St Henry Walpole SJ
St Henry Walpole SJ

Henry Walpole SJ

By the gallows where St Edmund Campion was put to death stood a young student of law, Henry Walpole who, inspired by the example of Campion, resolved to become a Catholic. Born in 1558 at Docking, near Sandringham in Norfolk, the eldest son of a Norfolk squire, he spent seven years (1567-1574) at the Norwich Grammar School, and three at Peterhouse, Cambridge. He left the University without taking a degree (most likely because he was unwilling to take the oath of supremacy imposed on every graduate), and entered Gray’s Inn to study law in 1578.

Soon after Campion’s martyrdom in 1581, which called him from his lukewarm Catholicism, he wrote a small book of poetry on the martyr which was secretly printed and circulated in London. The authorities were enraged and Walpole fled London for his home in Norfolk, and from there he escaped to France. After his capture, Walpole gave the following account of his entrance into the Society of Jesus:

“After I had made a short stay at Rouen and Paris, I went to Rheims where I spent one year in the study of moral theology and afterwards as much at Rome (1584-5), until I entered the Society of Jesus, and devoted myself to spiritual exercises and the practice of humility under the direction of a master of the spiritual life.

“Then, having ailments of both chest and stomach I was sent into France for change of air. At our college of Pont á Mousson my health continued to decline, and so I was sent first to a farm outside the town and then to Verdun. Our novitiate being in this town, I was granted the favour of passing another year among the novices. Here I completely recovered, and then went back to Pont á Mousson, and spent two or three years in the study of Scholastic Theology. I was ordained priest at Paris (1588) and went soon afterwards to Brussels, where I heard confessions on Italian, French, Latin English, and occasionally in Spanish also.”

After staying in Brussels for a year, he became military chaplain to the English and Irish Catholics of Sir William Stanley’s regiment in the Spanish forces. He was captured and taken to the English fort at Flushing where he was tortured and ransomed by his brother Michael and his Jesuit superiors. He then went to Tournai for his third year of probation, after which he was then sent to help with the founding of the new English seminaries at Seville and Valladolid. In 1593 he travelled to Philip II of Spain to obtain permission to found St Omers (now Stonyhurt) College.

He then travelled to England, landing with his youngest brother Thomas near Bridlington on the night of the 6th and 7th December 1593. They reached ten miles inland towards Kelham before they were arrested by the authorities who took them to York Castle. The infamous priest hunter Richard Topcliffe asked for permission to transfer him to London, which was duly granted, and he was transferred to the Tower of London in February 1594.

He languished in the tower for months after an initial interrogation and torture which came close to breaking his resolve. In the spring of 1595 he was at last sent back to York for trial, where he was joined by his fellow-martyr Blessed Alexander Rawlins who was also awaiting trial. Both were eventually tried on the 3rd April on the charge of being Catholic priests. Both were found guilty and condemned.

Up to the end the authorities tried to win him over, even on the very morning of his martyrdom, Monday 7 April, while Alexander Rawlins was tied to the hurdle that they’d be dragged to execution on, the authorities tried to convince him to save himself. Richard Holtby SJ, who would go on to become Provincial of the English Mission, described their martyrdoms:

“Fr Alexander was first put to death, who being taken up went first to Fr Walpole to ask his benediction… When he was dead they showed him to Fr Walpole, still using persuasions. When he [Walpole] was up the ladder they still cried upon him to yield in the least point, but to say he would conform, and he should be saved… At length some asked him what he thought of the Queen’s supremacy. He answered, ‘She doth challenge it, but may not grant it.’ His last prayer was the Pater noster, and he was beginning the Ave Maria when they turned him over the ladder. They let him hang until he was dead.”

Walpole was beatified in 1929 and canonised in 1970 as one of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales.