Feast 1st October
Blessed Ralph Crockett was born in Barton, near Farndon, Cheshire. He was educated at Christ’s College, Cambridge, and Gloucester Hall, Oxford, before he began teaching in East Anglia. After five years in Ipswich he felt it dangerous to continue there because of the intensified persecution of Catholics following St Edmund Campion’s recent mission to England. Instead, he retreated to his native Cheshire where he stayed for two years until in 1582 – the year after St Edmund’s martyrdom – he entered Douay College at Rheims to study for the priesthood. He was ordained in Lent 1584 and intended to pursue a further two years of study but the regime and diet were too severe for his health and he asked to return to England. He embarked on the English Mission in 1585 with three other priests, including Edward James of Derbyshire.
Lord Burghley, Queen Elizabeth’s chief minister, had spies at the college, however, and it is likely that he knew of their voyage. When the boat arrived at Littlehampton, West Sussex, the captain was too afraid to let them disembark even after two days. Then on the third day, Mr Justice Shelley came aboard the vessel and arrested all four.
The priests were sent to the Marshalsea prison in London for questioning. Blessed Ralph said his poor health had brought him back to England but admitted that he would serve as a priest as soon as the opportunity presented itself. He also argued that the men had not broken any English laws because they had not come ashore of their own volition but were taken off the boat against their will.
For the following three years they were kept in squalid conditions except for the moments when they were interrogated in the hope that they would either conform to the Protestant religion or inform against their fellow Catholics. Within two years there were 14 other priests in jail with them.
After the failure of the Spanish Armada a total of 31 priests were tried and sentenced to die on 1st October 1588. Under questioning from Thomas Bowyer the clerics admitted that they intended to reconcile people to the Catholic faith and they protested against the cruelty of laws which condemned them to horrible deaths for their religion and priesthood. When the jury declared the group guilty of treason all remained silent but for Blessed Ralph, who said: “I shall not fear what man may do to me.”
Blessed Ralph was among a group of the priests sent for execution at Broyles Heath, Chichester. As they were dragged to the gallows on hurdles they were harangued by Protestant ministers and Blessed Ralph was so vehement in opposing their attempts to convert the priests that he was chosen to be the first to die. He received absolution from Edward James and blessed the crowd before protesting that he died solely for being a Catholic priest.
The spectacle of public disembowelment was too much to bear for some of the condemned men. In spite of earlier attempts by Blessed Ralph to persuade the men to remain firm one of them publicly renounced his religion to avoid execution. Another, Francis Edwards, was so visibly shaken that the authorities made him watch all the killings in the hope that he too would capitulate, which he did.
Edward James, Blessed Ralph’s confessor, succumbed momentarily and he gave the name of one Catholic who had harboured priests. He recovered his resolve and repented, going to his death immediately after Blessed Ralph.
The quarters of the two martyred priests were erected on poles over the city gates. One fell off and was retrieved by a Catholic who smuggled it to Douay, where it was kept as a relic. Because of its size, it was identified as belonging to Blessed Ralph, who was a tall man.
Source: Nine Martyrs of the Shrewsbury Diocese by Kevin Byrne