Mementoes of the English Martyrs and Confessors – Blessed John Nelson, S.J., 1578

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Born in 1534 of an ancient Yorkshire family, he was nearly forty years of age when he went to the newly-established college at Douay and was ordained, and of his four brothers two followed his example. He returned to England 1577, and after a year’s ministry was called upon to exorcise a possessed person. The evil spirit, when it was cast out, told him that it would cost him his life. He was apprehended, Sunday, 1 December, as he was saying the next day’s Matins. He refused to take the oath of supremacy, declared repeatedly that the Pope was the Supreme Head of the Church and that the new religion set up in England was both schismatical and heretical as a voluntary departure from Catholic unity. For this statement he was condemned as guilty of high treason. He had always held that England would never be restored to the Church save by blood-shedding, and that his own life would be taken for that cause. He received his sentence therefore with great calmness and prepared himself for death. He was confined in a filthy underground dungeon infested with vermin. The jailer’s wife offered him some wine, but he refused it, saying he would prefer water or rather vinegar and gall, to more closely follow his Lord.

The thought of the joy and alacrity with which the martyrs suffered so comforted him, that he doubted not he himself would be consoled by God in the midst of his agony. And surely this courage and willingness to die came from this: that on the Thursday before his arraignment and death he had cleansed his conscience by confession, and had fortified himself by receiving the Blessed Sacrament of the altar. A priest, his friend, wishing to be communicated by Nelson, fixed upon Candlemas day, because of the solemnity of the Feast, but, reflecting that such festivals are more subject to suspicion, they concluded to defer it till the day after Candlemas; but Mr. Nelson wished rather to anticipate the Feast and to communicate upon the Thursday before, which was done: though, at that time, neither he nor any of his friends suspected that he should so shortly come to his martyrdom. When, be hold! the very next day after, word was brought him that he was to be arraigned on the morrow, and should be undoubtedly condemned if he did not revoke his former words, and so indeed it fell out. Thus by God’s special providence he had chosen the Thursday before the Feast; for otherwise, he must have died without the sacred viaticum.

Upon Monday, 3 February 1577, being the day of his martyrdom, he came very early, before day, up to the higher part of the prison; where as, from Saturday till then, he had been kept in a low dungeon. Two of his nearest kinsmen coming to him found him earnest at his prayers with his hands joined together and lifted up, insomuch that the other prisoners there pre sent did both mark it and wonder at it much. When they had talked awhile together, and he saw them so full of sorrow that they had much ado to abstain from weeping, yet for all that he was nothing moved himself, neither gave any sign or appearance of sorrow either in voice or countenance, but rebuked them, saying that he looked for some comfort and consolation of them in that case, and not by their tears to be occasioned to grieve; willing them further to weep for their sins, and not for him, for he had a sure confidence that all should go well with him. When his kinsmen took their last farewell, they fell into such immoderate lamentations that he was somewhat moved, but repressed nature, and dismissed them. He suffered at Tyburn, the second of the seminarist martyrs, and was admitted into the Society of Jesus before his death.

MLA Citation

  • Father Henry Sebastian Bowden. “Blessed John Nelson, S.J., 1578”. Mementoes of the English Martyrs and Confessors, 1910. CatholicSaints.Info. 21 April 2019. Web. 5 August 2021. <>