Sometimes, regardless of our best laid plans, something happens to us in our lives that changes everything…that is precisely what happened to Henry Walpole…
Henry was born in 1558, in Docking Norfolk to wealthy parents. He was educated at the finest schools and was studying law, following in the footsteps of his father. He was an ambitious man, who did not concern himself with the welfare of others…he was indifferent to the sufferings of his fellow Englishmen, concerning himself with his worldly success instead.
Walpole had been born into a Catholic family, but he did not devote much time to living out his faith, until he met a priest named Father Campion who was operating an underground Catholic Missionary group in England, which was now, officially Anglican. The faith and zeal of this courageous priest inspired Walpole. Impressed with the priest’s ability to hold lively discussions with the Anglicans, he spent time with him, listening to the sermons. When Father Campion was sentenced to death in December of 1581, Walpole attended the execution of the priest and his companions. He stood and watched as this group of holy men were killed for their Faith. He watched the courage these men displayed as they were drawn and quartered. Some of the priest’s blood splattered onto Henry Walpole….a few drops of the martyr’s blood... mixed with the courage of the priest, stirred a conversion within him, and changed the ambitious man forever...
The priests’ execution changed his heart…he had witnessed holy men willing to lay down their lives…. to sacrifice their lives … for a Faith that he had yet to embrace…but with his eyes and soul, now stirred by God… he began to feel that there was more to life than what he was seeking…and shortly there after, he allowed God to change the course of his life. He felt God was calling him to the priesthood. He abandoned his legal studies and entered the seminary. In February of 1584, he entered the Society of Jesus. After finishing his studies, he was ordained a priest in Paris on December 17, 1588. Shortly after his ordination he was assigned to be the Chaplin to the English Catholic refugees serving in the Spanish Army in the Low Countries.
In 1589, he was captured by the Calvinists and spent a year in prison. When he was released, he went to work at the English Seminary in Spain. Then in 1593 he was asked to return to England. Due to an outbreak of the plague, the ports in England were closed, so he and several traveling companions traveled on a French vessel to Scotland. After traveling for ten stormy days, they were put ashore in Flamborough,Yorkshire. Father Walpole was separated from his companions and went to rest at a local inn. Another recently released prisoner who had been sailing on the ship, and needed some money, turned the priest in…for a few pieces of gold…He was immediately arrested for the unjust crime of being a priest.
He was imprisoned for sixteen months. Then in 1594 he was transferred to the Tower of London so that the famous priest-torturer, Richard Topcliffe could try his hand at using violence to glean some information from the priest. Topcliffe tortured Father Walpole on many occasions. He was beaten and tortured brutally on the rack, enduring horrendous amounts of pain. He was suspended from his wrists for hours on end…trying to break his spirit…trying to get him to renounce his Faith. He was even offered clemency if he would renounce the pope and take an Oath of Supremacy, which meant agreeing that the queen had authority over all religions…but he refused…and endured the suffering…and with God’s grace, he stood firm. Each time he was tortured, he was pushed just far enough by Topcliffe, but then, brought back from the brink of death to endure more torturing for another day…These sessions were carried out for an entire year before the holy priest was finally condemned to death.
On April 7th, after enduring countless hours of brutal torture, he and another Jesuit priest were led to the gallows. After Father Alexander Rawlins; the other priest who was sentenced to death; was killed, Father Walpole asked the onlookers that were gathered, to pray with him. He prayed that God would enlighten all the Protestants, in the same way he had been enlightened years prior, and he prayed that all would come back to the true Faith…the Holy Catholic Church…and receive the mercy of God…
As he climbed the ladder to the gallows, he led the onlookers in the Our Father prayer, but before he could begin the Hail Mary, the executioner pushed him to his death. His body was immediately removed from the noose and dismembered…spilling the blood of another holy martyr…Enriching the soil…the land…the souls of those gathered there …with the blood of yet, another faithful soldier ….One, who suffered much cruelty at the hands of man and offered his life for the Church… for the conversion of those not yet in union with the Church. With the help of God’s mercy and grace…he had endured all the pain and suffering that this world could muster… Remaining true to the Lord throughout it all...and in return, gained his eternal reward…being carried home to Our Lord in Heaven….
Father Henry Walpole was beatified in 1920, and canonized in 1970 as one of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales.
Dear Lord, as you inspired this great Saint to open his heart to Your Words and the Truth of the Holy Catholic Church, help us to imitate his example, and stand firm in our Faith, regardless of the suffering we may have to face. Saint Walpole, pray for us. Amen.