Today in the diocese of Brentwood we celebrate the memoria of St. John Houghton – a proto-martyr of the English Reformation. He was born in Essex in 1486 and went up to Cambridge. After his graduation he became a parish priest, before entering the Carthusian Order at the London Charterhouse in 1515 where he served as sacristan and procurator. He was chosen to be prior of the Charterhouse at Beauvale in Nottinghamshire. Only a year later, in 1531 he was election prior of the London Chaterhouse and returned to take up his duties there.
With the coming of King Henry VIII’s ‘Great Matter’ St. John asked for his community to be exempt from the Act of Succession which required them to recognise Anne Boleyn as the lawful queen, in spite of the fact that the King was still married to Queen Catherine of Aragon. For requesting this exemption and refusing to act against the Church’s teaching on marriage St. John and his procurator were sent to the Tower of London. It was for the same refusal to take the oath to this Act that St. Thomas More and St. John Cardinal Fisher were also sent to the Tower.
St. John and his procurator were released on the grounds that they felt able to take the oath with the condition attached ‘as far as the law of Christ allows’, yet St. John was soon returned to the Tower for refusing to take the new oath which recognised Henry VIII as supreme head of the Church. There he was joined by two other Carthusian priors – Robert Lawrence, Prior of Beauvale, and Augustine Webster, Prior of Axholme. In April 1535 they were sentenced to death, together with the Brigittine monk Richard Reynolds of Syon Abbey.
The three Carthusians, together with Richard Reynolds, were taken to Tyburn on 4th May 1535 where they remained steadfast in their confession of the Catholic faith and of the supremacy of the Successor of St. Peter. From his cell in the Tower St. Thomas More saw them go out to their deaths and said to his daughter “Look, Meg! These blessed Fathers be now as cheerfully going to their deaths as bridegrooms to their marriage!”.
St. John was the first to die for the Catholic faith in England during the Reformation. Tradition recalls that when the executioner tore open his chest to remove his heart he prayed aloud
O Jesu, what wouldst thou do with my heart?
It is a prayer we can make our own. Let us pray to St. John Houghton today for the Catholics of England, and indeed for all our countrymen, that we may ever remain steadfast and persevere in our confession of the Catholic faith.