St Henry Walpole

Docking’s very own Saint

Portrait of St Henry Walpole

The Chancel of the church in Docking was completed in the year 1348, during the reign of King Edward III. At that time England was very much a Catholic country, part of Western Christendom. The English king at that time controlled almost a third of the territory of France and was very involved in a wide range of political goings on all across Europe, from Flanders and France to Spain and the Italian States. The Pope and the Church were a major part of life and politics in Europe then, and so it would have been unthinkable that England could ever be outside the Roman Catholic Church.

Even at the start of the reign of Henry VIII, it was hard to imagine life outside the Roman Church. Henry was himself a faithful Catholic who wrote treatises against the ideas of Martin Luther, one of the founding fathers of the new Protestant movement. It was for writing these treatises that the Pope himself gave Henry the title Defender of the Faith, a title that our Kings and Queens have kept to this day.

Yet, more than anything, Henry wanted and needed a son and heir to follow him and so secure the Tudor dynasty. To achieve that he tried to get a divorce from his wife Catherine of Aragon to whom he had been married for over twenty years, with no son in sight, and with the chance of one fast disappearing.  Henry’s eye had been caught by Anne Boleyn, an attractive lady at Court who was much younger than Catherine, and so perhaps, more able to give the heir he needed.

Possibly, Henry played with the threat of a break with Rome to put extra pressure upon the Pope to grant him what he wanted. Whether that was the case or not, as Catherine was the niece of the Holy Roman Emperor the Pope would not budge and Henry could not get him to issue the divorce that he so badly wanted. And so he broke away from the Pope and the Church and declared himself the head of the Church of England.

It must have come as quite a shock to so many people in England when Henry finally broke with the Catholic Church in the 1530’s. Although he had broken away from Rome, Henry did not see himself as a Protestant, even though he often employed people who had Protestant sympathies.

Over the remaining years of his reign much of what remained of the old religion was badly damaged or shaken, the monasteries were all finally closed down and the ways of worshipping in Church were gradually changed.

These changes grew faster in the brief reign of Henry’s son, Edward VI, and were halted, equally briefly, during his sister Mary’s reign. With the accession of Queen Elizabeth I, the new English Church was eventually set on much stronger foundations and the constant threat against the nation posed by nearby Catholic kingdoms served only to make people in government come to see Catholics as a great threat and danger to the stability of England.

Docking Hall
Docking Hall

Henry Walpole came into the world in the midst of all this turmoil. He was born at Docking Hall in October 1558, the eldest son of Christopher Walpole and Margery, heiress of Richard Beckham of Narford. He would probably have been baptised in Saint Mary’s Church in the dying days of the Catholic reign of Bloody Mary. The font in our church dates from the 1300’s and so would have been the very place where young Henry was christened. His family were connected with the Walpoles of Houghton Hall, but at the time of Henry’s birth the Walpoles of Docking were a wealthy land-owning family with interests in sheep farming.

Having been born at the end of Queen Mary’s reign Henry was baptised as a Roman Catholic and was brought up in the Catholic Faith. He was a clever boy and so was sent away to receive a classical education at the Norwich Grammar School.

Under Queen Elizabeth I it became compulsory for all people to attend the local parish church. If you didn’t attend (and were noted as attending by the Churchwardens), you could be fined £20 a month, and that was a lot of money at the time when most labourers would only earn 4d a day, making the sum of £20 just over three years money for a labourer. Henry would probably have attended the Anglican Church therefore, but he remained Catholic at heart.

Peterhouse College, Cambridge
Peterhouse College

He did well in his studies and went on to the college of Peterhouse at Cambridge University. In those days, for a person to get a degree you had to swear an oath stating that Elizabeth was the Supreme Governor of the Church of England and shunning the authority of any foreign ruler or religious leader. Henry left university without graduating, and so historians have often come to the conclusion that he did so because he refused to swear such an oath.

The government of England at that time hoped that by issuing fines and making life very difficult for Catholics they would choose to abandon their old faith and turn to the new Church. The more stubborn Catholics were treated very harshly and being a Catholic Priest was treated as treason. As a result, there were very few Catholic Priests in England. To revive the fortunes of the Catholic Church in England, a mission was set up to send Jesuit priests into the country to encourage existing Catholics and to convert Protestants who had an interest in the Catholic faith.

Gray's Inn
Gray’s Inn

At about the same time, Henry Walpole left Cambridge to study law in London. He worked in law chambers in Gray’s Inn, chambers that were famous for their Catholic sympathies. Whilst there he witnessed the trial of a famous Jesuit missionary called Edmund Campion. He heard some of his brave argument and later saw his brutal execution at Tyburn Gallows. In fact, Henry himself said that his clothes were spattered with some of Campion’s blood as he was hung, drawn and quartered.

