Saint of the week

Blessed Hugh Faringdon, November 14th

Blessed Richard Whiting, Blessed Hugh Farington and Blessed John Beche, along with four companions “worthily represent among our martyrs the great Benedictine Order to which England owes so much. Amid the widespread ruin wrought by the revolution of the 16th century, none was greater or more deplorable than the utter overthrow and destruction of those ancient monasteries, which the piety of our forefathers had scattered widecast over the face of the land. The England of the early days of Henry VIII, as of the centuries before, was in some sort the special patrimony of St Benedict, and the change wrought by the dissolution of his abbeys was one so violent and so radical that it is difficult adequately to realise it nowadays”.

These words come from the Lives of the English Martyrs, a book edited by Dom Bede Camm, a monk of the Order of St Benedict, to mark the beatification of the English martyrs by Pope Leo XIII on 13 May 1895.

Blesseds Richard Whiting, Hugh Farington and John Beche were beatified together. They were the last abbots of the great abbeys of Glastonbury, Reading and Colchester respectively.

Blessed Hugh was born Hugh Cook but he assumed the surname of Faringdon when, at the end of the 15th century, he became a Benedictine monk.  Some sources suggest this might imply he came from Faringdon, a town some 30 miles from Reading, yet he also used the coat of arms of the Cooks of Kent, suggesting he was somehow related to this family.

It is likely that Blessed Hugh was educated at Reading Abbey, an institution founded in 1121 by King Henry I, a son of William the Conqueror who would also be laid to rest there.  But it is considered definite that in 1520 Blessed Hugh, then sub-chamberlain, was elected abbot on the death of Abbot Thomas Worcester.  Accompanying the responsibilities of his new office was a place in Parliament as a “mitred abbot” and he served there from 1523 to 1539, and he also sat as a Justice of the Peace.

Hugh Faringdon was visited by King Henry VIII on 30 January 1521, just days after his confirmation as the new abbot. The King seemed to have rather liked Blessed Hugh. He would refer to him as his “own abbot” and he promoted him as one of the royal chaplains. In turn, Blessed Hugh appears to have been an ally of Henry as the king pursued the annulment of his marriage to Katherine of Aragon, his first wife.  To help him to achieve this objective, the abbot sent the monarch a catalogue of his abbey library in the hope he might therein discover the books that would serve his purpose. Blessed Hugh was also one of the peers who in 1530 signed a letter to the Pope to warn him of the possible evils likely to beset the Church in England if there was any further delay in nullifying the marriage. The abbot also sought to cement his friendship with Henry by sending him gifts of Kennet trout or hunting knives whenever the King was hunting in the area. Records show that in 1532 he also sent Henry £20 in a white leather purse as a New Year’s gift.

Dom Camm notes, however, that Blessed Hugh, “though of a courteous, complacent nature which inclined him to go as far as he conscientiously could in humouring those with whom he came into contact, was nevertheless a convinced and firm supporter of the Catholic faith”. The abbot sent a preacher to London, for instance, in the hope of dispelling the infatuation with Lutheranism that was infecting the city, and he was constantly on guard against heresy spreading to his own monastic community, where he strongly maintained the practice of holy discipline. He fully understood and believed in the Petrine Ministry and he would offer Mass for the Pope at least once a week (this incurred a furious tract against him, by an anonymous author, which was discovered among papers of Sir Thomas Cromwell, Henry’s infamous and bloody henchman).

But like many of the martyrs of that period, Blessed Hugh, for a time, wavered in the face of persecution before finding the courage to bear witness to his faith. In 1536, for instance, he signed the Articles of Faith that virtually acknowledged the King’s claim to supremacy over the Church in England. This may have bought him time because he remained in favour well into 1537. That November, for example, he sang the Requiem Mass for Jane Seymour, the King’s third wife, at St George’s Chapel, Windsor, and was also present at the burial a week later.  The catalyst for his downfall was probably the Pilgrimage of Grace, the movement that began in the North of England in protest at the King’s Protestant reforms and the dissolution of the religious houses.

It was led by Robert Aske, a Yorkshire lawyer, and copies of his proclamation in which he set out the objectives of the pilgrimage, were distributed at Reading. Although the abbot was not suspected of complicity, he did, however, repeat a rumour the following month that the King was dead. Taken together at a time when the Tudor tyrant was deeply vengeful and insecure, it did not bode well for Blessed Hugh. He was received a royal pardon for his indiscretion but even by that time Henry’s attitude to the monasteries was hardening further still; dozens of religious houses were dissolved and shrines plundered in the second half of 1538 alone, and the following year was set up for what we might today describe as the “end game”.

Parliament met again in April 1539 and, as Dom Bede Camm notes, on this occasion it was to “consummate the work of destruction”. This was the Parliament of the Six Articles, the first attempt to impose the Henrician reforms uniformly. It was attended by the abbots of Reading, Glastonbury and Colchester, their last time in Parliament, and they watched in silence as the final phase of the destruction of the abbeys was authorised by the state.

The three had been communicating with each other in the run up to the meeting, however, through messages carried by William Moore, a blind harper and a convinced Catholic, and it would appear that together they had resolved to resist attempts to compel them to surrender their abbeys to the Crown.

Tower of LondonIn September the order was issued by Cromwell to nevertheless proceed against the “Abbots of Glaston, Reading and others in their counties”. Blessed Hugh was arrested and sent to the Tower of London where he remained for two months before he was returned to Reading to stand trial alongside Blessed John Eynon and Blessed John Rugg, possibly both Benedictines, even though his death sentence had been passed before the trial began.

During the trial the three clerics, with tremendous fortitude, openly expressed their opposition to the Royal Supremacy (while professing loyalty to the King) and they were sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered for high treason. They were executed at the gates of Reading Abbey on November 15th, the same day that Blessed Richard Whiting and two companions were similarly butchered at the top of Glastonbury Tor.

Blessed Hugh, recorded Bede Camm, “spoke out boldly at the last, professing his fidelity to the Holy See, which, as he pointed out, ‘was but the common faith of those who had the best right to declare the true teaching of the English Church’.”

“Thus on the same November day Reading and Glastonbury yielded their testimony to England’s ancient faith,” continued Dom Bede. “Thus did the Order that had conquered England for Christ in a long series of bloodless triumphs, now in the day of trial show forth before God and men, in the persons of her noblest sons, that she shrank not from faith’s supremest test, nor charity’s sublimest sacrifice.”

The third mitred abbot to die as a martyr that year, Blessed John Beche – a former Abbot of Chester – went to his death in Colchester two weeks later, on December 1.