As if we can’t get enough liturgical feasting, today in Chelmsford is the feast of St John Payne (or Paine).
Although he was an East Anglian man from Peterborough, and that his brother, by the time of John’s martyrdom in 1582 was a Protestant, we do not know the exact year of his birth, nor whether he was a convert.
John was one of twelve Englishmen who sailed to Flanders in 1574 to enroll themselves in the seminary in Douay, and during his studies there, he was the economo of the house. Listed in the record as a mature candidate for Orders, he was ordained in 1576, and sent to England with Cuthbert Mayne two weeks later. The two parted when they landed in England, Cuthbert travelled to Cornwall, John to Essex. He lodged with the Petre family in Ingatestone, and, although this was his principal residence, he also had lodgings in London, and he work extensively undercover in the capital city.
There he came across a clergyman in hiding, a deacon from the days of Queen Mary, called George Godsalve, whom he managed to smuggle out of the country in order that he might be ordained priest. He returned to England, and worked with John until they were both later betrayed.
After a year in England, he was arrested at Ingatestone, and imprisoned in 1577, although his incarceration lasted only one month. When he was set free, he had heard of the death of his friend, Cuthbert Mayne, and he left England for Douay.
By 1579, however, he was again living at Ingatestone, where he met at Christmas that year the famous Edmund Campion. A notorious apostate by the name of George Elliot, however, had begun to slither his way into the Petre household, and he discovered that one of their stewards was actually the seminary priest, John Payne.
He was arrested in 1581, imprisoned and tortured in the Tower for eight months, during which time, his fellow prisoners, Edmund Campion, Ralph Sherwin and Alex Briant were all butchered to death. In the spring of 1582, the Privy Council ordered that John be handed over the sheriff of Essex – given that he worked most prolifically in that county – to be tried there. Incidentally George “Judas” Elliot was given £4 for his treachery by the government, which was about a year’s wages for a common labourer.
Sentenced to death by the Assizes of Chelmsford, his execution was set for the following Monday (2 April, or Monday of Passiontide) at 8 am. For his last few hours, he was harangued by Protestant firebrand preachers, and was not able to be comforted by the sacraments.
He had clearly been much loved in mid-Essex, because his gaolers and the townspeople were aghast that the priest had been sentenced to death. He was collected from his cell at 10 am, and he spoke kindly to the gaolers, and the priest kissed the hand of one of the guards.
He knelt in prayer for half an hour in the mud at the execution site, as most of the townspeople stood around in silence, and, when he ascended the ladder to the gallows, he kissed the wood that was to bring him to his Lord. He professed in a loud voice his faith in the Catholic religion, and forgave George Elliot, and declared that he was not a traitor, while a Protestant preacher ridiculed him. He said that he could not hear him clearly, because his soul was now raised in contemplation.
The noose was placed around his neck, and he said softly: “Jesu, Jesu, Jesu.” As his body fell, the tear-drenched crowd spontaneously surged forward and pulled on his legs to ensure that his death was swift, so that his half-living body would not have to endure the butcher’s knife.
His body now dead, but his living soul soaring into the heavens, the executioner of Newgate perfunctorily performed the gruesome rites required by the law, and cut out his innards which were burned on hot coals (a bloody sight to the spectators, but as a vesperal offering of sweet incense to the Lord). His limbs and members were dissected and placed upon pikes supposedly a warning-sign to all who saw these bits of flesh, but, in reality, these were holy relics lifted aloft upon the petard of ignorance for the veneration of the birds and the stars.
Chelmsford, watered with the blood of the martyr John Payne: forget not thy Lord and God, neither forget the love and compassion that thy fathers shewed to His holy servant.
St John Payne, priest and martyr, pray for us all.