Our Parish Patron Saint

 Saint Swithun Wells
by C Gardner

Saint Swithun Wells was born in these parts, at Brambridge House, Otterbourne, in about 1536, two years after Henry VIII created the Church of England. The youngest of five sons, his parents were Thomas Wells (or Welles) and Mary, daughter of John Mompesson. He was christened with the name of the ninth century local saint and Bishop of Winchester, Swithun. They were a determinedly Catholic family who, during the Reformation, were to assist in the clandestine burials of Catholics in the local churchyard and whose house became a refuge for priests. His eldest brother, Gilbert, died a known recusant having forfeited the property, but it was later restored to the family by Charles II.  It is not known when or whom Swithun married, but we do know that for six years he kept a school for young gentlemen at Monkton Farleigh in Wiltshire and that for many years he conformed to the state requirement to attend Protestant services.
 
To understand this we need to look at the events of his time. Henry VIII linked religion and politics inextricably by his desire to remarry and produce an heir. The Wells family would have been horrified by the break with the Pope and the dreadful death of the great Chancellor, Sir Thomas More, and of those in public positions who refused to take the Oath of Supremacy that recognised Henry as the Head of the Church in England. While Swithun was still a baby, Henry, using the excuse of undoubted failings within some of them, also enriched himself and made complicit many of the aristocracy by the pillage of the monasteries, a considerable shock to devout Catholics. But he was not otherwise hostile to the faith and practices of the Church. Swithun’s adolescence passed under the reign of Edward VI when the influence of the continental Reformation, with the introduction of doctrinal and liturgical changes, began to take hold. Over six years, ordinary Catholics witnessed the denial of the Mass, the destruction of the altars and the introduction of the Book of Common Prayer. Then for the next five years Mary reversed the whole process. She aroused bitter opposition by invoking heresy, which carried the penalty of burning, rather than treason, which incurred hanging, against her enemies. When Swithun was about twenty-two, in 1558, Elisabeth ascended to the throne and restored her father’s legislation on which her claim to legitimacy rested. She also reintroduced some of Edward’s measures on teaching and practice by imposing the more Protestant version of the Book of Common Prayer and exacted fines for non-attendance at church on Sunday. Heavier penalties of fines and imprisonment were reserved for non-conforming clergy and those who expressed active opposition. However, after the turmoil of the last three reigns and in contrast to Mary, Elisabeth opted for leniency towards private practice especially if public attendance at the parish church was observed.
 
St Swithun WellsClearly, the situation for ordinary Catholics during this period was confusing and anxious. Their leaders, the Marian priests, (priests ordained before or during the reign of Mary) were the first to have to react to legislation. The majority conformed, with varying degrees of reluctance. Some continued to celebrate the Catholic Mass in private, perhaps early in the morning, then held the Anglican service later in public. Others conformed enthusiastically. A minority absolutely rejected the new order and appear to have moved into the houses of the local gentry. For perhaps most of the laity, attached to their local church, to their local priest and their ancient beliefs and rituals, as long as Anglican services were not actually proscribed by the Pope and attendance at Mass not punished by the Queen, the line of least resistance would be to attend both. If Protestant separatists and Catholic recusants were on the wings, it is now thought by Reformation scholars that there was less distinction between the two faiths in the minds of the conservative majority. It seems reasonable to read Swithun’s conformity in this light.
 
Then came a sharp change for the worse. Acting on bad intelligence about public opinion in England, Pope Pius V issued a papal bull in 1570 excommunicating  Elisabeth, the ‘pretended queen of England… a monstrous usurper… a servant of crime… and a heretic‘. It absolved her subjects from their oath of loyalty to her and forbade them to obey her laws under pain of excommunication. This polarised the faiths. It made English Catholics into traitors and marked the end of tolerance. From then on came increasingly onerous penal legislation. From1571 it became treason to call the monarch a heretic, to introduce papal bulls or devotional aids such as rosaries or for Catholics to leave the country or be trained for ordination. Mindful of the dreadful position of English Catholics, Pope Gregory XIII clarified the Bull ten years later by allowing them to obey the Queen in civil matters, pending the arrival of an opportunity to depose her. The next penal law in 1581 made it treason to convert or be converted to Catholicism and raised the fine for recusancy (non-attendance at Anglican services) to the heavy sum of £20 per month. So for all practical purposes, the Catholic Church went underground. Around this time, in his mid-forties, Swithun, we are told, made his choice and was reconciled to the Church and around this time the Privy Council became interested in him.
 
