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The Lancashire priest executed for his zeal

St Edmund Arrowsmith (August 28) was hanged, drawn and quartered and his head set upon a pike

By on Thursday, 26 August 2010

St Edmund’s remains were displayed on Lancaster Castle

St Edmund’s remains were displayed on Lancaster Castle

Edmund Arrowsmith (1585-1628) was one of the 15 Catholics martyred in Lancashire between 1584 and 1646, although there were several other Lancastrians who died for the old faith outside the county.

Extraordinarily, although recusancy in Lancashire was a matter for government concern as early as the 1560s, the number of active Lancashire Catholics – particularly in the south and west parts of the county – seems actually to have increased after 1581, when the Elizabethan regime intensified the persecution.

As in Monmouthshire, the relative immunity of Catholics depended upon the active or passive sympathy of local landholders. In Lancashire the Earls of Derby extended their protection. “All the Stanleys are traitors,” fumed Elizabeth’s sadistic and sinister attack dog Richard Topcliffe.

Again, in 1598 14 of the county’s JPs were “Church papists”, that is, practising Catholics who occasionally attended the Anglican Church, while 10 more had close relations who were recusants.

Under these circumstances Lancashire was relatively well supplied with priests, which in turn meant that that the old religion also flourished among the poor. Indeed, the camaraderie of the hunting field fostered close contacts between the classes.

As in Monmouthshire, though, no one was ever secure against sudden twists in government or local action.

Edmund – he was actually christened Bryan – Arrowsmith was born at Haydock, near Warrington, into the very heart of recusancy. 

His mother belonged to the fervently Catholic Gerard family; his father Robert, a farmer, and his eldest brother Peter had served in Sir William Stanley’s regiment which fought for Spain in the Low Countries. Peter, in fact, died of his wounds in Brussels.

Bryan Arrowsmith also had an uncle called Edmund who helped train English priests in France. When Bryan went to Douai in 1605 he adopted his uncle’s christian name. Despite periods of ill-health Arrowsmith was ordained in 1612, after which he undertook a fearless and forthright ministry in Lancashire, denouncing heretics with unguarded zeal. 

Arrested in 1622, he was released because James I eschewed persecution when trying to arrange a Spanish marriage for his son Prince Charles.

A devotee of St Ignatius’s spiritual exercises, Arrowsmith was enrolled in 1623 as a Jesuit novice in London, probably in the French embassy at Blackfriars. It is not clear, though, whether he spent much time there.

Certainly in 1628 he was acting with his accustomed rigour in Lancashire. A man called Holden, whom he had reprobated for some matrimonial irregularity, denounced him to the authorities. 

Indicted at Lancaster Assizes as a seminary priest and Jesuit, Arrowsmith was hanged, drawn and quartered in that town on August 28 1628. The authorities set his head upon a pinnacle of Lancaster Castle, and distributed his quarters elsewhere upon the building. His severed hand is preserved in St Oswald’s Church, Ashton-in-Makerfield, near Wigan.