Blessed John Forest: “Domine, Miserere Mei”

Blessed John Forest is unique among the English Reformation martyrs, for he suffered burning at the stake for maintaining the faith

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Most of the Catholic Martyrs of England and Wales of the Reformation and recusant eras suffered by being hanged, often with drawing and quartering added. Some, like St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher, had that barbaric sentence of hanging, drawing, and quartering commuted to beheading, which could be a more humane form of execution—if the headsman didn’t miss. Several died in chains, that is, died in prison because of the treatment they received: nine blessed Carthusian martyrs died of starvation in Newgate Prison in the summer of 1537. St. Margaret Clitherow was crushed to death beneath a door piled with great weights.

But Blessed John Forest holds the distinction of being the only Catholic martyr of this era who was burned alive.

The other martyrs were found guilty of violating various laws passed by Parliament and enforced by the monarch. Blessed John Forest was found guilty of being a heretic according to the doctrine of the newly formed Church of England, as judged by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, and the Bishop of Worcester, Hugh Latimer. They condemned him to death at the stake and they planned a special spectacle at the execution.

 

Queen Catherine’s Confessor

John Forest was born in or near Oxford in 1471; he became a Franciscan friar when he was 17, joining the Observant order. After studying at Oxford, he was ordained a priest when he was 26 years old. Forest joined the Observant Friars at Greenwich, serving the royal family in the chapel at Greenwich Palace and preaching at St. Paul’s Cross as assigned by Thomas Cardinal Wolsey. St. Paul’s Cross was the pulpit outside the Cathedral of St. Paul’s, so this was an important assignment.

Father Forest became one of Queen Catherine of Aragon’s chaplains and then her confessor and spiritual counselor—the Observant Franciscans were held in high regard by Henry VIII as they had been by his father.

But then the Observant Franciscans, all supporting the validity of Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine, angered the king. One of them, Father William Peto, was so bold as to preach from the pulpit in the Greenwich chapel against what Henry was doing, using Old Testament figures for context: Henry was King Ahab and Anne Boleyn Jezebel! Like Elijah, the prophet, Father Peto, was threatened with death for this outrage. Thomas Cromwell, the Earl of Essex, declared that he and another friar, Elstow, should be drowned in the Thames. In modern parlance, the friars replied that Cromwell should tell someone who cared: they did not fear death. 

In 1534, therefore, before the dissolution of the monasteries in 1536 and 1539, Henry VIII suppressed the Observant Franciscan order. Fathers Peto and Elstow were on the Continent at the time, but many other Friars Minor were arrested and imprisoned, including Father John Forest.

He must have assumed that he would be executed soon because he wrote to Catherine of Aragon and sent her his rosary. Forest also corresponded with another champion of the queen, Father Thomas Abel. Father Abel suffered long imprisonment and was finally hanged, drawn and quartered on July 30, 1540, at Smithfield (with two other of Catherine’s counselors, Edward Powell and Richard Fetherstone). Abel hoped that he and Forest would die together and by the same punishment.

As Father John Morris, SJ writes about the Blessed John Forest in Volume I of The Lives of the English Martyrs Beatified by Pope Leo XIII (1914), it’s not exactly clear why Forest was released from prison, but he was placed in a house of Conventional Franciscans who had accepted Henry VIII’s authority over the Church. In March 1538, he was arrested again: penitents who had come to him for Confession at the Greyfriar church in London were questioned about what he had told them about the Catholic Church, the King’s Supremacy, St. Thomas of Canterbury, and other matters.

 

Condemned for Heresy

Based on those reports from penitents and others at the Greyfriar Church, Archbishop Cranmer and Bishop Latimer decided to try Father Forest on heresy charges—that is, heresy against what the Church of England taught at that time (which could change according to Henry VIII’s direction). Again, Father Morris comments that the record is confusing, but if Forest had weakened at some point in the trial, he recanted and would not deny the authority of the magisterium of the Catholic Church, nor of the pope in spiritual matters. Preparations for his execution began.

Thomas Cromwell had ordered the destructions of shrines throughout England, gathering up statues of the Blessed Virgin Mary and other saints to be broken up or burned. Among the statues was one of St. Derfel Gadarn from Llandderfel, Wales. Cromwell had the carved wooden statue brought to London so it could be used in the fire to burn Father Forest on May 22, 1538.

This execution was staged as a great event, with Bishop Latimer preaching a sermon and trying to persuade Forest to recant his heresy. Notices posted in London encouraged people to gather at Smithfield by 8:00 in the morning when Latimer would begin his sermon. If Forest didn’t change his mind, the burning would be over by 11 a.m.

 

“Burn him! Burn him!” and “Domine, miserere mei!”

Father Forest was brought on a hurdle from prison in his tattered Franciscan habit to Smithfield and forced to hear Bishop Latimer’s sermon. After an hour’s preaching, Latimer asked Forest to respond. They argued and Forest even noted that he and Latimer had formerly agreed upon the important points of Catholic doctrine but that Latimer had succumbed to the offers of power and authority. He should instead have followed the examples of Thomas More and Bishop John Fisher. Either Latimer or Cromwell then cried out, “Burn him! Burn him!”—enraged by what English witnesses called his stubbornness.

Then Latimer announced that the statue of St. Derfel Gadarn would be used to burn Father Forest alive. The executioners wrapped a chain around Forest’s waist and suspended him from a gibbet, having to hoist him on their shoulders to attach the chain; they stripped him and kindled the fire beneath his feet. Father Forest proclaimed that “Neither fire, nor faggot, nor scaffold will separate me from Thee, O Lord” and the executioners added the statue to the fire. Witnesses indicate that it took a long time for the fire to reach Forest’s chest and for him to die; they heard his last words, “Domine, miserere mei.”

 

Latimer and Cranmer Burn

Seventeen years later, on Oct. 16, 1555, Hugh Latimer was burned alive at the stake in Oxford; five months after Latimer’s execution, Thomas Cranmer suffered on March 21, 1556. They, and Nicholas Ridley, had been tried and sentenced to death for heresy.

I don’t like to put ideas into dead people’s minds, but I have to wonder if they remembered when they sentenced Father John Forest to death for heresy or the day they watched him burn to death, suspended from a gibbet. Catholic preachers urged Latimer and Cranmer (and Cranmer had recanted his Protestant beliefs at least once) to recant and return to the Catholic faith up to the moment their death sentence were carried out—did they remember that cry on May 22, 1538, “Burn him! Burn him!”?

They were certain that they were right about their Anglican doctrine as stated in Cranmer’s Thirty-Nine Articles and as practiced in his Book of Common Prayer. They have been honored as martyrs in the Church of England since John Foxe published his Acts and Monuments, commonly known as Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, in 1563.

Father John Forest was not beatified until Dec. 29, 1886 when Pope Leo XIII included him among the first 54 English Reformation martyrs recognized by the Catholic Church. Until the Catholic hierarchy in England was re-established in 1850, there wasn’t any local diocese to start the canonization process for the martyrs and it did not formally begin until 1874. Jesuit and Oratorian priests began to gather information about all the English martyrs, and their cause would culminate in the canonizations of St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher in 1935; 40 more would be canonized in 1970.

There are many more blessed and venerable martyrs of the English Reformation. Blessed John Forest is unique among this cloud of witnesses, for he suffered burning at the stake for maintaining the faith of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church when it was considered heresy.