troubled land.
Letters to Cuthbert from his Catholic friends at Douai, full of their new found spiritual joy and begging him to join them (one of them being the above-mentioned St. Edmund Campion who also received the crown of martyrdom, four years after St. Cuthbert) fell into the hands of the Bishop of London, and so an order was given for Cuthbert’s arrest. However, when those wishing to arrest him arrived at Oxford, he had returned to Cornwall, and being informed of his imminent arrest, he knew he had to make a definite decision. Cuthbert decided to leave immediately for Douai in order to train for the priesthood. He took the ship from Cornwall to France and arrived at Douai at the beginning of 1573, where he was reunited with his Oxford friends.
Cuthbert made rapid progress in his theological studies, outstripping his contemporaries both in wisdom and in gentleness. He was ordained priest on February 7th 1575. No sooner was this accomplished than he set sail for England, together with Fr. John Paine (who in 1582 was hanged, drawn and quartered at Chelmsford), eager to avail himself of his pastoral office for the conversion of his countrymen and to do all he could to regain ‘Our Lady’s Dowry’s to the Catholic Church. The priests would have been provided with the bare necessities to carry out their priestly duties – a crucifix, the minimum of vestments, and a stole woven with all the liturgical colours so that it could be worn for every occasion. One priest called this stole ‘Joseph’s coat’ as it was of many colours and often steeped in blood! St. Cuthbert arrived in Cornwall and got in touch with members of the Arundell family of Lanherne. It was probably Sir John Arundell who sent Cuthbert to his nephew, Francis Tregian, one of the richest landowners in Cornwall. Francis had inherited Golden Manor from his father who had married Katherine Arundell. Here at Golden, under cover of being the steward of Francis Tregian, St. Cuthbert ministered to the needs of the poor Catholics in the district, often also saying Mass at Lanherne, where he sometimes spent up to two weeks at a time.
The high sheriff of Cornwall at this time was Richard Grenville, who was a notorious hater of the Catholic Faith. It was he who (together with ten justices of the peace and 100 armed men) demanded to search Golden Manor. St. Cuthbert was captured in this house in 1577 and brought to Launceston, where he was imprisoned and chained in a dark and terrible dungeon for about three months. It is said that his cell was the darkest and foulest of the whole prison. St. Cuthbert was tried and condemned solely and purely because he upheld the Church of his Fathers, the Church of the Apostles, emanating from the chair of St. Peter. He was indicted for having a copy of the Jubilee Bull of 1575 and of publishing the same, for upholding the ecclesiastical authority of the Holy Father, for bringing into the country an Agnus Dei (this was the Lamb of God sealed upon a piece of wax from the Paschal candle blessed by the Pope), and for having celebrated the Holy mass. Not one single political matter was mentioned during his trial, thus making of St. Cuthbert, in every sense, a true martyr for the Faith and for the Faith alone. The reality of the situation was that St. Cuthbert was judged to be guilty of having possession of a small piece of wax which the Holy Father had blessed, of carrying a printed copy of the Holy Father’s autograph and of saying his prayers!
His trial was wrongly and informally conducted. The jury were threatened with punishment if they did not give a verdict of guilty. The ‘prisoner’ was therefore found guilty on all counts and sentenced to the horrible death of being hanged, drawn and quartered. On hearing the death sentence St. Cuthbert Mayne, with a cheerful countenance and lifting his eyes and hands to Heaven answered “Deo Gratias.” However he still had some months to wait until his final reward, as there was a disagreement between the judges. In the meantime Richard Grenville went to Queen Elizabeth and as a reward for his part in the capture of Cuthbert Mayne, was awarded a knighthood.
St. Cuthbert never lost heart and spent his long wait in encouraging his fellow prisoners as much as he could. He often fell on his knees to say his prayers, which lasted far into the night. Once just after midnight when it was unusually dark, St. Cuthbert was meditating and praying. Suddenly a bright light shone around him lighting up the terrible wall of the dungeon. It awakened the other prisoners who wondered where the light was coming from. St. Cuthbert gently told them to go back to sleep as it did not concern them. In reality it was nothing less than a miraculous consolation which had been given to the Saint in his dismal dungeon. One morning a man came to the prisoner and told him that he would be executed within three days. St. Cuthbert would have liked to reward this man very much for the great news which he had brought to him.
