Most of us know about the English Reformation from the writings of those who triumphed, the Protestants. But to understand the English Reformation fully, we must also ask, what was it like to be a Catholic during this time of religious turmoil?

The question becomes more important because recent scholars of the English Reformation have argued that the English Catholic church was not as corrupt—nor the Protestant Reformation as pure—as many people believe.

To gain a broader grasp of this turbulent time, Christian History invited Catholic historian Dennis Martin, a Wheaton College graduate who teaches medieval and Reformation history at Loyola University in Chicago, to offer a Catholic perspective on the English Reformation.

On May 4, 1535, in London, three Carthusian monks and one Bridgettine monk were hanged until partially conscious. Then their bellies were cut open, their intestines wrenched out and tossed on a fire, and their hearts ripped out by hand. The bodies were beheaded and quartered, and the pieces were posted at various locations throughout England. As the executioner slit open his belly, John Houghton, prior of the London Carthusian monastery, said, “O most holy Jesus, have mercy upon me in this hour.”

This was the punishment for treason in sixteenth-century England. Their crime? Refusal to recognize “the king, our sovereign, to be the supreme head of the Church of England afore the Apostles of Christ’s Church.”

No one had ever questioned the piety, learning, and spiritual vitality of the Carthusians and the Bridgettines. Their monastic houses were frequented by devout lay people for prayer and spiritual growth. In fact, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, who knew two of the victims personally, opposed the executions, but ...

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