Seeing Edmund Campion die so bravely had a huge impact on the 23-year-old Henry; it completely changed his life. He started by writing a long poem entitled: An Epitaph of the Life and Death of the Most Famous and Virtuous Priest Edmund Campion, and with a title like that you can imagine that it spoke very highly about the executed Jesuit. Henry had the poem privately printed and distributed, which greatly annoyed the government of the day who ordered that all copies of the poem should be confiscated and burned. When the printer who had worked for Henry was discovered and arrested, he was fined very heavily for printing the poem and was then placed in the pillory where his ears were cut off as punishment for his crime.

Having set out so plainly in print that he was sympathetic to the Catholic cause, Henry had put himself in danger. He was under suspicion and so left London and returned to the family home in Norfolk for a while, keeping a low profile. But clearly his mind was made up, Henry wanted to become a Catholic priest. And to do so he would have to leave the country, secretly for if the government thought that he was trying to join the Catholics on the continent he would have been at real risk of arrest, imprisonment and severe interrogation.

Henry travelled all the way up to Newcastle, where he would have been unknown, and from there he took a boat across to France. In 1582, he arrived in a Catholic training centre in Rheims called the English College. Its job was to turn out priests who would carry on the struggle to turn England back to the Roman Catholic Faith, either by coming to England and working with missionaries or by supporting that work as trainers and administrators in France and Rome.

St Ignatius of Loyola
Ignatius of Loyola

From Rheims Henry was sent to another English College, this time in Rome, and in 1584 he joined the Society of Jesus, often better known as the Jesuits. The Jesuits had been set up by Ignatius of Loyola and a small band of friends back in 1534 when they gathered to swear vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, including a special vow of strict obedience to the Pope. They had been a key group used by the Catholic Church to take up the church’s side against the growing Protestant movement. From a small group of seven members in 1534 the order had grown to a couple of thousand in missions across the world, from the Americas to India and China to Japan. The rigour of training and the exciting opportunities that membership brought made the Jesuit order a very attractive prospect for keen young Catholics, and it attracted the brightest and best to join its ranks.

After completing four years of training with the Jesuits, Henry was ordained as a Deacon in the city of Metz and then as a Priest on 17th December 1588 in the city of Paris. Henry was clearly a gifted man. As well as the Latin that he would have needed, he spoke fluent French, Italian and Spanish. And so, after being ordained he was sent at first, not to England, but to Belgium and the Netherlands, which in those days were territories governed by the King of Spain.

Henry worked as a chaplain with soldiers fighting in the Spanish army. But in 1589 he was captured by English troops, who were fighting alongside Dutch rebels, and was sent to prison in the town of Flushing on the Dutch coast. He had with him nothing but the clothes he stood up in, and so suffered great hardship in a prison system that demanded that prisoners pay for any luxuries, including reasonable food. Somehow, Henry managed to get a message to his family describing his plight, and his brother Michael made his way to Flushing, paid a ransom and secured Henry’s freedom at the start of 1590.

Henry’s behaviour seemed to have quite an effect on his family for his brothers Richard, Michael and Christopher and his cousin Edward all followed in his footsteps, travelling over to France, training for the priesthood and joining the Jesuits.

In spite of his bad experiences on the battlefield and in prison, after he had recovered Henry went back to being a military chaplain for a further two years. In 1592 he was sent to Spain to teach in the English Colleges in Seville and Valladolid. He did very well as a teacher and was even granted an audience with the Spanish King Philip II at his palace in Madrid.

Soon after that Henry was granted his heart’s desire. In 1593 he was asked to go to England and work in the missions here. Henry left Madrid and travelled up to France. In September he tried to get a boat across to Dover from Calais, but there had been an outbreak of plague in the country around the port and nobody dared to risk landing there. Eventually, Henry managed to find a privateer who would take him to England from the port of Dunkirk and in November he set sail.

He had hoped to be taken to the Essex or Norfolk coast and dropped in one of the small and secluded inlets there. He would then travel inland on foot to find one of the Catholic supporters in the area. Unfortunately for Henry, the weather was atrocious and the boat carrying him drifted off course going ever further northwards. By the evening of 4th December, they were off Flamborough Head up on the Yorkshire coast. Henry had had enough of journeying by sea and so asked to be put ashore at Bridlington.

Unknown to him however, the authorities had been warned that he was coming to England by a spy who had managed to catch a boat and get to England while Henry was being pulled up towards Yorkshire.

York Castle
York Castle

After landing at Bridlington Henry hid in woodland nearby and spent the night there. The next day he walked a few miles inland to a village called Kilham where he called at the inn wet and hungry. The locals there were very suspicious of this outsider and so poor Henry was arrested and taken to York castle where he confessed to being a Jesuit Priest.

