Saint of the week

St John Rigby, 21st June



St John Rigby was a layman who was executed on 21 June 1600 after he refused to attend Protestant services. He was canonised as one of the 40 Martyrs of England and Wales by Pope Paul VI in 1970.

He was born into an ancient Lancashire family of Harrock Hall at Eccleston, between Wigan and Chorley, but the financial problems of the family meant that he had to enter into domestic service. This brought him to London, working in a Protestant household. Although he had been raised a Catholic, for a time he outwardly conformed to the statutory requirement to attend Protestant services each week. This eventually threw him into a crisis of conscience and he made his confession to a priest called Mr Jones (alias Mr Buckley) who was imprisoned in the Clink in Southwark and St John “heartily repented”, ultimately resolving not to attend any more services, even at the cost of his life.

At about this time, the fervour with which he began to follow the faith of his childhood won back several lapsed or wavering Catholics to religious observance, including his own father, Nicholas.

The events leading to his martyrdom began when his employer, Sir Edmund Huddlestone, sent him to the sessions house of the Old Bailey to plead illness for the absence of his daughter, Mrs Fortescue, who had been summoned on a charge of recusancy. But Sir Richard Martin, a commissioner, questioned St John about his own religious beliefs. The saint openly acknowledged that he was a Catholic, that he did not attend Protestant services and nor would he take the oath of the Queen’s supremacy. He was summarily committed to Newgate prison.

Much of the ensuing trial of St John Rigby was recorded it in his own hand while in custody.

It would appear that some of the judges – especially Mr Justice Gaudy – were impressed by his sincerity and honesty and they would have liked to have released him. They constantly tried to persuade him to attend the new services, and thereby save his life, but he resolutely refused to do so. He insisted that he was a loyal subject of the Queen but that he must remain obedient to his conscience. “Take my first answer as it is,” he told the judges. “There is my hand, here is my whole body, and most ready I am to seal it with my blood.”

In the final hearing Judge Gaudy made a final attempt to persuade him to go to the services, telling him that the Queen and her laws were merciful and that “if you will yet conform yourself, and say here, before the jury go forth, that you will go to church, we will proceed no further”.

St John replied: “My lord, if that be all the offence I have committed, as I know it is, and if there be no other way but going to church to help it, I would not wish your lordship to think that I have (as I hope) risen thus many steps towards heaven, and now will wilfully let my food slip and fall into the bottomless pit of hell. I hope in Jesus He will strengthen me rather to suffer a thousand deaths, if I had so many lives to lose. Let your law proceed.”

Even after the jury returned a guilty verdict to the charge of treason, Judge Gaudy continued to try to persuade the saint to conform, only to meet with more refusals. The death sentence was passed and Judge Gaudy immediately procured a reprieve. This allowed St John the time to record the events of his trial, which he sent to a friend.

On June 19 he was brought back to court, this time to face Mr Justice Kingsmel, who began the hearing by ordering him to be shackled. After arguing with the other judges he finally ruled that St John should die and, according to Bishop Richard Challoner, Judge Gaudy was seen by some witnesses to be weeping. St John afterwards prayerfully prepared for his death, telling a friend that he was grateful to the Lord for granting him “very great comfort and consolation of mind”.

On Saturday June 21 he was informed he would die that day. “Deo gratias,” he replied. “It is the best tidings that ever was brought me since I was born.”

He refused the attentions of the Protestant minister sent to him and shortly after 5pm he was tied to a hurdle and taken to St Thomas’s Watering in Southwark, south of the River Thames. On the way he joined by the Earl of Rutland and Captain Whitlock, who were on horseback, and who for a short while held a conversation with him about his willingness to die for his faith, urging him to instead conform. They also talked to him about his virginity, astonished that a man of 30 had found the strength to remain chaste. They left him before his execution, asking him to pray for them.

A large crowd had gathered at the place of execution and St John stood in a cart and prayed the Our Father, the Hail Mary, the Creed and the Confiteor before some of the mob started to heckle him for asking for the intercession of the saints.

He kissed the rope as it was put around his neck and turned to address the crowd a final time. He was interrupted by the Sheriff’s deputy who asked him: “What traitors does thou know in England?”

“God is my witness, I know none,” was the saint’s reply.

The cart was sharply drawn away and the deputy ordered the hangman to cut down St John just moments later.

A young and healthy man, St John stood upright on his feet, startled but fully conscious. He was then thrown to the floor by his executioners, and was heard to say aloud: “God forgive you. Jesus receive my soul.”

The brutality with which he was butchered shocked many in a crowd inured to spectacles of cruelty. St John was held down by his arms and legs and a man, described as a porter, stood on his throat while he was disembowelled in full consciousness. As one of the executioners reached for his heart, he thrust off the others with his arms. They cut off his head and quartered him, disposing of the parts of his body throughout Southwark.

“The people, going away, complained very much of the barbarity of the execution,” wrote Bishop Challoner, in Memoirs of Missionary Priests, “and generally all sorts bewailed his death.”