Stories of Martyr Priests – Father Cuthbert Maine

Saint Cuthbert MayneThree centuries ago England was wet with the blood of many martyrs. There were men dying daily for conscience sake. There were men bearing daily the most cruel tortures, who lay in damp and uncleanly dungeons awaiting the rack and the gallows, simply because they were true to the faith taught by Jesus Christ, and for His sake were glad to lay down their lives. Yet these champions of the faith are little known by us who have succeeded them, and who tread the ground hallowed by their sufferings, with scarce a thought of those whose fortitude preserved the Church in England, that we might share in all its glorious privileges without fear or hindrance.

Elizabeth was then upon the throne, and she had brought about an entire change in the religion of the country. Holy Mass was abolished, and “common prayer” established in its place, and – as if the loss of liberty and of goods was not deemed punishment sufficient for those who continued faithful to the Church of God – it was made high treason for a Catholic priest to remain in the kingdom, high treason for any one who helped or concealed such priests, and high treason, too, for any one who paid regard to commands or letters coming from the Pope of Rome.

These severe laws would soon have left England destitute of priests to administer the sacraments, as death and imprisonment made great havoc among the clergy; but God in His good providence inspired His servants in other lands to raise up seminaries, where English students might fit themselves for the priesthood, and return to their own land again, ready, first to work for God, and then to die for Him. At Douai the first seminary was instituted, from whence many noble missioners came to face the danger which had for them no terror, the labour which to them was sweet, because they loved their Master so well; but later, in the year 1578, this seminary was removed from Douai to Rheims, in France.

The proto-martyr of Douai College was Cuthbert Maine, the first missionary priest who suffered in England for conscience sake.

His early home was near the town of Barnstaple, in Devonshire; and an old uncle, who was a schismatical priest, brought him up, seeing that he was properly educated at school, so that he might afterwards be his own successor to the benefice he enjoyed. After this Cuthbert went to Oxford, where he remained some years, much beloved because of his mild and sweet disposition. Many Catholics who knew this young man grieved much that one so good and earnest should not wholly belong to God, and embrace the true faith, so they prayed constantly for him, and tried to show him the danger in which he stood.

Cuthbert’s eyes were gradually opened to see that the new doctrines introduced were heretical, and he deeply lamented over his own position; but even then he continued some time at college, though his judgment was convinced that the Catholic Faith alone was the truth of God.

He had been friendly with Edmund Campion and others who were then banished from their country for adhering to their faith, and these good men would often write to Cuthbert Maine, beseeching him to give up what he had proved to be wrong, and to come to Douai. One of these letters fell into the hands of the Bishop of London, who immediately sent to Oxford for Mr. Maine, but happily he was absent then on a visit to his native town, and, as a friend let him know the danger which threatened him, he embarked in a little ship from the Cornish coast and went direct to Douai.

After some years spent there in the diligent observance of the rules of the seminary, he was made priest, and then, with a heart longing to work for God in the country where he had once dishonoured Him by heresy, he obtained permission to return to England, for greater safety placing himself as steward to a good Catholic gentleman, whose home was near Truro, in Comwall. But the spirit of persecution was rife, and Cuthbert Maine was not long undiscovered, and only a year after his arrival the sheriff of the county came to search for him in the house of Mr. Tregian. They did not ask for him by name, but said they were looking for a person called Mr. Bourne, who had committed some great misdemeanour in London, and fled for refuge to Comwall. Mr. Tregian at once replied that no one so named was in his house, and he objected to the search, on the ground that they held no commission from the Queen. The sheriff, however, was not so easily repulsed, and he swore with frightful oaths that he would search the house, even at the cost of his life; and thus with great violence he made his entrance and went straight to the room which was used by Cuthbert Maine. The door was locked, and they beat upon it roughly till Mr. Maine opened it for them, and then the sheriff seized him, and asking him “who he was,” tore open his coat and found an Agnus Dei hanging round his neck. That little, silent memorial of Jesus, the Lamb of God, was enough to warrant the sheriff in taking his prisoner at once before the bishop; and his books, letters, and papers were examined, and he was called a traitor and a rebel. From one house to another Mr. Maine was taken until he reached Launceston, and there he was imprisoned in a small room from June to September, chained to the posts of his bed, with heavy irons round his ankles, while it was forbidden that any one should converse with him.