But Henry’s troubles were only just beginning because at the end of January the next year, 1594, the dreaded Catholic hunter Richard Topcliffe travelled up to York to personally interrogate Henry, but on this occasion without success, for Henry gave him no useful information. Henry was clearly a very brave man. In a letter that he wrote and managed to have smuggled out of his prison he wrote:

“When Topcliffe threatened that he would make me answer he had me in Bridewell or the Tower, I told him, Our Lord I hoped would never permit me, for fear of any torments…… to go against my own conscience.”

'Henry Walpole' in the Salt Tower
Henry’s name on a wall in the Salt Tower

The thoughts contained in that letter would soon be put to the test for in February Henry was transferred down to the Tower of London.  His name can still be seen to this day scratched in the wall of the cell that housed him there in the Salt Tower.

He was held as what was called a ‘close prisoner’ in what we would now call solitary confinement, for over two months. He was unable to communicate with his fellow prisoners or the outside world. Being a close prisoner also brought harsh and rough treatment from his jailers. He would have been fed very little and he would have had to sleep upon a cold stone floor without any blankets or coverings.

In a report written by Henry Garnet, the Jesuit Superior in England, we get an idea of his conditions. Garnet wrote that:

“Father Walpole met in the Tower of London with the greatest misery and poverty, so that the Lieutenant himself, though otherwise a hard-hearted man, was moved to inquire after some of the Fathers relations and told them that he was in great extraordinary want, without bed, without clothes, without anything to cover him … when the cold was most sharp and piercing.”

'The Scavenger's Daughter'
A prisoner in the Scavenger’s Daughter

Yet this was not the worst of it. For Richard Topcliffe meant to break Henry. He was kept in the Tower for over a year and horrendously tortured on the rack, with thumbscrews and with a metal device called the Scavenger’s Daughter that forced the victim into a tight ball and could cause serious internal injuries. Finally, he was tortured by being hung off the ground by his hands in metal manacles. This was a favourite torture of Richard Topcliffe and caused the victim to suffer extreme pain after only a matter of minutes.

Topcliffe pulled out all the stops for Henry, and he has the dubious honour of being the most tortured of any other of the Catholic priests. He was hung up in manacles on no less than 14 separate occasions in his captor’s attempts to break him. As a result, his hands were so crippled that he could no longer sign his name properly.

Under such torture and relentless questioning some information was obtained from Henry, but he never betrayed anyone.

In the spring of 1595, Henry was sent back up to York for trial. He was, physically, a broken man. Yet in spite of all the torments that he suffered Henry, having been a lawyer at Gray’s Inn, pleaded his own defence, and with some success. In the end however, the trial came down to one thing, would Henry now renounce his Catholicism and submit to Queen Elizabeth as the head of religion.

Walpole answered that he prayed for the Queen, asking that God would bless her and fill her with his Holy Spirit. He added that he would submit to the Queen’s authority in all things saving only religion. He summed up this stating:

“May Christ never suffer me to consent to the least thing by which he might be dishonoured, nor you desire it of me, and God is my witness, that all here present and particularly to my accusers, I wish as to myself the salvation of their souls and to this end they live in the true Catholic Faith, the only way to eternal happiness.”

After this, Henry was denounced as a traitor and the jury were directed to find him guilty, which they did. Henry was then returned to York Castle to await his execution.

On the 7th April 1595, together with another Catholic priest, a Father Alexander Rawlings, Henry was taken out of prison, tied to a hurdle and dragged to the scaffold.

The punishment for treason was to be hanged, drawn and quartered and Henry watched as his companion was hanged for a while, let down while he was still alive, only to have his stomach opened and his heart cut out while he was still living. His head was then cut off and his body chopped into four parts.

His executioners showed Henry the mangled remains of his companion Father Rawlings and even then, said that they would be willing to spare him if he would only renounce his Catholic faith, and embrace the Church of England under Queen Elizabeth.

Henry refused and instead he climbed the ladder to the gallows and asked the onlookers to pray with him. After he finished the Our Father but before he could say the Hail Mary, the executioner pushed him away from the ladder. He died whilst being hanged so that he didn’t have to suffer any of the torment that his companion went through. He was then taken down and dismembered.

Henry, along with 39 other English martyrs, was canonised by Pope Paul VI at a special ceremony held at St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican City in Rome on 25th October 1970. In the same year the Roman Catholic Church in Burnham Market was dedicated to Saint Henry.

Today St Mary’s Church in Docking has close links with St Henry’s Church in Burnham Market. The two congregations join together each year in remembering St Henry, in Burnham Market in April (the month of his death) and in Docking in October (the month of his birth). They worship and pray together in the hope that the hatred and intolerance that led to St Henry’s torture and death is never repeated in our villages or between our churches again.

St Henry's Catholic Church, Burnham MarketSt Mary the Virgin, Docking








This web page is based on a booklet, A Brief Life of Saint Henry Walpole, which is on sale in Docking Church.