St Robert Lawrence (May 4)
Robert Lawrence was hung, drawn and quartered on May 4 1535, one of the first three Carthusians to be martyred by Henry VIII.
Perhaps it was the very meekness of the Carthusian ideals that irritated the King, whose own character was compounded of self-righteousness, power mania and ruthless cruelty. Certainly the Order did not appear to represent any obvious threat to the Crown.
In 1530 there were but nine Charterhouses in England, with no more than 170 monks in total. These houses were at Witham (founded 1178-79), Hinton/Henton (1222-27), Beauvale (1343), London (1371), Hull (1377), Coventry (1381), Axholme (1397-98), Mount Grace (1397-98) and Sheen (1413-15).
The Order, moreover, was founded upon a complete rejection of the outside world. The Rule was austere in the extreme: except during services and chapter meetings each monk lived in silence within his own set of rooms.
There could be no question, therefore, of the Carthusians forming a dangerous opposition to the King. Their entire training inclined them to keep their own counsel.
Possibly Henry VIII believed there had been some sympathy within the London Charterhouse for the prophecies of Elizabeth Barton, the Nun of Kent, who predicted that the King would not survive six months after divorcing Catherine of Aragon.
Certainly, in the spring of 1534, some of the London Carthusians appeared reluctant to sign an oath under the Act of Succession, which asserted the invalidity of Henry’s first marriage and thus secured the royal succession to the children of Anne Boleyn.
The prior, John Houghton, and another monk, were briefly held in the Tower. Eventually they subscribed to the Act of Succession, along with 46 other members of the London Charterhouse. Henry, though, cannot have appreciated the rider which they added to their consent, that they had signed only in so far as it was legal.
Up to this time Robert Lawrence had not been directly involved. Although he had formerly been a member of the London Charterhouse, he had subsequently become prior at Beauvale in Nottinghamshire.
In February 1535, however, he came to London in order to consult John Houghton about the proper reaction to the King’s religious policies. While he was there, in April 1535, Henry decided that the Carthusians should be required to swear a further oath, recognising him as Supreme Head of the Church in England.
Houghton, Lawrence and Augustine Webster, the prior of Axholme, refused to comply. Robert Lawrence, indeed, took advantage of the occasion to inform Thomas Cromwell that there was but one Catholic Church, with the Pope at its head.
Several churchmen, including Thomas Cranmer, were inclined to be merciful, suggesting that the recalcitrant Carthusians might benefit from a course of theological instruction. King Henry VIII, however, preferred immediate execution, with all the disgusting accompaniments.