Oxford Inscriptions: Catholic Martyrs, Holywell

Catholic Martyrs, Holywell

Near this spot
were executed for their
Catholic Faith
5 July 1589

This plaque made of Welsh slate was erected in October 2008 on the outside wall of 100 Holywell Street (the nearest house to Holywell Gallows where the men were executed). It was organized by Dr Joseph Shaw of St Benet's Hall, who obtained permission from Merton College to put up the plaque on their property and also obtained the necessary planning permission.

These four men are also on another plaque commemorating all the martyrs of the Reformation (both Roman Catholic and Protestant) that was erected inside the University Church of St Mary-the-Virgin on 19 June 2008

All four men named on this plaque and hanged at Holywell Gallows in Oxford in 1589 were Roman Catholics living in Oxford: the first two were priests, and the second two laymen. Here are brief details on their backgrounds:

  • Father George Nichols
    Nichols was born at Oxford in 1550 and was a student at Brasenose College, obtaining his B.A. in February 1570/1. After working as Usher (teacher) at St Paul's School in London, in 1583 he was ordained a Roman Catholic priest at Reims in France. He was sent on a Roman Catholic mission the same year and converted many people in Oxford to the Roman Catholic faith, including a convicted highwayman imprisoned in Oxford Castle.
    See the Wikipedia entry and Catholic Encyclopaedia entry for Nichols
  • Father Richard Yaxley (alias Tankard)
    Yaxley was born in Boston, Lincolnshire in c.1560, the son of William Yaxley and Rose Langton. In 1585 he too was ordained a Roman Catholic priest at Reims and left for England on 28 January 1585/6, eventually settling in Oxford.
  • Thomas Belson
    Belson was born at Brill in Buckinghamshire in c.1565 into a staunchly Roman Catholic family. He was the son of Augustine Belson of Ixhill Lodge at Brill, and is likely to be the young man of 16 from Oxfordshire who was matriculated at the University of Oxford by St Mary Hall on 29 April 1581, obtaining his B.A. on 4 February 1582/3. Belson was at the English College at Reims in 1584, returning to England on 5 April that year. He was a prisoner in the Tower of London in 1585–6, then probably went abroad. He had come back to England by the spring of 1589 and was settled in Oxford. George Nichols (above) was his confessor.
    See the Catholic Encyclopaedia entry for Belson, and Christine Kelly, Blessed Thomas Belson: His Life and Times, 1563–89 (1988)
  • Humphrey Pritchard (or Prichard or ap Richard, or ap Richard ap Gruffydd or Griffin or Griffith)
    Pritchard was a Welsh servant at the Catherine Wheel Inn in Oxford, and was also described as a tailor. He was said to have served the Catholics who came to the inn in every way possible during the previous twelve or fourteen years.

In about April or May 1589 a spy reported to the Privy Council in London that some Catholic priests were ministering in and around Oxford and had their headquarters in the city. A special messenger was sent by the Privy Council to Oxford to hunt them out, and together with the Constable of Oxford and a band of followers the spy led them to the Catherine Wheel Inn in Magdalen Street, where the proprietor was a Catholic widow. (Owned by Balliol College, this inn was opposite the east side of St Mary Magdalen Church, and was demolished in two stages in 1720 and 1826 to expand their college.)

Humphrey Pritchard, the inn servant, let them in and was immediately arrested. They questioned Father Nichols, Father Yaxley, and Thomas Belson but could find no grounds to arrest them, but after a search revealed some vestments for Mass they were all arrested and taken to prison.

The next day they were brought before the Court of the Chancellor of the University of Oxford, presided over by the Vice-Chancellor, and admitted that they were Catholics but at first hesitated when asked if any of them were priests. Nichols then admitted that he was, and he and Yaxley (who must have been suspected of also being a priest) were imprisoned in Bocardo in Cornmarket Street (then the city gaol) and the two laymen in Oxford Castle (then the county gaol). The two priests appeared again at the Chancellor's Court the next day but refused to reveal the names of any other Catholics.

All four were then sent to London to be interrogated. They travelled on horseback with their arms tied behind them as they rode, and the priests also had their feet tied beneath the horses' bellies. Pritchard was injured when he was thrown to the ground from his horse.

They were first brought before Sir Francis Walsingham (principal secretary to Queen Elizabeth I) and then before the Privy Council, but again refused to give any information about other Catholics.

The two priests were sent to the Bridewell Prison in London, where they were tortured by being hung by their hands for fifteen hours. Fr. Nichols was then transferred to the Tower of London and put in the Pit, an unlit underground dungeon full of vermin, while Fr. Yaxley continued to be racked every day. In Elizabeth’s Spymaster: Francis Walsingham and the Secret War that saved England (Weidenfeld, 2006) Robert Hutchison wrote:

An especially potent propaganda weapon against the Catholics was Norton’s successor [as rackmaster], the notorious and odious Richard Topcliffe (1532–1604), self-appointed priest-finder general and expert torturer, frequently used by Walsingham to extract information from his luckless detainees. He was a loathsome figure, feared and hated amongst England’s recusant families with some justification for the obvious relish with which he turned the windlasses of the rack, or taunted and tormented his victims, agonisingly suspended by their arms against the dripping walls of the Tower of London cells…. In the 1580s–1590s, the authorities regarded him as a determined hunter of fugitive priests, whom he pursued with a grim, paranoid persistence verging on obsession. He sought them out like a circling jackal that never deviates from its quarry, always sensing and seeking out their weaknesses and vulnerabilities. Pity the poor priest or recusant who fell into his merciless clutches. And many did, en route to the inevitable scaffold and a barbaric death. Take for example poor Richard Tankard. A Privy Council order of 24 May 1589 to Sir Owen Hopton, Lieutenant of the Tower, authorised him

To receive into his custody Richard Tankard, alias Yaxley, a seminary priest, at the hands of the beadle of Bridewell and to commit [him as] a close prisoner … under sure and safe custody, permitting only Mr Topcliffe and usual times to have access to him.  

Humphrey Prichard was also moved to the Bridewell Prison, and Thomas Belson to the Gatehouse Prison at Westminster.

On 30 June 1589 all four men, now in a very poor condition, were ordered back from London to Oxford for their trial. Sir Francis Knollys travelled ahead to manage the operation, and raided the Catherine Wheel, and had the landlady imprisoned for life.

The two priests were convicted of high treason and hanged, drawn, and quartered at Holywell Gallows, and their parts parboiled in a cauldron before being fixed to the wall of Oxford Castle, where they were mutilated by Protestants. Two days later the heads and quarters were removed by the authorities and placed on high poles over the four town gates of Oxford. The two laymen who had been convicted of felony were simply hanged.

In 1987 all four were beatified by Pope John Paul II.

In 1610 another famous Roman Catholic martyr, George Napier, was also executed in Oxford, this time at the Castle Gallows, and he has a separate plaque there.

More information about these martyrs: Tony Hadland,
Thames Valley Papists: From Reformation to Emancipation 1534–1829

Venerable George Nichols, Secular Priest, Venerable Richard Yaxley, Secular Priest, Venerable Thomas Belson, Layman,
Martyred at Oxford, 5 July 1589: Canonization process
: download here


Holywell Gallows

The site of the Holywell Gallows where the four Catholic martyrs were executed is marked on this 1876 map, outside the city wall at the point where Broad Street, Longwall Street, and St Cross Road meet. (This was originally a proper crossroads, but Bensival Street to the east was lost when Magdalen College was extended.)

Stephanie Jenkins