Did you ever do a favor for a friend and it got you in whole lot of trouble? John Rigby did. John Rigby was a layman, rare among the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales, the most famous of the hundreds of Catholics who suffered for their faith at that time.
Rigby was born in the year 1570 at Harrock Hall, Eccleston, near Chorley, Lancashire, the fifth or sixth son of Nicholas Rigby, by his wife Mary, daughter of Oliver Breres of Preston. In 1600 Rigby was working for Sir Edmund Huddleston, whose daughter, Mrs. Fortescue, was summoned to the Old Bailey for recusancy (refusing to attend Protestant services). Because she was ill, Rigby appeared for her.
But it was his own religion that one of the commissioners who took a dislike to him asked him about. He had no hesitation in proclaiming that he was a practicing Catholic himself. Walking into court a free man, he was sent to prison and was only free again when he entered Heaven after enduring arguably the most brutal execution of any of the martyrs, proceeded by horrendous torture. But Mr Rigby showed signs of sainthood by being bafflingly polite to his aggressors.
Not much is known of John’s life. He seems to have been a simple man and a bachelor. Although being a Catholic, John flirted with the Protestant religion, sometimes going to church services. Some accounts state that he met Jesuits Fr John Gerard and Nicholas Owen, of previous account.
He worked as a servant in the avid Protestant household of Sir Edmund Huddleston, whose daughter was Mrs Fortescue, a recent widow. She received a summons accusing her of recusancy. Suffering from illness, she asked John to go to court to testify for her against the charges. This simple request ultimately meant martyrdom for John.
One of the commissioners, Sir Richard Martin, didn’t like John and began to question him about his own faith. Sir Richard proved John was a Catholic and the young man would not take the oath of Supremacy. He was sent to Newgate prison in the City of London. The next day, February 14 1600, he was up before the Lord Chief Justice. He initially admitted to conforming to the new religion even though being a Catholic at heart. But John said he had been reconciled to Catholicism by Fr John Jones, a Franciscan, while Fr John was imprisoned in the the Clink (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Clink). Since that day about three years previously, he had not stepped foot into a Protestant Church. He signed a written confession admitting to this.
At some point during his imprisonment, John was lowered on to an open heated oven scorching and burning his flesh. At the same time, a barber cut his hair off. The horrific torture was an attempt to force Rigby into revealing information about Catholics in England. In an amazing act of defiance that, in itself, seems like an indication of sainthood, John paid the barber for his work and they both laughed.
On February 19 he was transferred to the White Lion. This had been an inn prior to 1535 and became the Sheriff’s Prison in 1540. On March 1 1600, Rigby was brought to trial. Interestingly, we have a detailed account from John about the various court proceedings. He wrote a testimony while in prison and sent it to a friend to look after.
At the initial hearing, nothing was said to Rigby. But in the evening, John was called and went willingly to an informal questioning by judges at one of their houses. Craftily trying to get him to conform, Justice Gaudy said he heard John wanted to go to church again. But the 30-year-old said he’d never even hinted that. The judge said the law must proceed to which Rigby replied: “Let me have the law, in the name of Jesus. God’s will be done.”
The next day he appeared in court and answered to charges of being reconciled by a “Romish” priest and treason. He admitted to going to Fr John Jones for confession and said if this was interpreted as treason then “God’s will be done”. When found guilty by the quietly-spoken foreman of the jury, John shouted: “Laus tibi, Domine! Rex aterna Gloria.”
Twice after being found guilty, John was offered the choice of agreeing to go to the Protestant church and the matter would “proceed no further”. But he refused to each time and was sentenced to death. He was taken back to his prison cell and prayed all night.
When his time came on Saturday June 21, John said goodbye to fellow Catholic prisoners and asked them to pray for him. Outside, he knelt beside the waiting hurdle and made the Sign of the Cross. He was seen to be laughing, which John confirmed was because he was happy to give his life for the Catholic cause. As part of the paperwork before his execution, Captain Whitlock asked John if he was married, to which he replied: “I am a bachelor; and more than that, I am a maid.” This referred to his service job in the Huddleston household. The captain said Rigby had “worthily deserved a virgin’s crown” and asked John to pray for him.
St Thomas’ Watering, now the Old Kent Road, was John’s place of execution. It was the location of the gallows for the northern parts of Surrey. Once, it was a place where pilgrims bound for the shrine of St Thomas a Becket watered their thirsty horses. Now it was to become a significant site again for Christian martyrdom.
On reaching the gallows, John knelt down and prayed. He kissed the rope as it was placed around his neck. Eyewitnesses remarked upon his fine physique and outstanding courage. The sheriff’s deputy ended John’s closing speech before it started and demanded he pray for Queen Elizabeth I, which he did. Asked to name any other traitors in England, John said none. The angry deputy ordered the cart to be drawn away instantly.
Choking, Mr Rigby violently jerked around. The hangman cut him down and John, not being close to death, got to his feet. He was flung to the ground and John was able to commend his soul to God. The executioner then disemboweled the soon-to-be martyr and ripped his organs out. John’s body twisted violently. The end of his ordeal came when his head was chopped off. His body parts were displayed across Southwark.
For a simple, humble, young single man, Saint John Rigby’s torture and execution was brutal. For some reason, the authorities clamped down hard on him, while other lay people at the time were simply imprisoned for their recusancy. Mr Rigby’s act of charity towards a grieving widow was to turn out to be the ultimate sacrifice.
Saint John was not perfect. He flirted with the new religion but knew he could be reconciled back to Christ’s church through the Sacrament of Reconciliation administered by a Catholic priest (who was also to become a saint). What a powerful message this is to the laity in encouraging them to confession, even if they have lapsed.
Also impressive is John’s stubbornness and defiance in the face of persecution. He tells the truth, bravely answering questions like a true disciple – direct and to the point. Too often we young Catholics stutter and water down our answers to challenging questions about the Faith for fear that the recipient, however powerful he or she may be, will not like our answer. Like Saint John, we really need to pray for the strength to answer directly but charitably. This martyr had the ability to point most of his thoughts and words to Christ.
Fittingly, Saint John is the patron saint of bachelors and torture victims – two completely different groups of people but both of whom will receive great strength from this martyr’s intercession. Saint John Jones, Rigby’s confessor and the priest who had reconciled him, had died at the same place Rigby had died, St Thomas’ Waterings, two years earlier, on July 12, 1598.
Prayer in Honor of St John Rigby
Eternal Father, I wish to honor St John Rigby and I give You thanks for all the graces You have bestowed upon this English martyr. I ask You to please increase grace in my soul through his merits, and commit the end of my life to him by this special prayer, so that by virtue of Your goodness and promise, St John Rigby might be my advocate and provide whatever is needed at that hour. Amen.