At the time of Michaelmas the judges came upon their circuit, and he was arraigned upon several accusations. Among his papers had been found a printed copy of the bull of the Jubilee of the year before, and this gave them the opportunity of saying that he was guilty of high treason –

By holding a bull from Rome, giving authority for absolving the subjects of the Queen.

That he had made known this bull in the house of Mr. Tregian.

The third charge was that he upheld the authority of the Pope, and thus denied the supremacy of the Queen.

The fourth charge was that he had brought into the kingdom an Agnus Dei.

The fifth that he had said Mass in Mr. Tregian’s house.

The jury who were to try this case gladly gave in a verdict of “guilty” to all these charges; even had there been no proof against him, the fact of his being a Catholic priest was sufficient to decide them, and accordingly the judge gave sentence of execution within fifteen days. The servant of God did not tremble or fear; he lifted his hands to heaven, exclaiming, “Deo gratias,” for it was indeed with him a matter of thanksgiving that he was so soon permitted to die for the truth of Christ. However, the time of his execution was afterwards postponed until Saint Andrew’s Day.

Three days before, a servant-man came to Mr. Maine to tell him that the hour of his death drew near, and the pious priest gave himself wholly to prayer during those last days. Upon the second night as he was thus engaged, a sudden brilliant light was seen in his chamber, so that some of the prisoners who were confined in rooms close by called to him to ask what this might be, because they knew he had neither a fire nor a candle; but he answered not, except by begging them to be quiet. Whatever God granted him of Divine favours he hid in the humility of his heart.

Thus drew on the hour for the execution, and many gentlemen came to visit the priest, bringing ministers of the new religion to argue with him; but he answered them on every point and covered them with confusion. His life was offered him if he would give up his faith and swear upon the Bible that the Queen of England was supreme head of the Church, but he would not do this. Taking the Bible in his hands, he made upon it the sign of the Cross he loved, the Cross he died for; and, kissing the sacred sign, declared aloud that the Queen was not, nor ever would be, the head of the Church of England.

There was no further chance of life given him after that. He had been sentenced to death, and after death to be drawn and quartered, as the cruelty of those times would have it; but first he was to be dragged upon a sledge to the place of execution.

There – the market-place of the town – an unusually high gibbet had been prepared, and at the sight of it the martyr knelt down calmly for a moment’s prayer; then the rope was put about his neck, and he attempted to speak to the people, but the judges would not permit him. His last words were a prayer: “In manus tuas Domino commendo spiritum meum;” but even before he had uttered them he was thrown off the ladder on which he had been standing, and falling from the beam, which was very high, he was scarcely sensible of the cruel butchery which followed, for some present had begged the sheriff to allow him to be quartered alive.

One quarter of the martyred body was sent to Barnstaple, one to Bodmin, another to Trigny, while the fourth remained at Launceston Castle, and his head was fixed upon a pole at Wadebridge. Thus, on the 29th of November, 1577, died one whose only crime was the love of God and faithful allegiance to the Vicar of Jesus Christ; but though his enemies had destroyed a holy and useful life, its work had borne fruit which was beyond their reach.

Many persons had been reconciled to the Catholic Church by Mr. Maine, many had received Christ’s pardon from his lips, and learned truth which sank deep down into their hearts, and it is recorded that there was not one of these who could ever be induced to renounce what they had been taught by so holy a father; in poverty, in temptation, in prison, in torture, and in death they were steadfast as he had been steadfast, helped by the example he had set them, and still more strengthened by the prayers he made for them before the throne of God.