 In 1585 Swithun moved to London, to a house in Gray’s Inn Lane. In this year it became treason for Jesuits or seminary priests to enter the country and a felony, punishable by death, to assist or shelter them. ‘Seminary priests’ was the term for post-Marian priests trained abroad in English houses of study on the continent. Compared with the remaining Marian priests they were savagely pursued. It used to be thought that there was a clear break between Catholicism before and after the Reformation. However, the latest Recusancy scholarship sees the survival of Catholicism as a continuum, resulting from the combined activity of both the Marian or recusant priests, who had sat out the years of increasing persecution, and the new seminary priests and Jesuits trained to carry on from them as their numbers declined. Around 1574 the first priests from what became known as the English mission began to arrive. The word ‘mission’ is somewhat misleading as their purpose was, not to convert heretics, but to provide pastoral organisation, not to evangelise, but to reconcile schismatics and to care for traditional Catholics. The practice of Catholicism moved from the public church to the private houses of the gentry where priests could be sheltered and hidden and conduct a secret ministry. Though there were betrayals, many of the gentry, like most of the rest of the laity, were neither committed Catholics nor convinced Protestants and preferred to turn a blind eye, given the horrible penalties that exposure incurred. A strategy for the survival of Catholicism had begun.
 
Swithun, though a younger brother, was of the gentry. Perhaps he helped to move incoming priests from Otterbourne to London. Charlotte Yonge writes (rather inaccurately, since he cannot have owned the family property) that ‘Swithun Welles made Brambridge a refuge for priests, and two or three masses were said in his house each day. One "Ben Beard," a spy, writes in 1584 that if certain priests were not at Brambridge they would probably be at Mr. Strange's at Mapledurham, where was a hollow place by the livery cupboard capable of containing two men.’ At all events, Swithun took on the dangerous task of acting as a guide to these clergy and providing a safe house in his home in Holborn. Records show that in the later eighties he was at times interrogated and was in and out of prison, in Newgate and the Fleet, suspected of plotting the assassination of the Queen.
 
His work came to an abrupt end on 1 November,1591, when Edmund Gennings was saying Mass at his London house in his absence but in the presence of his wife, another young priest, Polydore Pasden, and three laymen. They were burst in upon and arrested by a fanatical priest hater called Richard Topcliffe. A lawyer in the service of the Privy Council, he gained a reputation as a sadistic interrogator and torturer who claimed that his own instruments and methods were better than the official ones, and was authorized to create a torture chamber in his home in London. When Swithun returned to his home he was also arrested. He is said to have testified at his trial that he was not present at the Mass but wished he had been. The laymen were sentenced to death by hanging, the priests to be hanged, disembowelled and quartered. Swithun’s wife was reprieved (there was a prejudice against hanging women) and she died in prison in 1602. The other laymen died at Tyburn with Polydore, who, by the orders of Sir Walter Raleigh, was allowed to hang till he was dead, and the rest of the sentence was carried out upon his body.
 
Swithun and Edmund Gennings fell into the cruel hands of Topcliffe and were executed outside Swithun’s own house on 10 December, 1591. He must surely have remembered the accounts he would have been given as a child of the death of Sir Thomas More. First he had to watch the martyrdom of the young priest which was particularly bloody, as Gennings’ final speech angered Topcliffe, who ordered the rope to be cut down when he was barely stunned from the hanging. Swithun’s last words on the scaffold were of pardon to Topcliffe: “God pardon you and make you of a Saul a Paul…I heartily forgive you.”
 
By the end of Elizabeth’s reign, the country had changed to a Protestant one with Catholic and Puritan minorities. The persecution of Catholics continued throughout the next century. When the vicious physical punishments lessened, the erosion of civil rights and the relentless fines continued, for such an unpopular body provided a happy source of tax income to successive governments. Very gradually, toleration began to appear possible, even desirable and the tide turned. The last legal vestige of the turmoil is that even now a Catholic may neither sit on the Throne nor marry the monarch. We who inherit the religion of our fathers can too easily forget the debt we owe to them for its survival. St Swithun and those who followed him faced doctrinal challenge, unpopularity, marginalisation, failures and misjudgements within the Church and a drastically shrunken ministry, with the consequent temptation to apathy. Worst of all was the mortal danger that dogged them. Although we don’t need the physical courage of the Forty Martyrs, we do need a mental steadfastness in the face of our own contemporary difficulties. As a man rooted in our pastoral area who worked his way through confusion and danger to a luminous death, Saint Swithun Wells makes a wonderful patron.
 
Sources: The Catholic Encyclopaedia (which draws, I think, on Bishop Richard Challoner),  The Recusant Historian’s Handbook, Eamon Duffy and a few other sources for minor details.