Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Carthusian Martyrs

Beauvale Priory (Monastery), Nottinghamshire
During the reign of Henry VIII in the 1530's, we have a story of power struggle, machiavellian politics, lust, greed, intimidation and death. The central players are Henry VIII, Thomas Cromwell and 18 Carthusian Monks. The Carthusian Order near Grenoble in France was eventually filmed by the German film director, Philip Groning in 2005, a total of 21 years after his first request to the Order. The film was called "Into Great Silence" and clips can be found on You Tube. The Nottinghamshire producers, Hanby and Barrett wrote a play in 2010 about the Nottinghamshire Monastery standing up to Henry VIII. They called it, "The Cries of Silent Men". Hilary Mantel's book, "Wolf Hall" is the story of Thomas Cromwell, and though a novel, depicts much of the story behind Henry and the Carthusian Order. What is the story behind these men?

Carthusian Monk
It's worth noting who the Carthusians were. There have of course been many religious orders through the centuries, but the Carthusians are pretty unique by any standards. They are a Roman Catholic religious order, founded by St Bruno in 1084 and set up their first Monastery near Grenoble in France.

A Carthusian Monastery was established in Nottinghamshire in 1343 by Nicholas de Cantelupe in a valley about 10 miles north-west of Nottingham, and called Beauvale Monastery (Priory). This was the third such Monastery to be established in England, with six more to follow.

It was built to hold 12 monks, and a Carthusian Monastery can best be described as a community of hermits. Each Monk had his own living space, called a cell. Each cell had a high walled garden, where the Monk may meditate as well as grow flowers or vegetables as a form of physical exercise. There were also others called 'lay brothers' whose job was to meet the needs of the Monks. Meals were provided through a revolving compartment usually twice a day, with the Monk not having contact with the bearer. These are then eaten in solitude. Theirs is a life of solitude except for community mass, community meal on a Sunday, community walks, and even these are all conducted in silence.

The Carthusian Monks did not engage in work of a pastoral or missionary nature, and as far as possible had no contact with the outside world. They had no concern with anything outside of their monastery; the intention of all Carthusian discipline was to make possible for the Monk contemplation in the fullest sense of that mystic, spiritual beholding of God, called the Beatific Vision. They were gentle people, who simply wanted to be left alone with their beliefs and their lives. But this was not to happen.

Thomas Cromwell
Thomas Cromwell was instrumental in making sure that it did not happen. Born the son of an alehouse keeper, he rose to become, as C.J. Sansom says, "One of the most ruthless and powerful operators ever to dominate the politics of this country. His mastery of the black arts of spin and propaganda, of flattery, patronage and sudden betrayal, make the most ruthless modern politicians seem mild by comparison. He ran a spy network that was the nearest thing a 16th century regime could get to the Stasi, saw off his foes with trumped up charges of adultery and revelled in the torture of his enemies".

He fought as a mercenary in the Italian wars of the early 16th century, and would have undoubtedly come across the works of Niccolo Machiavelli, particularly his book, 'The Prince', which some have described as "one of the most notorious works of all time". This was distributed in 1513, and published in 1532; banned by the Catholic Church, (they accused him of being Satan) but circulated widely. The book is about how power is actually seized and held on to in the world of men. Machiavelli observed that, "A man who strives after goodness in all his acts is sure to come to ruin, since there are so many men who are not good". He also comments that while it is important for a successful ruler to appear honest, merciful and humane, in reality he should eschew these qualities as they will only make him weak. Cromwell seems to have taken the lessons of Machiavelli to heart.

King Henry VIII
Henry became king in 1509, and much of his life and marriages are fairly well known. By his side was Thomas Cromwell, who was always looking for ways to increase power and wealth. He came up with a 'brilliant' plan - destroy the monasteries and seize their vast assets. In a reign of unadulterated terror, he masterminded the dissolution of the monasteries and what one historian called, "The biggest land grab since the Norman invasion of 1066" - seizing one-sixth of the nation's wealth and turning it over to the King.

