Dictionary of National Biography – Thomas Abell

main article for Blessed Thomas AbelArticle

Abell, Thomas (died 1540), Catholic martyr, studied at Oxford and took the degree of M.A. in 1516. Nothing else is known of his early life, nor when it was that he entered the service of Katharine of Aragon; but it was certainly before the year 1528, when he received a new year’s gift from the king as her chaplain. A year later Katharine sent him into Spain on a delicate and rather perilous mission to the emperor, Charles V. Henry VIII had then instituted his suit for a divorce before the legatine court in England, and had discovered to his surprise that his case was very seriously weakened by the fact that besides the original bull of dispensation for the marriage a brief had been also granted by Julius II, which completely met some objections he had taken to the sufficiency of the other document. This brief was in Spain, and he determined, if possible, to get it into his hands by artifice. Pressure was put upon Katharine’s legal advisers, and through them she was induced to write to the emperor, earnestly requesting him to send it to England, as its production was of the most vital importance to her cause, and she was informed no transcript could be received in evidence. Abell was commissioned to carry this letter to Spain; but along with it he delivered one of his own to the emperor, stating that he had been expressly desired by the queen to explain that she had written under compulsion, and that she particularly begged he would by no means give up the brief as in her letter she requested him to do. Thus the emperor was made fully aware of the queen’s position, and carefully avoided doing anything to prejudice her real interests even at her written request.

After his return from this mission, Abell was presented by the queen to the rectory of Bradwell-by-the-Sea, in Essex, to which he was instituted on 23 June 1530. By this time the legatine court in England had been dissolved, and Henry was seeking the opinions of universities in his favour, which being obtained, books were published by the king’s authority to show that marriage with a deceased brother’s wife could not be legalised by papal dispensation. To one of these publications Abell wrote an answer, entitled ‘Invicta Veritas,’ which was printed in 1532 with the fictitious date ‘Luneberge’ on the title-page, to put inquirers off the scent. He also preached boldly to the same effect, and, as a natural consequence, was committed to the Tower, where, as we find stated in a contemporary letter, he and his fellow prisoner, Dr. Cook, parson of Honey Lane, were permitted, by some extraordinary oversight, to say mass before the lieutenant. During his imprisonment replies to his book were published, which he in vain asked permission to see. He was, however, liberated at Christmas, with an injunction not to preach again till after Easter; and for a few months he was again at liberty. But in July 1533 we find search made for him again by order of Lord Chancellor Audeley; yet it appears he was soon afterwards, if not at that very time, attendant upon Katharine in her household. By this time the marriage with Anne Boleyn had taken place, and in December of the same year a deputation from the king’s council, headed by the Duke of Suffolk, waited on Katharine at Bugden, to induce her to renounce her title of queen and accept the name of Princess Dowager. This she steadily refused to do; and the deputation endeavoured at first, with equally little success, to impose an oath upon her servants inconsistent with that which they had already sworn to her as queen. Suffolk and his colleagues found upon inquiry that the servants had been instructed how to reply by Katharine’s two chaplains, Abell and Barker. They dismissed a portion of the household, put the rest in confinement, and carried the two priests up to London, where they were lodged together in the same grim fortress, from which Abell had been released only twelve months before.

At this time Elizabeth Barton, popularly known as the Nun of Kent, had recently been arrested for her denunciation of the king’s second marriage, and she had already made open confession at Saint Paul’s that she had practised imposture in her prophecies, ravings, and trances. The opportunity was unscrupulously used to make her implicate as many as possible of those who had notoriously disliked the king’s divorce and second marriage as confederates with herself in a disloyal conspiracy; and an act of attainder was procured against them in parliament early in the following year. In that act Abell was named, not as one of her active accomplices, but as having been guilty of misprision by concealing her treasons; and it was also charged against him that he had encouraged ‘the lady Katharine’ after her divorce still to claim the title of queen, and her servants to call her so against the king’s express commands. At this time he had, as a fellow-prisoner in the Tower, one Friar Forest, who, like himself, suffered martyrdom some years later; and it would appear that though both were for the moment spared, they both at this time expected to die together. This we know from the letters they wrote to each other in prison, which were printed nearly fifty years later in Bourchier’s ‘Historia Ecclesiastica de Martyrio Fratrum’. Abell was of course deprived of his benefice of Bradwell; but as the offence charged against him in the act was only misprision, he seems to have remained in the Tower for six years longer. On 30 July 1540 he was one of a company of six prisoners who were dragged out of the Tower on hurdles and suffered at Smithfield. Three of them were protestant heretics, and were burned at the stake; the other three, of whom Abell was one, were hanged, beheaded, and quartered for treason, the specific charges against them being denial of the king’s supremacy, and affirming the validity of his marriage with Katharine of Aragon.

On the wall of his prison in the Tower, during his confinement, Abell carved the device of a bell with the letter A on it to represent his surname, surmounted by his christian name ‘Thomas.’ This memorial of his captivity remains, and is continually shown to visitors along with the other inscriptions in the Beauchamp Tower.

MLA Citation

  • James Gairdner. “Thomas Abell”. Dictionary of National Biography, 1885. CatholicSaints.Info. 6 April 2019. Web. 4 August 2021. <>