Who was St John Houghton?

Who was St John Houghton?

Beauvale Priory, near Eastwood, achieved fame when its one-time Prior, John Houghton, became the first English Catholic Martyr. Born in Essex in 1487, he was educated at Cambridge, where he took a degree in law and, as his parents then wanted him to marry (against his will), he left home to live with a priest until his own ordination. At 28 he joined the Carthusian order, entering the Charterhouse of London. Eight years later he was then made Prior of Beauvale (Nottinghamshire), but only stayed for six months, being recalled to serve as Prior of Charterhouse upon the death of his predecessor.

A representation of St John Houghton

In 1534 an Act was passed requiring everyone to swear that King Henry VIII’s true heirs were only the children of his then wife Anne Boleyn. When the Royal Commissioners required Prior Houghton and his Community to swear to this, he tried to evade what he saw as a treacherous question, saying that his position did not require him to judge such high matters as royal marriages. The Commissioners required that he should swear, in the presence of the Community, that the King’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon was not valid. The Prior replied that he could not understand how a marriage solemnly celebrated in the Church could be declared invalid and for this he was sent to the Tower of London. Held for a month, he was set free on agreeing to take a modified version of the oath. The following year a further oath was required, swearing loyalty and obedience to the King alone and to no other ‘foreign authority or potentate’. The inference was obvious: a rejection of the Pope, and this was the oath that Sir Thomas More refused to take.

John Houghton saw the writing on the wall and endeavoured to prepare his Community for the storm ahead. The Priors of Beauvale and Eppeworth were there on a visit and it was resolved that they, with Prior Houghton, would go to see the King’s ‘Vicar General’, Thomas Cromwell. There they refused to take the oath of Supremacy.

Many at the time wondered if Henry VIII was bluffing and would stop short of actually killing a priest for refusing to take the oath. But the King was determined to use this as a warning to waverers. The manner of their death, to be hung, drawn and quartered, was actually decreed before the trial and, when the jury failed to reach the required verdict, Cromwell threatened them with the death penalty.

So on 4th May 1535 John Houghton became the first of the English Catholic martyrs. He was beatified in 1886, and is commemorated in Ilkeston by the Catholic Secondary School at Kirk Hallam. It cost £153,000 to build, half of which was found by local Catholics, and was opened in 1965. In 1970, the name of the school was changed as 435 years after his death, the Blessed John Houghton was canonised and his name added to the Calendar of Saints.

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