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Durham University News

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Whose martyr is it anyway? Unravelling a Benedictine mystery

(19 August 2016)

The opening decades of the seventeenth century were far from harmonious for the English Catholic community. As differing clerical parties competed to strengthen their position they engaged in ‘martyr grabs’ - forcefully claiming Catholic martyrs as their own to help further their cause. 

Dr James Kelly of the Department of Theology and Religion is the Principal Investigator for the Monks in Motion project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council which is exploring the experience of English and Welsh Benedictines in exile from 1553-1800.

Drawing on material from the UK, Spain, Italy and the Vatican archives, Dr Kelly’s most recent paper, presented at the 2016 Sixteenth Century Society Conference in Bruges, investigates the rival claims to the martyr George Gervase, who was executed in 1608 and later beatified by Pope Pius XI in 1929.

Here, through Dr Kelly’s research, we tell the story of Gervase and the fascinating insight it gives us into the inner battles of English Catholicism at the time.

Catholicism in exile

From the mid-sixteenth century onwards, the practice of Catholicism was banned under the officially Protestant rules of Queen Elizabeth I and later King James I.

Catholics wishing to train as priests had fled to Europe in exile and the English Catholic mission was largely manned by secular clergy and Jesuits, with relations between the two becoming increasingly fraught.

However, in the early 1600s English Benedictine monks began to return but in doing so needed to justify their presence.

It was into this scene that George Gervase who had trained at the English College of Douai, a training institution for English Catholic men located in France, returned to his homeland.

Having been captured in Durham and banished in 1606 Gervase returned to England again in summer 1607, only to be captured and executed in 1608 for his Catholic activities.

Conflicting images of a martyr

Following his death Gervase was the subject of a ‘martyr grab’ with competing factions of the English Catholic movement rushing to capitalise on his martyrdom to their benefit. Two conflicting images of Gervase were swiftly produced and distributed across the Continent. One showed him as a secular cleric of the English College of Douai and the other depicted Gervase as a Benedictine monk. 

Dr Kelly’s research shows that these conflicting images were not simply a result of confusion around Gervase’s clerical status, but in fact point to much deeper issues at play.

Dr Kelly said: “Numerous records suggest it was widely understood that Gervase was a Benedictine monk.

“A witness to the questioning of Gervase after his initial capture states that Gervase admitted he belonged to the Benedictine Order, whilst letters and accounts from the time repeatedly describe Gervase as a Benedictine and state that he himself declared this at his trial and execution. 

“Therefore, the suggestion that the production of two competing images was the result of simple confusion does not really stand up.”

Dr Kelly has found evidence to support the claim that Thomas Worthington, then President of the English College of Douai, purposefully attempted to claim Gervase as a secular cleric and therefore martyr for their mission.

Dr Kelly explains: “Letters between Thomas Worthington and a contact in Rome, show that his images depicting Gervase as secular had been received on the Continent and that this would no doubt be ‘ill taken by the Benedictines’.

 “These letters show that the disagreement over Gervase’s affiliation continued and Worthington is warned of a complaint having been made and advised that, if questioned directly, he should deny any knowledge.

“Clearly Worthington knew of Gervase’s Benedictine credentials, which leads us to ask why he would then try to portray Gervase as a secular priest?”

A time of crisis

Dr Kelly believes that Worthington’s reasons may lie in his professional and personal struggles. As the President of the English College of Douai, Worthington was in trouble. A disastrous inspection by Church authorities led to a damning report that the college was financially unstable and discipline was lax. Reforms were ordered but Worthington’s situation went from bad to worse.

Dr Kelly explains: “Worthington brought in a Jesuit to the college which was a huge mistake as students already considered Worthington too close to the Jesuits and suspected that he was planning to give the college over to their control. 

“The College was underperforming and allegedly sending students to the dangerous English mission with hardly any training.

“Worthington was also out of favour with the majority of secular clergy.

“By the time of Gervase’s death, Worthington was struggling for support amongst the English Catholic movement. The reappearance of the Benedictines only made matters worse for him.”

Martyr grab

The Benedictines were, at this time, establishing their first specifically English house in Douai. Worthington feared this would lead to huge numbers of students deserting his college for the Benedictines and campaigned to have the Order expelled from Douai. Jesuits were also campaigning against the Benedictines and for a time their situation looked precarious.

A high-profile martyr, in the form of Gervase, would help to raise the profile of the Benedictine Order and justify their presence. Worthington was in desperate need of a way to restore reputation in his college of Douai and his presidency and this, Dr Kelly argues, prompted him to lay claim to the newly martyred Gervase, in direct competition with the Benedictines.

Oath of Allegiance

However, the struggle for Gervase’s legacy was not only about the failing presidency of Worthington and the emergence of the Benedictines.

All the reports of Gervase’s trial show that he strongly rejected the Oath of Allegiance - an Oath, brought in by King James I following the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, which rejected papal temporal power and could also be interpreted as undermining the Pope’s spiritual authority. 

The Oath made martyrdom a point of contention between the English Catholic community, as different sections rushed to claim martyrs who rejected the Oath, such as Gervase, as their own to win support from the Pope and others across Europe.

In the case of Gervase, the Benedictines stressed his unfailing support for the Pope’s authority, to give their English venture international prestige and justify their mission. Meanwhile Worthington sought to claim Gervase as a martyr against the Oath to secure support for his college and win the favour of European Catholics.

The stand that the Benedictines took against the Oath came to characterise their movement as one which supported the papalist vision of English Catholicism.

Dr Kelly concludes: “This was not just a battle over the life and legacy of one man, it was much deeper than that. This was a grab for prestige, support and recognition aimed at the highest echelons of European Catholicism. “

You can read more about the Monks in Motion project online here.

Image shows St Gregory’s Benedictine monastery, Douai, established at the time of George Gervase’s martyrdom. Image is property of Downside Abbey General Trust. 

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