A Model of Spiritual Courage for Our Time

Quanto plus afflictionis pro Christo in hoc saeculo, tanto plus gloriae cum Christo in futuro. (The more affliction we endure for Christ in this world, the more glory we shall obtain with Christ in the next.)   ∼ Words inscribed by Philip Howard upon the wall of his cell.
When he first entered the fastness of that grim London fortress from which so few ever return, young Philip Howard was only twenty-eight years of age, his sudden incarceration the result of a failed attempt to flee the country with his family. That he was the Earl of Arundel, scion of the noblest and most respected family in the realm, not to mention a former court favorite of his second cousin the Queen, counted not at all amidst the crude and cynical calculations of those in power. His own father, after all, the 4th Duke of Norfolk, long accustomed to moving in the highest possible circles of power and prestige in the country, had himself been executed for High Treason only a few years before. Why should they spare the eldest son? Because he wasn’t a traitor? Alas, not even the certainty of innocence would be permitted to stand in the way of an egregious exercise of injustice. The tyranny of the times, I am saying, would exact its cruelest revenge despite all the obvious exonerating circumstances.

So what had poor Philip done to draw such murderous attention? And it was surely that inasmuch as it was deliberately intended that he should spend the rest of his life wasting away in a prison cell, a dark and fetid place where, almost eleven years later, he would finally die of dysentery. The answer is quite simple. He had become a Roman Catholic, no greater infamy than which can be conceived in the world of Elizabeth I.

She and her compatriots had compiled quite a record by then of coercing and killing anyone who dared to resist the totalizing aims of the Anglican Settlement. And it is chiefly that fact which distinguishes the forty-five years she spent as England’s monarch, despite all the contortions of the mythologists anxious to portray her as Good Queen Bess, the Virgin Queen, who made England great again. It is all bosh. But those who persist in believing it have carried the day; it is their view that continues to shape the reading of the past. And what it testifies to, of course, is the triumph of Whiggery, which is the view that stipulates the iron necessity that whatever the cause was that won, will perforce become the cause that bloody well should have won. Because Elizabeth Tudor, no less than her father Henry before her, and let us not forget the whole thuggish crowd of Cromwells and Cecils that serviced the Crown, were absolutely agreed about one thing, namely the complete destruction of the Catholic Thing. By their combined efforts they pretty much succeeded in uprooting the entire landscape of what had heretofore been Catholic England. Thus establishing an entirely new historical narrative, which is that everything that happened pursuant to the annihilation of the ancient faith simply had to happen. That England became Protestant during the years of the Tudor dynasty is no surprise, therefore, since the whole point of their governance was the replacement of one religion with another. The imprisonment and death of papists like Philip Howard was the price that needed to be paid to secure that end.

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

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So why leave intact so much evidence of innocence and integrity? If the ultimate aim of the self-styled Reformers was to expunge even the remotest memory of Catholicism from the consciousness of ordinary Englishmen, especially in light of their fixed belief that Rome was the Anti-Christ, one would think they’d have been a bit more thorough in removing the tokens of Catholic piety from among the recusant population. Even the least sign of an aspiring sanctity shown by the so-called enemies of Anglican orthodoxy would need to be suppressed if the world were not to learn the true extent of Tudor intolerance. How odd, therefore, in the case of Philip Howard, that his jailers had not taken the trouble to erase the embarrassing evidence set in stone along the wall of his cell. Seeing it one afternoon as I did while touring the Beauchamp Tower where he languished, I wondered about that. Was it that they doubted the sincerity of the sentiment it expressed? That could hardly have been the case. Here, after all, was lapidary proof of the authenticity of a man’s soul, determined to commend everything, including especially the anguish of an unjust imprisonment, to God.

And what an affront to Elizabethan pride that on their watch was no ordinary prisoner, but the finest bloom of English nobility, whom they could only honorably adjudge guilty of refusing to go along with the new dispensation. He was certainly no traitor to his Queen. Which of course they all knew. But rather someone who sought by the light of an historic Catholic Christendom to do the will of God in the same way that countless ancestors before him had done. Thus it was not for some principle of private conscience that he was made to suffer. It was for the truth of the Catholic Thing itself, that which had been, for a thousand years or more, the common possession of a free people.

How necessary it is, therefore, to adjudge as despicable the actions of the Queen and her Council for their barbarous treatment of this man. Whom, we are told, expected every day to die the shameful death of a traitor, not knowing of course that the Queen had most cruelly chosen not to sign the order, preferring to hold her cousin in fearful suspense. We are also told that as Philip Howard’s end drew near, he asked to see a priest to assist him into the next world. But that he was refused. And that he particularly wished to take leave of his wife and children, the youngest of whom hadn’t even been born when his father was committed to the Tower. Indeed, he had been repeatedly denied access to any member of his family from the first moment of his imprisonment. So that too was refused, leaving him bereft at the last of the one human connection he most prized.

Of course, the terms of this last and most poignant request were couched in such a way that were he to see them at all, it could only be at the cost of betraying his Catholic faith. “That if he would but once go to their Church,” (I am quoting here from The Other Face, Philip Caraman’s useful compilation of Catholic life under the reign of Elizabeth) “his request should not only be granted, but he should moreover be restored to his honour, and estates, with as much favour as she (the Queen) could show.” A bit late, you might say, to be baiting a hook he’d never shown much interest in taking in the first place. Howard’s reply was both brief and withering. He thanked her Majesty for an offer that he could not accept, “adding withal that he was sorry he had but one life to lose for that cause.”

His last hours were admirably spent. While clutching his beads, invoking the holy names of Jesus and Mary, or saying such psalms and prayers as he knew by heart, Philip Howard composed himself for death and for God. Desiring that none weep for his passing, he explained that by God’s grace all would go well for him in the end. And so, the last minute of his last hour having now come, we are told how, “lying on his back, his eyes firmly fixed towards Heaven, and his long lean consumed arms out of the bed, his hand upon his breast laid in cross one upon the other … in a most sweet manner without any sign of grief or groan, only turning his head a little aside, as one falling into a pleasing sleep, he surrendered his happy soul into the hands of Almighty God, who to his so great glory had created it.”

It was Sunday, October 19, 1595 when he left the Tower, his soul having gone home to God, where to this day he is counted among the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales.

Saint Philip Howard, pray for us.


  • Regis Martin

    Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He earned a licentiate and a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. Martin is the author of a number of books, including Still Point: Loss, Longing, and Our Search for God (2012) and The Beggar’s Banquet (Emmaus Road). His most recent book, published by Scepter, is called Looking for Lazarus: A Preview of the Resurrection.

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