[#15 in the series This Week in English Catholic History: Week of December 9 – 16]
HIS week, on December 10, the day of his martyrdom, we remember St. John Roberts. St. John Roberts was a Welsh Benedictine monk and priest. He was born in 1577 at Trawsfynydd, a small village in northern Wales. His parents were John and Anna Roberts of Rhiw Goch Farm. Like many members of the Ordinariates of Anglicanorum cœtibus today, John was baptized as a Protestant.
He attended Oxford in 1595 before leaving after two years to study law at Furnival’s Inn, London. He later traveled in Europe, and converted to Catholicism after visiting Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Also instrumental in his conversion was the influence of a Catholic fellow-countryman. When John converted, he abandoned his legal studies. On the advice of Fr. John Cecil, Roberts moved to Spain to attend the English seminary at Valladolid, before later leaving to become a monk at the local monastery, St. Benedict’s.
After his ordination in 1602, John led an undercover mission of Catholic priests to England, where as an important part of his evangelization he worked with plague victims in London. He was repeatedly caught, imprisoned, and banished to the continent, but Saint John kept returning to England. On his fifth mission to England, he was followed by his former mentor, ex-priest-turned-spy John Cecil (alias John Snowden), who had traitorously compiled a dossier on Roberts for King James I–Yes, the same King James after whom was named the much-celebrated 1611 King James Version of the Bible, which included the deuterocanon and almost verbatim the words of the Lord’s Prayer as they currently appear in the Catholic Novus Ordo Missal of 1970 and the Ordinariates’ Divine Worship Missal of 2013. God uses whom He will for his unsearchable purposes.
Fr. Roberts was arrested by the King’s agents right after he had finished saying Mass, and he was taken to prison while still wearing his Eucharistic vestments. The night before his hanging, a devout Spanish lady arranged for him to have dinner with 18 other Catholic prisoners. During their supper together, St. John was full of joy. He felt self-conscious about this, and asked his hostess, “Do you think I may be giving bad example by my joy?” She said, “No, certainly not. You could not do any better than to let everyone see the cheerful courage you have as you are about to die for Christ.”
On December 10, St. John Roberts – as was traditionally allotted commoners deemed traitors to King and country – was hanged, drawn, and quartered at Tyburn. Like our Lord himself by tradition at the time of his crucifixion, John was 33 years old. In jubilant mockery of a ceremony designed to strike fear into the hearts of would-be Catholics, when John saw the fire in which his bowels were to be burned, he said, “Ah, I see you have prepared a hot breakfast for us!”
Usually, the prisoner was disemboweled while still alive, but St. John Roberts was so popular among the poor because of his work with plague victims, that they insisted he be killed first so as not to feel the pain, and the will of the common people prevailed at least that far.
His heart was then held aloft by the executioner, who said, “Behold the heart of the traitor!” But the angry crowd, instead of saying the standard response (“Long live the king!”), said nothing. It was dead silent.
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Written by Mr. John Burford, IV and Dr. Foster Lerner of Incarnation Catholic Church in Orlando, Florida; a parish of The Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of Saint Peter © 2018.
John (wearing purple tie, above) is the founder and owner of Magnolia Prep, an SAT and ACT tutoring business with branches in several major US cities. Foster (wearing golden tie, above) holds a Doctorate in Medicine from Nova Southeastern University Dr. Kiran C. Patel College of Osteopathic Medicine, and is currently pursuing post-graduate studies in medicine.