What happened then: what matters now - Swithun Wells, martyr of England

What happened then: what matters now - Swithun Wells, martyr of England

Rosemary Lucadou-Wells

A long time ago, when my world was still young, my father told me about Swithun. 'The Pater,' he said, referring to his own father, 'Always said we had a connection with Swithun Wells.'

Being young, impatient and as full of myself as an over-ripe raspberry, I only half listened. But even in my half-listening, I heard.

A large old picture in my father's surgery showed a small boy, standing on a stool, before a table of serious, sharp-faced men wearing robes. The caption read: 'When did you last see your father?'

I last saw my father on 19 January 1981, when he died, with my arms encircling his spindly body. That was Monday. Two days later, early on Wednesday morning, I picked the rosemary from the bush in our front garden, the bush where my father and I had often sat together and watched the bees at play. Later that afternoon, I watched his coffin, with the rosemary sprigs held together with a purple rubber band, being lowered into the grave in the lonely mountain cemetery.

Years pass. Lonely years, peopled mainly with the memories of those whose voices are silent, except in fleeting moments when I waken from a dream. Half-remembering: 'Is it now or was it then?' I ask myself in the dark.

More years pass. My father's voice is in my head: 'The Pater always said we were connected to Swithun Wells.'

Now it matters. I journey to England, seeking the connection.

One day, in sleeting rain, with a disintegrating map and less than adequate umbrella, I walk along Gray's Inn Road, London. This is where Swithun Wells and his wife Margaret lived. Their house, long gone, is now a security housing estate.

I press my nose between the iron bars. I read 'Wells Square' and see blue iris blooming. Tall, blue iris, their velvety yellow throats open wide.

A black man appears. Unexpectedly, poignant, misty notes cascade from him: 'Oh, my sad life.' And the black man strides away; his cream raincoat turns back four hundred years of time ... and many more hundreds of pages of history must be turned to find some hints about the person, Swithun Wells.

He was born in 1536 at Brambridge House in Hampshire, England, where his family farmed and guarded the riverbank bordering their land. The mill they built at the side of the river was probably used to grind grains from the crops they grew.

Swithun was educated first in England and then by travelling throughout Europe. That is where, no doubt, he came to know romance languages and love music and art.

In due course he returned to England and married. He used the fruits of his own education to open a school in Monkton Farleigh, Wiltshire, and teach.


It might well have continued an idyllic existence for the Wells, but something else was happening to Swithun. By his own admission he was a practising Protestant until 1583 but now his soul was yearning for more than his Protestant faith could give him: the Eucharistic transformation of the Body and the Blood. Maybe the seeds of Swithun's awakening to that mysterious dimension were sown when he was in Europe. But once set, it could only be assuaged by the Eucharist of the Mass.

And Swithun's wife felt the same way.

Swithun Wells was suspected of assisting courageous priests travelling throughout the English countryside; hence the Privy Council ordered the Sheriff of Wiltshire to search for 'Wells the schoolmaster' at Monkton Farleigh. Certainly there were hungry country souls who longed for celebrations of the Mass, albeit those celebrations were, of necessity, held in secret in private houses.

But if the hunger was substantial in the countryside, it was even more severe in London, where the authorities of the state tirelessly and savagely hunted the Recusants. So Swithun and his wife left their country seat and moved to London. There they made their home on Gray's Inn Road and their dwelling housed an altar where the Mass was celebrated for hungry souls. Father Edmund Gennings and Father Polydore Plasden were two of the secular clergy who celebrated the Mass at Swithun's house on Gray's Inn Road.

And this is where I stand, in the rain, four hundred years on ...

I see Gray's Inn: imposing, separate, resolutely insisting on its distance behind an impenetrable wall. I read the polite and formal notice informing that Gray's Inn 'generously' allows the public to use the footpath.

The wall hides the remnants of Gray's Inn Field. Its ancient rule of silence struggles to suffocate the secrets of the trials held within and the legislation the court upheld. But the embers of truth defy confinement. They glow.


The truth is that the legislation was clear: c.2 of 27 Elizabeth prohibited giving relief or harbouring priests coming into the realm of England. The celebration of the Catholic Mass was expanded into a charge of treason, as revealed by the response of Father Edmund Gennings to Roger Topcliffe on the scaffold:

'I know not ever to have offended the Queen. If to say Mass be treason, I confess to have done it and glory in it.'

On All Saints Day 1591 Swithun walked along this path to answer the prosecution's charges of allowing Mass to be celebrated in his house. In the days that followed, particularly 8 November 1591, he was taken to Newgate and Sessions House in the Old Bailey and then to Westminster where, before a jury, he admitted that while he had not been present at the particular Mass when the raid occurred, he wished he had been.

Swithun and his wife are both sentenced to hang, although his wife is reprieved from the death sentence, dying in prison in 1601.

No time is lost in dispatching Swithun Wells to his fate on the scaffold.

On Friday 10 December 1591, with Father Edmund Gennings, Swithun is dragged slowly on a sled along Gray's Inn Road.

People watch. Swithun waves and calls to an old friend from Wiltshire: 'Farewell, old friend! Farewell all hawking, hunting and old past-times: I am now going a better way.'

The scaffold is reached, just opposite Swithun's home.

Here, Swithun Wells is hung with Edmund Gennings, the priest who said Mass in his home on that day of the raid by Roger Topcliffe, the Queen's chief agent for the torturing of priests.

On the scaffold, Swithun complains to the hangman, Roger Topcliffe, of keeping an old man waiting in his shirt on a cold day, and Topcliffe replies: 'See what your priests have brought you to Mr Wells,' and is answered by Swithun: 'I am happy to thank God to have so many and such saint-like priests under my roof.'

Swithun's final words to Topcliffe are of forgiveness and hope for his executioner's conversion: 'I pray God, make of you, a Saul, a Paul, of a bloody persecutor one of the Catholic Church's children.'

Four hundred years on I stand in the rain on Gray's Inn Road. In my head is my father's voice: 'The Pater always said we were connected to Swithun Wells.'

Beneath my sodden feet is the road where Swithun and my grandfather, the Pater, walked. Countless others have passed between Swithun, the Pater and my father: these I do not know and can never know. Yet, at this moment I know I have made the connection.

What happened then is what matters now: to me, to my father, to the Pater and to Swithun Wells.

The tall blue iris in Wells' Square lift their golden throats to the sky as I walk through the rain down Gray's Inn Road.

Saint Swithun Wells

Saint Swithun Wells is one of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales who were canonised by Pope Paul VI on 25 October 1970. The Forty Martyrs of England and Wales comprise a group of representative Roman Catholics who were martyred between 1535 and 1679 for either refusing to take the Oath of Supremacy, or for harbouring priests, or for being priests. Their Feast Day is celebrated on 25 October.

Dr Rosemary Lucadou-Wells teaches in the Law Faculty at Macquarie University, New South Wales. This is her account of tracing her family's connection with Saint Swithun Wells.

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