Sunday, 1 April 2012


Today, 2nd April, marks the 430th anniversary of the execution of John Payne, one of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales.

John Payne was born at Peterborough in 1532. Neither the date nor the circumstances of his conversion are known but it is thought that John was born into a Protestant family. It is known that in 1574 he entered the English College at Douai and was ordained priest there on 7th April 1576. Less than three weeks later, on 24th April, he and Fr Cuthbert Mayne left for the English Mission.

Fr Payne based himself at Ingatestone, Essex. Early in 1577 he was arrested there and imprisoned. However, he was released and in November he went back to Douai. By Christmas 1579 he was back at Ingatestone.

In July 1581 Fr Payne was arrested in Warwickshire, due to the diligent efforts of the spy, George Eliot. Eliot was a known murderer, rapist and thief. Known as Judas’ Eliot, he made his living denouncing Catholics and priests for bounty. The priest was committed to the Tower of London on 14th July. Here, he was twice racked, on 14th August and on 31st October.

On 20th March 1592, John Payne was woken and, half dressed, was taken from his cell in the Tower. The Lieutenant of the Tower, Sir Owen Hopton, delivered him to officers waiting to take him to Chelmsford Gaol. Two days later the prisoner was indicted on a trumped up charge of treason for conspiring to murder the Queen and to install Mary, Queen of Scots, on the throne. Payne denied the charges and affirmed his loyalty to the Queen and questioned the reliability of the criminal, Eliot. No attempt was made to corroborate Eliot’s story and, of course, the guilty verdict was a foregone conclusion. Fr Payne was sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered and, receiving his sentence calmly, commented “If it please the Queen and her Council that I shall die, I refer my cause to God”.

On the morning of Monday, 2nd April 1582, Fr Payne was dragged from prison on a hurdle to the place of execution. He prayed on his knees for nearly half an hour, and then kissing the scaffold, he made a profession of his faith and declared himself innocent. He was offered a pardon on condition that he conform but he steadfastly refused.

Fr Payne was well known in the area and was liked and admired by many. When he was turned off the ladder, the crowd prevented the hangman from cutting his body down and disembowelling it until the priest was dead. Consequently, he was spared the agony of the drawing and quartering which was carried out on his dead body.

St John Payne was one of the group of Catholic Martyrs canonised by Pope Paul VI on 25th October 1970. They are know collectively as the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales.

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