This reign of unadulterated terror is seen in the story of the Carthusian Monks. This comes about largely as a result of the 1534 Act of Supremacy, where Henry was declared to be the supreme head of the Church of England. Anyone who refused to take an oath recognising him as the head, was considered to have committed an act of high treason.

In 1535, Robert Lawrence, Prior of Beauvale, John Houghton a previous Prior at Beauvale, and Augustine Webster, Prior of Axholme, asked for a personal interview with Cromwell to try and resolve the difficulties. Cromwell refused to listen to them, and sent them to the Tower of London as 'rebellious traitors'. Over the next week they were interrogated by Cromwell, and consistently, and together, refused to take the oath. On the 28th April, they were indicted before a jury on the charge of 'verbal treason'. They pleaded not guilty.

The jury were unable to condemn the accused, on the ground that they did not act maliciously. The Judges instructed them, saying that to deny the supremacy was to act maliciously. The jury still refused to condemn the monks; Cromwell used violent threats against them, until they at last voted guilty. It was reported that afterwards, "they were ashamed to show their faces". So the Monks were condemned to death and taken back to the Tower of London.

On the 4th May the three Priors were executed in the most ghastly of ways. While still living, they were ripped up in each others presence, their bodies obscenely mutilated, their hearts cut out and rubbed into their mouths and faces, and all this before the process of quartering had begun. Six weeks later, three other Carthusians suffered the same fate, and in 1537, a further eleven were convicted, and between May and September, they were tied to a post at Newgate Prison and left to die of starvation. The last to die was in 1540, where at Tyburn he was hanged, disembowelled and quartered. A total of 18 members of the Carthusian Order were tortured and killed for refusing to place their allegiance to the King before their allegiance to the Pope. The Carthusian Order was the only Order that as one, stood against the King and Cromwell. In 1536 the dissolution of the monasteries begins under Cromwell, and was completed in 1539.

Thomas Cromwell fell out of favour with the King, prompted by the jealousy of the Duke of Norfolk, and on the 28th July 1540, he was beheaded at the Tower of London. It is hard to find forgiveness for this 'Prince of Darkness'.

Though more Carthusian Monks were killed who belonged to the London Monastery, I am convinced of the central role played by the Beauvale Monastery in Nottinghamshire, in the incredible confrontation between Church and State, between Monasteries and King, and though they lost the battle, they deserve the recognition, and the promise that their story will never be lost.

Houses of Parliament
It's nearly 500 years since the events surrounding the Carthusian Martyrdom. Cromwell's machiavellian tactics were about the dark arts (the Prince of Darkness); smearing people's names and reputations; greasing people's hands; rewarding people for keeping quiet; encouraging greed in the desire for power; not letting facts get in the way of the truth; in public appear honest and humane, but be quite different in reality; ruthlessly deal with real or perceived enemies. I can't help thinking that this sounds a bit familiar today?


  1. John,
    I read your blog with interest - very informative. When I got to the final paragraph I thought to myself 'this sounds familiar..........' And then in your last sentence you said it! Oh, why are we so cynical! I sometimes think, in my naivety, that if only politicians of all persuasions would just act honestly, honourably and with integrity then I wouldn't care really whether we had FPTP or AV or demand 'transparency' and 'accountability'. The old adage 'all power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely is of some moment here!

  2. Dad - great blog and although the 'death scene' could not be recommended over breakfast (nearly saw my toast again) I really enjoyed it. Should be noted that although Parliament could be improved that there are worse countries now who are even closer to Cromwell. Machiavelli was right I'm sure...

  3. Son, I agree that there are worse countries, but there are still some individuals!!! Haven't read enough to know whether Machiavelli was reflecting on the political situation of his day or influencing it. Whichever, there are far too many people in the world who could be called machiavellian.