The day before his martyrdom, St. Cuthbert was taken from his prison and brought before the justices of the county. He was then questioned from morning until late at night to break him down and in order to force him to make some admission as to his guilt. Although he had answered all their arguments, quoting freely from the Holy Bible, they spread rumours that he had utterly failed in proving any of his statements and that he knew hardly a word of Scripture. They continued to offer him his life if he would renounce his religion and swear on the Bible that the Queen was supreme head of the Church in England. He solemnly affirmed that “the queen neither ever was, nor is, nor ever shall be the head of the Church in England.”
The next day, 29th November 1577, the sentence was carried out, and Cuthbert Mayne died at the age of thirty-three years, a martyr for the Faith: his offence – that of being a Catholic priest in England! He was brought out to the waiting crowd, calm and serene. He was tied to a hurdle, which was attached to a horse. A justice of the peace advised the executioner to let his head hang down in such a way that it would hit against the cobbles of the street. Cuthbert, speaking for the first time also asked if he might be given this favour, which would add to the glory of his martyrdom. However some ministers came forward to forbid this brutal deed. He was dragged for about a quarter of a mile to where the gibbet awaited him. It was higher than usual for he was considered to be a great criminal. He was untied from the hurdle and for a few moments he knelt down to pray. He was told to climb backwards up the ladder leading to the platform, like a criminal, in order to increase his humiliation. This platform would act as his last pulpit and from there he looked upon the faces of the vast congregation. He then gave his last homily with a voice clear and free from all trace of fear. He told them that he died because the law had judged him guilty of death. For himself he knew he was innocent of any crime before the law, as God would presently judge him. Then the justices of the law made a final angry attempt to make him incriminate Francis Tregian and Sir John Arundell, asking if they knew of the things for which he was to die. He answered that those things were known to him alone and that the only thing he knew of these men was that they were godly gentlemen. He went on to remind all of the Catholic Faith for which he died and their own responsibility to Christ for what had been done to His Church. Then the rope was put around his neck and the martyr glancing upwards and striking his breast cried out: “In manus tuas, Domine… He did not have time to finish “commendo spiritum meum” because immediately the executioner swung away the ladder. He then slashed at the rope with such violence, that St. Cuthbert fell from the high gibbet, striking his head on the platform so hard that his eyes were forced from their sockets. Lying on the ground, choking and barely alive, St. Cuthbert’s garments were torn away from his body by the executioner who with sharp knives began the work of dismembering and disembowelling the body and cutting in into four parts. The heart was torn out and held up for all to see and then thrown onto a fire. Tar and pitch were used to preserve the four parts of the body, which were distributed over the county, only one quarter being sent out of Cornwall to the native town of St. Cuthbert, Barnstaple, where it was spiked on to the bridge crossing the river Taw. Wadebridge had the honour of receiving the martyr’s head and this is the only relic, which to this day is still preserved. From Wadebridge it was removed by a member of the Arundell family and taken to Lanherne. This precious relic was then taken to another place so that it would not be discovered. In 1807, the crown of the skull was brought back to Lanherne by Richard Rawe, a descendant of Bridget Arundell, to be kept by the Carmelite Nuns as a most venerated relic of the martyr.
With regard to those instrumental in causing the martyr’s death, the executioner, after one month, became insane and Sir Richard Grenville was killed by the Spanish some years after.
The skull of St. Cuthbert was exposed for public veneration for the first time on 29th November 1889. It is affirmed that of all the people whom the martyr received into the Church as converts, not one relapsed into Protestantism or departed in any way from the true Faith.
In 1952 the skull of Cuthbert Mayne was brought to London and was received with great honour in Westminster Cathedral where thousands knelt to kiss the reliquary containing it. It was also venerated in many other London Churches. St. Cuthbert was beatified in 1886 by Pope Leo XIII and canonised on 25th October 1970 together with the other 39 martyrs of England and Wales, by Pope Paul VI.
In August 2001 the Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate became the new custodians of the most precious relic of St. Cuthbert Mayne.