From the Archives: Cataloguing the Papers of the Cause of the Holy Martyrs

POST BY MAllen

Image from a poster of the Forty Martyrs

Since the closure of the Office of the Vice-Postulators at 114 Mount St c1984 the Jesuits in Britain Archives have been the home of its records, although the material wasn’t officially deposited with us until last year. The Archives fairly frequently receive requests for information regarding the lives of martyrs, and since many of those who suffered during the Reformation and those involved centuries later in the Cause were members of the Society, the collection became a priority for cataloguing.

The papers in the collection largely relate to the work carried out towards the canonisation in 1970 of 40 priests and lay people from England and Wales, who were put to death for their faith between 1535 and 1680, as well as the beatification of a further 85 venerable martyrs of the Reformation in 1987. Much of the work was carried out by Frs James Walsh SJ, Philip Caraman SJ and Clement Tigar SJ, who were Vice-Postulators respectively between 1959-1971, 1959-1966 and 1966-1971, as well as Patrick Barry, a researcher who was also responsible for editing the work carried out by the diocesan representatives, particularly the process of the 85 beati (blessed martyrs). But there are also many boxes of papers and transcripts from earlier processes. After the restoration of the English and Welsh hierarchy in 1850, it was thought the time was right to promote the Cause of all those Catholics who had suffered during the Reformation, and in the early 1880s the Promoter of the Faith approved the introduction of the cause of 316 martyrs. 54 were beatified in 1886 and a further 8 in 1895 on the grounds of public cult. After many years of work, researching and creating documents to be presented in Rome, a further 136 martyrs were beatified in 1929, and in 1935 Thomas More and Bishop John Fisher were canonised. Much of the material held from this time is the work of the first three Vice-Postulators: Frs John Morris SJ, John Pollen SJ and Charles Newdigate SJ, who held the office respectively in 1874-93, 1900-23, and 1923-37.

The result of over 100 years of work is a particularly large and complex body of records. The biggest problem is identifying what belongs to the Cause, and what belongs to the Society, with the only basis for judgement being an index card identifying some but not all of the records that belong to the Cause. With various members of the Society having acted as Vice-Postulators, it is not always clear to see, and it is an important distinction to make in terms of the fundamental archival principle of provenance.

Currently cataloguing is at the listing stage, where each box and file is identified and information such as contents and dates are recorded, which will lead to the creation of a catalogue that will be available to the public. So far, 500 boxes, files and volumes have been listed, and there are still several boxes to go through. For a collection as large as this, it is a long process, but it has been a fascinating journey of discovery, not only in learning about the lives of the men and women who suffered, but also the extensive and painstaking process involved in elevating individuals to the status of Blessed or Saint.

The records of the Cause of the Holy Martyrs are available to consult by appointment at the Jesuits in Britain Archives. If you would like to find out further information, please contact us.