Every so often a pope decides that there aren’t enough holy people and canonises a whole bunch at the same time. We just had a whole raft of them with John Paul II, including a fair few controversial figures, and I find myself wondering whether the latest incumbent, expected in Britain later today, might see it as a good idea too.
Of course it would only be following tradition, and today I’ve been thinking about our own local holy characters. We have our very own saint, of course, Alfege (or Alphege – no one seems to agree on spelling) but we also have our very own blessed martyr (we may have others too – if we do, I want to know about them…), beatified in 1886 by Pope Leo XIII, along with 53 other ‘English Martyrs,’ mainly consisting of Catholics put to death for their faith during and after the Reformation. I don’t know how much of an honour it is for Greenwich to boast the only Catholic Martyr burned at the stake – all the others were hanged.
John Forest, born in 1471, was the Prior of Greenwich when he met his unsavoury death, “encaged and roasted alive” at Smithfield in 1538 for refusing to accept the ‘supremacy’ of Henry VIII.
It was a dangerous job, being confessor to Queen Catherine of Aragon, though at first it must have seemed quite a coup for the Franciscan Friar, risen through the ranks from Oxford to the dizzy heights of Royal Greenwich. But when Henry’s eye roved and fell on the charms of a younger model, being in the way of the king’s urges suddenly became a bit dangerous. Of course everyone knows what happened next, the lengths to which Henry went to get the royal end away, and the sheer number of unfortunates that got in the way of the king’s desires, not least his current wife.
Forest and most of his crew at Greenwich opposed the king’s divorce and his dabblings with Protestantism, but some (literally and metaphorically) got it in the neck rather more than others. I’m going to deal with the Grey Friars of Greenwich another day as their story as a whole just ties me up in knots, but the house at Greenwich was divided in two between those that supported the queen and those who valued their heads.
John Forest led the queen’s gang, Richard Lyst, the king’s. Lyst complained to Thomas Cromwell and even Anne Boleyn herself, that Forest was making trouble for the friars who wanted to follow the king, complaining “my trowbyll doth contynnew and rather yncrease” and trying to get the rather scary-sounding Forest and his guys removed to Newark or Newcastle or, well, anywhere. He didn’t succeed, not least because Forest and his lot were trying equally hard to get rid of Lyst. Lyst’s friend John Lawrence was furious, saying that Forest wanted to “expulse owt of owre convent of grenwiche” anyone who didn’t agree with him.
At first Henry tried to calm things down between the warring holys, even meeting with Forest - afterwards “the kynges grace dyd sende hym a grete pece of beffe from his owne tabull,” but the friar was having none of that sort of thing. Eventually the king’s men left for Richmond, leaving Greenwich to John Forest and his observants. Forest continued to denounce the new religion, Henry’s second marriage and his new baby daughter at every opportunity.
Henry was livid. In June 1534 two cartloads of friars were trundled off to the Tower. By August the order was suppressed entirely.
In April 1538, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer had Forest brought before him, requiring him to recant his objection to Henry’s supremacy. Unsurprisingly, repentance was not forthcoming. Forest’s ‘heresies’ were read out by Bishop Hugh Latimer, who then oversaw the troublesome friar’s execution in May. Legend tells that the pyre was fuelled by a gigantic (presumably wooden) statue of St Derfel brought from Llandderfel in North Wales, which apparently carried the prophecy that it would ‘one day set a forest on fire…’
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