Martyrs' paintings located in Midlands cathedral

Detail of the canvas of Fr Henry Garnet SJ. Photos: Ken Vance SJ
Detail of the canvas of Fr Henry Garnet SJ. Photos: Ken Vance SJ

Paintings of three English Jesuit martyrs have been located in the crypt of St Chad’s Cathedral in Birmingham. It is possible they are companions to a canvas of Blessed Edward Oldcorne SJ that is displayed in the Catholic college dedicated to him in Worcester.

The canvases of Br Ralph Ashley SJ, Br Nicholas Owen SJ and Fr Henry Garnet SJ are believed to date back to Victorian times and have been described by the Curator of the Stonyhurst Collection, Jan Graffius, as “really special”. They were spotted by Br Ken Vance SJ on a visit to the Cathedral. He immediately realised that the individual canvases, stretched on a wooden frame about six feet high and hanging on the wall, were similar to a fourth canvas – of Blessed Edward Oldcorne SJ - that he had had cleaned at the Liverpool Conservation Centre some years ago.The painting of Br Ralph Ashley SJ

“They look Victorian and are quite dirty,” says Br Ken.” What drew me to them was a nearby picture which looked like St Alphonsus Rodriguez SJ (a Spanish brother who lived from 1532 to 1617). However, without a title it was difficult to tell.” The painting of Oldcorne, who was martyred - like the other three Jesuits - in 1606, was subsequently donated to Blessed Edward Oldcorne Catholic College in Worcester.

Located in St Chad's Cathedral, Birmingham: the painting of Br Nicholas Owen SJLinking the four martyrs

It is believed the paintings may have belonged originally to St George’s Catholic parish church in Worcester, which dates back to the Jesuit mission that was founded in the city in 1590. And the connection between the four martyrs – Jesuit Brothers Ralph Ashley, Nicholas Owen and Edward Oldcorne and Fr Henry Garnet – is well documented. In late 1588, Oldcorne returned to England from Rome in 1588, after entering the Society of Jesus and being ordained priest. The following year, he accompanied Henry Garnet to the West Midlands, settling at Baddeley Clinton, and continuing to work among the Catholic community, chiefly in Worcestershire, over the next 17 years.

When the 1605 Gunpowder Plot was discovered, Oldcorne, Owen (who was responsible for the construction of many priest holes to hide Catholic clergy at the time of persecution), Garnet and Ashley were at Hindlip Hall. Their hiding places were not discovered but they were starved out.  The four Jesuits were taken to Worcester before being transferred to the Tower of London where Owen did not survive the severe torture on the rack to which he was subjected. On the morning of 7 April 1606, Oldcorne and Ashley were taken to Red Hill, near Worcester, where they were executed. The following month, Garnet was hanged, drawn and quartered in London. The relic of Oldcorne’s eye is preserved at Stonyhurst College.