THE STORY SO FAR… In 1533 the King, Henry 8th, broke with the authority of Rome and the Catholic Church, married his second wife Anne Boleyn and proclaimed himself Supreme Head of the Church of England. Many objected and there were some who voiced their opinion quite openly but they were quickly rounded up by the King’s Chief Minister Thomas Cromwell and silenced - by the axe and the hangman’s noose. Amongst their number were two local clerics, John Hale, the vicar of Isleworth and Robert Feron, the vicar of Teddington.
John Hale was old, infirm and following a fall from a horse which had ‘troubled his wits’ forgetful and indiscreet. He was strongly opposed to the King’s anti Catholic sentiments and his recent self-proclamation as ‘Supreme Head of the Church of England.’ He also was unable to keep his mouth shut. One day when out walking with his colleague and neighbour, Robert Feron, the young vicar of Teddington, he commented, “Since the Realm of England was first a realm there never was so great a robber and plunderer of the commonwealth, read of nor heard of, as our King.” Not content with that he then added, “Until the King and rulers of this realm be plucked by the pate and brought, as we may say, to the pot, shall we never live merrily in England.”
In May 1534 poor confused John Hale went further still. He told Robert Feron that the King had debauched almost all the matrons of his court, and had now “taken to his wife of fornication this matron Anne, not only to the highest shame and undoing of himself, but also of all this realm.” Having thus insulted Anne Boleyn, Hale also suggested that the King had taken her sister Mary as his mistress (one of several) and had fathered her child, Henry Carey, who bore, some said, a resemblance to the King. (The flat nose and red hair perhaps?)
It was not long before this treasonous conversation came to the attention of the King’s Chief Minister and Inquisitor Thomas Cromwell who had spies everywhere. Hale and Feron were arrested and thrown into the Tower. In April 1535 John Hale wrote to the King, seeking his pardon. “I have maliciously slandered the King and Queen and their Council; for which I ask forgiveness of God, King Henry VIII and Queen Anne, and shall continue sorrowful during my life, which stands only in the King’s will.” In his defence he pleaded his infirmities, claiming that he could not remember his former conversations “as his wits were so troubled with sickness.” He was able however to remember those who had originally told him the slanderous gossip about the King - and on April 23rd 1535 was able to name them in a specially convened court of Criminal Justice - John Houghton, prior of the Charter House, Augustine Webster and Robert Laurence, priors of the two Charter Houses in Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire and Dr. Richard Reynolds, the Confessor-General of the monastery of Syon.
John Hale and Robert Feron were both charged with high treason for having spoken against the King and with endeavouring to excite sedition and to this they pleaded not guilty. When the court reconvened the following day Feron and Hale changed their plea to guilty - and threw themselves on the mercy of the King. At first the jury refused to believe that they were guilty until they were ‘encouraged’ by Thomas Cromwell to change their minds.
The jury now found them guilty of high treason and were both sentenced to that most barbaric of punishments - to be hanged, drawn and quartered. Robert Feron however was immediately pardoned for giving evidence against John Hale and “his readiness with which he had disclosed private conversations.”
For those unfamiliar with the niceties of hanging, drawing and quartering the ghastly punishment was well described by Lord Chief Justice Ellenborough (1750-1818)
“You are drawn on hurdles to the place of execution, where you are to be hanged, but not till you are dead; for, while still living, your body is to be taken down, your bowels torn out and burnt before your face; your head is then cut off, and your body divided into four quarters.”
The execution of all five, John Houghton, Augustine Webster, Robert Laurence, Richard Reynolds and John Hale took place on the 4th May 1535 at Tyburn before a huge crowd. Usually when members of the clergy were executed it was the rule for them to be first defrocked but it did not happen on this occasion. Reports suggest that the five clerics faced their grisly fate with courage and stoicism…
“No change was noticed in their colour or tone of speech, and while the execution was going on they preached and exhorted the bystanders with the greatest boldness to do well and obey the King in everything that was not against the honour of God and the Church.”
The Spanish Ambassador, Eustache Chapuys, a Catholic and no friend of King Henry, picked up a rumour that the King himself had attended the execution… “People said that the King himself would have liked to have seen the butchery and it is thought that he was of the number of five who came thither mounted like Borderers and who were armed, secretly wearing visors before their faces.”
Blessed John Hale, the Vicar of Isleworth, is now regarded by the Catholic Church as a martyr. He was beatified by Pope Leo X111 on the 29th December 1886 and is still remembered on his feast day, the 5th May. As for young Robert Feron, the Vicar of Teddington, little is recorded of him and his willingness to give evidence against his aged and unstable colleague, neighbour and former friend.
– from Martyn Day
Don’t forget to read Wolf Hall Part 1 - When ‘The Holy Maid of Kent’ Came to Syon Park