Saint of the week

St Ambrose Barlow, 10th September

St Ambrose Barlow was a Manchester-born Benedictine monk who served on the English mission in his native Lancashire until he was seized by a Protestant mob on Easter Sunday 1641 and hanged, drawn and quartered for his priesthood at Lancaster on September 10 that year.

According to the 18th century Bishop Richard Challoner, the saint had spent 13 years in the daily expectation of arrest and martyrdom following a supernatural visitation by St Edmund Arrowsmith, a Lancashire Jesuit to whom he had ministered the last sacraments in prison in 1628.

Not knowing that St Edmund had already been executed at Lancaster for “persuasion to popery”, he recalled in a letter written in prison in May 1641 that the Jesuit had appeared to him at his bedside to tell him: “I have suffered and now you will be to suffer. Say little, for they will endeavour to take hold of your words.”

St Ambrose had been arrested four times following the visitation but he was released on each occasion without charge. So dangerous was the situation becoming, however, that his friends tried to persuade him to leave Lancashire and stay with relatives in Cheshire but his position was, according to Challoner, that to “die for this cause (for being a Catholic priest) was more desirable than life; that he must die some time or other and could not die a better death”. He was arrested for the final time shortly after Parliament, in March 1641, bullied King Charles I to declare that all priests must either leave the realm or incur the penalties of traitors.

St Ambrose was aged 55 years at the time and was well known in the Morleys Hall area of Leigh, which served as his headquarters during a 24-year ministry that began with his arrival in his native county from France in 1617, a year after he was clothed in the Benedictine habit by his brother, Dom Rudesind, the prior of St Gregory the Great, Douay (now located at Downside, Somerset).

The saint, whose baptismal name was Edward, shunned the security of country houses in preference to a modest residence which made him more accessible to the poor. He became highly esteemed “for his great zeal in the conversion of souls, and the exemplary piety of his life and conversation”. And although he was known for being “mild, cheerful and witty” in conversation, for patience and good humour in the face of insults and threats to him, he was also “very severe” in rebuking sin, and he would be sometimes visibly upset by the sight of people straying from the path of virtue.

He had an intense and disciplined spiritual life with a great devotion to the rosary, which he recited daily and recommended to penitents. He would also often meditate on the sufferings of Our Lord with his arms extended in the form of a cross.

He was captured when the vicar of Leigh led a 400-strong armed mob to the house where St Ambrose had just celebrated Easter Mass for 100 Catholics and was delivering an exhortation on the subject of patience. Later that same day St Ambrose was handed over to a magistrate who ordered him to Lancaster with a guard of 60 armed men.

His trial opened on Tuesday September 7 before Sir Robert Heath, a judge who, according to Challoner, had instructions from Parliament to create a “terror” in Lancashire by executing St Ambrose amid government concerns about the high number of Catholics in the county.

In court, St Ambrose admitted his priesthood from the outset and, in answer to questions from the judge, also denounced the injustice of laws that condemned priests to suffer as traitors “merely because they are Roman, that is, true priests”.

He asked the court: “For there are no other priests but the Roman and if these be destroyed what must become of the Divine law when none remain to preach God’s Word and administer His sacraments?”

The judge then asked his opinion of those who enforce the penal laws and the saint warned him that they would risk sending themselves to hell.

Sir Robert reminded St Ambrose that he was sitting in judgement on him and had power to either acquit or convict him, to which the monk replied that the powers of the court were not greater than the laws of God.

“In spiritual matters and in things belonging to the court of conscience be pleased to take notice that I am judge and therefore I tell you plainly that if by that unjust law you sentence me to die it will be to my salvation and your damnation,” St Ambrose said.

The judge then directed the jury to return a guilty verdict and sentence was pronounced the following day when St Ambrose prayed in open court that God would forgive all those who had acted as accessories in his murder.

On the Friday, the saint was drawn by hurdle from Lancaster Castle to his place of execution. He circled the gallows three times, saying the psalm Miserere before he finally mounted the scaffold to gain the crown of martyrdom.

St Ambrose Barlow – like St Edmund Arrowsmith – was among the 40 martyrs of England and Wales canonised by Pope Paul VI in 1970.

The relic of his skull is kept in Wardley Hall, the residence of the Bishop of Salford, and that of his left hand (pictured on the right) is in the custody of the Benedictine nuns of Stanbrook Abbey, now located at Wass, North Yorkshire, where it is brought out for veneration on his September 10 feast day each year.


(Photo of the relic of the hand of St Ambrose courtesy of the nuns of Stanbrook Abbey)