A strange sight greeted those assembled at Tyburn one January morning in 1601. The executions of two Catholic priests – Mark Barkworth and the Jesuit, Roger Filcock – and one Catholic lay woman, Anne Line, were set to provide the day’s spectacle.

First to be hanged was Anne Line, who had been sentenced to death for assisting Catholic clergy. Having watched her fate, Barkworth stepped forward, fully conscious of the butchery that awaited him for the treason of having been ordained a Catholic priest in mainland Europe.

However, the gathered throng must have been momentarily taken aback, for Barkworth had somehow procured a Benedictine habit and was tonsured. Such an attire had not been worn in England since before Elizabeth I had ascended the throne more than 40 years earlier but there, before the mob, stood a Benedictine monk.

Any hesitation caused by such a spectacle was not enough to save Barkworth – in fact, some cruel wretch even shouldered the monk’s body weight during his hanging to ensure that he was fully conscious for the subsequent drawing and quartering. Yet Barkworth’s death marked the start of an English Benedictine presence that remains to this day.

Barkworth himself had been trained as a priest at the English College, Valladolid, but, on his way to England as a missionary, he had been received as a novice at the Benedictine monastery of Santa Maria in Irache, and was told he would die a martyr, in the Benedictine habit. Many of the first wave of Englishmen to become Benedictines after the Reformation similarly entered the religious life in Spain, while another sizeable body entered the Cassinese congregation in Italy. What both groupings had in common was that they received permission to return to England as missionaries.

The significance of what they represented was not lost on them: as several monks testified at their martyrdoms, they were from the same order as the first missionary to England, St Augustine of Canterbury, “from whom,” as George Gervase, executed in 1608, put it, “England acknowledged that she had received the Christian faith”.

​How to continue reading…

This article appears in the Catholic Herald magazine - to read it in full subscribe to our digital edition from just 30p a week

The Catholic Herald is your essential weekly guide to the Catholic world; latest news, incisive opinion, expert analysis and spiritual reflection