St John Stone, priest and martyr
When King Henry VIII declared that he was supreme head of the Church in England, usurping the authority of the Pope, Parliament in 1535 made it high treason to uphold the Pope’s authority or to deny the King’s supremacy. Only the bravest were prepared to risk a cruel death in defence of the Church’s traditional faith. One of these was an Augustinian priest in the Priory in Canterbury, John Stone.
Little is known of John Stone’s life other than his martyrdom. It is believed he was a native of Canterbury and that he entered the Order and became priest at Austin Friars, as St Augustine’s Priory was generally known, in the city.
In 1538 Thomas Cromwell, chief minister of Henry, commissioned his friend Richard Ingworth, a Dominican friar who had been made bishop of Dover, to visit all the friaries around the country, take details of their possessions with a view to their suppression and surrender (in the near future) and demand from all superiors and friars the taking of the Oaths of Succession (following Henry’s divorce) and Supremacy.
In December 1538 Ingworth headed towards Canterbury, the primatial see of England. On the way he suppressed the historic Carmelite friary of Aylesford. Arriving in Canterbury Ingworth suppressed the Franciscan and Dominican friaries and took possession of the properties. On 14th December he reached Austin Friars and started to go through the usual procedure demanding from Prior and community submission to the new Church arrangements, acknowledging Henry VIII as supreme head of the Church in England, and surrendering their property to the State.
As had happened in all previous cases on Ingworth’s tour of the friaries there seemed to be no problem and the required signatures were given. There may have been some doubts, hesitations and crises of conscience but everyone signed. Everyone that is except Friar John. Apparently a simple man who up to now had made no mark on history. But now was different, John Stone did not have the status or the learning of Sir Thomas More or Bishop John Fisher who had been martyred for opposing the King’s wishes in 1535 but his simple faith led him to the same conclusion in refusing to accept the King’s right to be head of the Church and put him on the road to the same fate, the terrible death of the traitor.
Ingworth was nonplussed. This had never happened him before. There was only one thing to do, send Friar John to London to face the most feared man in England, Thomas Cromwell, and see if he would persist in his rebellion. On arrival in London Friar John was incarcerated in the Tower. Neither threats nor promises from Cromwell could change his mind. He would stand trial for high treason and risk the dreadful sentence. The trial, it was suggested, should be in Canterbury since the treason had been committed in that city. But first John Stone had to languish for a year in his London prison.
Finally in December 1539 he was taken to Canterbury and tried for high treason. The formalities were adhered to but the verdict was never in doubt. The jury found him guilty, the judge imposed the dreadful sentence: Friar Stone would be bound and dragged on a hurdle through the street to the place of execution, the mound by the city walls known as the Dane John –hanged there on a scaffold – cut down while still alive – heart and other organs cut out and burned before your eyes – your head and quarters chopped off, parboiled and placed over the city gates. While awaiting his trial in Canterbury Castle and deep in prayer John Stone had heard a voice calling him by name and encouraging him to persevere. As the terrible sentence was pronounced he must have needed this heavenly reassurance to support his own faith and resolve.
The sentence was carried out in all its gory details on Saturday December 27th 1539. Canterbury City Archives contains an itemised account for the expenses of the execution: Paid for half a ton of timber to make a pair of gallows to hang Friar Stone – Two shillings and sixpence;
Paid for a hurdle – 6 pence
Paid to two men that set the kettle and parboiled him – twelve pence
Paid to three men that carried his quarters to the gates and set them up – 12 pence
Paid for a halter to hang him – (the torso was probably buried in the ground under the gallows) – 1 penny
Paid to him that did the execution – 4 shillings and 8 pence.
In all, the cost of getting rid of this awkward friar in a way that would discourage any imitators came to 15 shillings and 10 pence, a large sum for the time and place when seen against the recorded costs of an earlier execution of 6 pence.
John Stone was canonized as one of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales by Pope Paul VI on 25th October, 1970. It is on this day that the Augustinian family celebrates the feast day of the martyr St John Stone though the feast day of the Forty Martyrs has been transferred to 14th May in England and Wales.
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