Ruins of Glastonbury Abbey
It was one of the last abbeys to be suppressed and it’s Abbot Richard Whiting—who had supported Henry’s claim to be Head of the Church of England—finally drew the line and refused to surrender his house to the royal commissioners.
Whiting had become a monk at Glastonbury somewhat later in life and was forty years old when he was ordained priest. He was almost sixty-five when in 1525 he was appointed Abbot by Papal Legate Cardinal Wolsey to whom the monks had surrendered the right of election. He registered no complaint when required to take the oath of supremacy renouncing papal authority and recognizing Henry as head of the Church, but five years later stood his ground and refused to surrender the monastery to Royal Commissioners Richard Layton, Richard Pollard and Thomas Moyle who arrived in September 1539 to appropriate the abbey and its assets to the Crown. Whiting—now in his late seventies, was arrested along with several of his monks and sent to the Tower of London.
The affair of Glastonbury and its Abbot was not overseen by Henry himself but by his “Vicar General” for matters ecclesiastical, Thomas Cromwell. After interrogating Whiting, Cromwell determined that the Abbot had to be tried, convicted, and executed to make the message clear to others who resisted the royal authority in this matter of the dissolution of the monasteries. Whiting was a member of the House of Lords and as such had a right to be tried by his peers: a jury of the Lord Spiritual. This was overlooked as it most likely would not have produced the vicious results Cromwell desired. Instead the Abbot was sent to Wells, the episcopal city nearest his abbey where a trial was held and mandated verdict delivered. Whiting was then taken to Glastonbury where he and two monks—John Thorne and Roger James—were fastened to hurdles and dragged by horses to the top of Glastonbury Tor (a large hill that overlooks Glastonbury) where they were hung, cut down while still alive, disemboweled, and then beheaded before their arms and legs were severed from their corpse and sent to various places to be exhibited as the remains of traitors. This process of being “hanged, drawn, and quartered” was standard for treason.
Whiting was not the only Abbot to receive this punishment. Hugh Faringdon, the Abbot of Reading, was also hanged, drawn, and quartered along with one of his monks, John Rugge, and the parish priest of Reading, John Enyon. Faringdon too had signed the Oath of Royal Supremacy, and even seems to have surrendered his Abbey without complaint, but was caught up in a protest against the policy of closing the monasteries by a group of northern rebels.
John Beche (aka Thomas Marshall) had been named Abbot of Colcheseter just months before the Act of Supremacy, which he and his monks signed. The martyrdom of Thomas More, John Fisher, and Prior Houghton and his fellow Carthusians seems to have give Beche some backbone however. He spoke openly of his admiration for the martyrs and when Henry began closing the monasteries claimed that God would take vengeance on the King for “putting down these houses of religion.” He was executed for treason on Cromwell’s orders, being hanged, drawn, and quartered in front of his abbey church at Colchester on December 1, 1539.
It is difficult to know what was in the minds and hearts of these three men. All three willingly acceded to Henry’s demand to be recognized as the head of the Church. Beche alone, though he never formally recanted, seems to have reconsidered this position and made his objections to the royal policy known. Whiting seems to have died defending his Abbey—or perhaps its wealth, but not papal authority. Faringdon seems only to have supported a protest against the closing of the monasteries. All three of these men were beatified by Leo XIII in 1895.
The pontificate of Leo XIII was an important one for defining the boundaries between the Church of England and the Catholic Church. There were strong currencies in the Anglophone world favoring some sort of movement towards corporate reunion of the Anglican and Catholic Churches. These fantasies were enkindled by the naiveté of Victorian Romanticism and the glib reconstructionism of the Oxford Movement that tried to erase the Protestant centuries of Anglican history, but as we will see in time the fancies of Cowley and All Saints Margaret Street mask a deep and rich Anglican theological heritage quite different from Catholicism. Despite friendships like that of Cardinal Newman with Dean Church, it would have been a long and complex process in that pre-Vatican II era to come to that level of theological consensus which we have reached these past fifty years, much less to achieve full communion, and it is hard to imagine how these dreams could have borne the desired fruit. Nevertheless, with men like Lord Acton on the Catholic side and Lord Halifax on the Anglican flank, serious—if unofficial (very unofficial) dialogue was beginning. This proto-ecumenism had its foes however. The ultramontane party in England led by Cardinal Manning and later by Cardinal Gasquet feared that talk of corporate reunion would dry up the steady stream of converts that the Catholic Church was gaining from the Church of England. Potential Catholics might think: Would it not be better to wait for corporate reunion than to “swim the Tiber” alone? Moreover, the enthusiasm of the proponents of corporate reunion led them to be somewhat quick and easy on the issue of the “legitimacy” of the Church of England as a “branch” of the Church of Christ and correspondingly defensive of the validity of Anglican Orders, putting Anglicanism in a position analogous to the Orthodox Churches. And again, why then should one “convert” when the real issue was healing the “schism.” Manning and those Catholics who were intent on raiding the Anglican nest for easy-pickings pushed Leo XIII to make it very clear that there was an irreparable gulf between the Catholic Church and the “Church” of England. It would culminate in the 1896 denunciation of Anglican Orders in the Papal Bull Apostolicae Curae, but it led to the 1886 beatification of 55 English men and women martyred by Henry, Edward VI, or Elizabeth. In 1895, Leo beatified 10 more. I am not saying that these were not worthy candidates for veneration, but like the motives for their executions, the motives for their beatification were at least as much political as they were inspirational.
To be fair to the Ultramontane party, the Anglican Church had its opponents to the early ecumenical dialogue as well. The restoration of the English hierarchy in 1851 had never sat well in England and the arrogant presumptions of Cardinal Wiseman, the first Archbishop of Westminster, had built up a wall of cold hostility on the part of the Protestant Ascendancy towards the Catholic Church. The Bench of Bishops in the Church of England was still pretty much drawn from the Evangelical wing, or at least from the more Protestant and low-Church constituency. Queen Victoria herself was a committed Protestant. Archbishop Temple of Canterbury was fairly low-Church and both he and Archbishop Maclagan of York were deeply angered by Apostolicae Curae and its dismissal of Anglican Orders. There was a sense of the Church of England losing ground to Catholicism as many prominent Anglicans became Catholics. It would be some decades before the atmosphere thawed enough for dialogue to resume.