The life of St Edmund Arrowsmith SJ
The Holy Hand
English Catholics have always been devoted to Our Lady and the first of St Edmund's biographers speaks of his devotion to her. On his way to school at Sennely Green it was his custom to say part of the Little Office of Our Lady and he would recite vespers and compline on his return. The countryside used to be dotted with her shrines, the most famous being Walsingham, and in Lancashire we have Fernyhalgh.
Edmund was born at Haydock in the parish of Winwick near Warrington in the year 1585. His parents suffered for the faith in Lancaster Castle and his grandfather died in prison. Edmund and three other children in the family were cared for by neighbours.
In 1605 at the age of 20, Edmund was received into the English College at Douai- a simple statement which does not tell of the difficulties and hardships of escaping abroad. many attempted to leave England, but not all succeeded. On 27 May 1601 it was recorded that...
Lately 15 or 16 youths of good houses were taken as they were going over to the seminary. Some had journeyed in rags through forests living on roots and berries until they reached the coast. Others had been sent to the frightful house of correction at Bridewell, or imprisoned twice or even three times before they got clear.....
The return to England was also hazardous and six months after his ordination on June 17, 1613, Edmund Arrowsmith began his successful attempt. Ports were dangerous: officials had descriptions from spies of those returning and so many landed on isolated shores. In 'The Proclamation against Jesuits' 21 November 1591 it was said...
And furthermore , because it is known and proved by common experience...that they do come into the same (realm) by secret creeks and landing places, disguised both in names and persons, some in apparel as soldiers, mariners or merchants, pretending that they have heretofore been taken prisoners and put into galleys and delivered. Some come as gentlemen with contrary names in comely apparel as though they had travelled to foreign countries for knowledge: and generally all, for the most part, are clothed like gentlemen in apparel, and many as gallants; yea in all colours, and with feathers and such like, disguising themselves; and many of them in their behaviour as ruffians, far off to be thought or suspected to be friars, priests, Jesuits or popish scholars.
Edmund came back to Lancashire - to Brindle and Hoghton- to places with which we are familiar; St Helen's Well, Denham Hall, Arrowsmith House, blue Anchor Inn, Wickenhouse Farm. He travelled the area on horseback and would stay overnight where there was a hiding place, to bring the sacrifice of the Mass to the people. Father Robert Persons, in a letter written in in July 1581 said...
No-one is to be found...who complained of the length of services. If mass does not last nearly an hour many are discontented. If six or eight masses are said in the same place on the same day, the same congregation will assist at all.
During his mission work in this area he baptised the future martyr St John Wall.
It was probably in 1622 that Fr Arrowsmith was arrested for the first time, but released upon pardon; King James I desiring tom please Spain, though prior to his release he was brought before the Bishop of Chester, Dr Bridgemen and various clergymen for a theological argument.
In 1624 he entered the Society of Jesus at Clerkenwell, London and then returned to Lancashire to continue his ministry.
Fr Arrowsmith's second arrest did not bring with it any pardon. he was betrayed to the justice of the peace, Mr Rostern, by a Mr and Mrs Holden on whom Fr Arrowsmith had imposed a penance to which they would not submit.On the day of his capture he was warned of his betrayal and from the Blue Anchor Inn on Hoghton Lane, where he was staying, attempted to escape, only to be overtaken on Brindle Moss where his horse refused to jump a ditch. He was taken to the nearby Toll House, then, before the journey to Lancaster Castle began, he was taken to the Boars Head and kept there overnight; his captors spent 9/- of his money on drink. He was ill-used.
Capture and Prison
Throughout the centuries Lancaster Castle has held many prisoners within its walls about whom there is no record, but in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I we know of many who were there for their religion, including:
Richard Blundell of Crosby
James Leyburne of Cunswick
Blessed James Bell of Warrington
Blessed John Finch of Mawdsley
Venerable Edward Thwing of Heworth
Venerable Thurston Hunt of Varlton Hall
Venerable Robert Middleton of York
and later there was :
St Ambrose Barlow of Manchester
Venerable John Woodcock of Lostock Hall
Venerable Thomas Whittaker of Burnley
Venerable Edward Bamber of Blackpool
St John Southworth of Salmesbury
Blessed Richard Hurst of Broughton
and...St Edmund Arrowsmith.
The dungeons where our martyrs were confined were entered through a curtain wall 9 feet, 6 inches thick and there was no light or ventilation except through a small grille high up over the massive iron studded oak doors that were kept locked and bolted.
Although Fr Arrowsmith's body was confined, his zeal could not be. He gave himself no rest in gaol. His charity for souls continued. He exhorted the prisoners to their duty and his words had such power that the felons became his friends. He preached the gospel to them with success.
On August 26th 1628, Sir Henry Yelverton ordered Fr Arrowsmith to be brought to the bar, and during the trial swore that he would not leave Lancaster before the prisoner was executed and he saw his bowels burn before his face. Sir Henry inflamed the jury with his bitterness and Fr Arrowsmith was found guilty of being a priest and sentenced:
You shall go from hence to the place from whence you came.
From thence you shall be drawn to the place of execution upon a hurdle;
you shall there be hanged till you are half dead;
your members shall be cut off before your face and thrown into the fire,
where likewise your bowels shall be burnt:
your head shall be cut off and set upon a stake,
and your quarters shall be set upon the four corners of the castle;
and may God have mercy upon you.
The sentence was to be attended by further cruelty, for the gaoler who took the prisoner back had orders from the judge to load him with the heaviest irons. Between receiving his sentence and his execution he was put in a dark hole in which he could not stand or lie. The behaviour of the town of Lancaster was very remarkable on this occasion. To show their detestation of this sentence, no man could be found who would undertake the execution. finally a deserter, under sentence of death for leaving his colours, offered to be the vile instrument.
Two days after appearing in court, Father Arrowsmith was informed by the High Sherriff that he must die that day. Sir Henry Yelverton had ordered that the martyrdom be at mid-day when Lancaster folks would be busy about their meals. This was done to avoid a crowd being present, but vast numbers came. As Fr Arrowsmith was carried through the castle yard, he received absolution from St John Southworth, also imprisoned, who was able to place himself at a large window. Then the convicted priest was bound to a hurdle and dragged through the streets to the gallows on the moor overlooking the city.
Fr Arrowsmith was cut down after being briefly hung, then drawn and quartered; but he was first given the opportunity to speak.
I die for love of thee;
for our Holy Faith;
for the support of the authority of thy vicar on earth,
the successor of St Peter, true head of the Catholic Church
which thou hast founded and established.
His last words were: Bone Jesu, Good Jesus.
In 1630 this description of St Edmund was written:
That he was a man of mean presence, but of great innocence in his life,
of great sincerity in his nature,
of great sweetness in his conversation
and of great industry in his function
and that he was ever of a cheerful countenance-
a most probable sign of an upright and unspotted conscience.
Today a major relic, his right hand, is preserved in a shrine at St Oswald's, Ashton in Makerfield. It has been constantly venerated by the faithful and is famous on account of the many cures worked through it. And at St Joseph's, Brindle we have the Catholic church in the heart of the countryside which St Edmund knew, and in which he worked, where are preserved a Jacobean sideboard which was used as an altar, a chasuble, chalices and altar stones dating from penal times, and the saint's small statue of Our Lady.