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John Houghton

(1487—1535) prior of the London Charterhouse and martyr


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(1487–1535), Carthusian monk and martyr. A member of a family of Essex gentry, Houghton studied Law at Christ's College, Cambridge, and then became a secular priest through the usual medieval method of living with and learning from another priest in the neighbourhood. After four years of ministry, he became a Carthusian at Smithfield in 1515. In 1522 he became sacristan and in 1527 procurator. In 1531 he was elected prior of Beauvale (Notts.), but after a few months he was recalled by unanimous vote to be prior of the London Charterhouse. As prior of this young community (half were less than thirty-five years of age), highly esteemed and much visited for the sake both of its dignified liturgy and its spiritual direction, Houghton acquired a reputation for sanctity long before the conflict which made him famous. Notably abstemious, but accessible to all his community, zealous for the Divine Office and for sacred learning, Houghton was small in stature, ‘graceful and modest in appearance’. His community, belonging to an Order which frequently won the praise of even anti-monastic contemporaries, must have been one of the most distinguished in England at the time.

Like other subjects of Henry VIII, the Carthusians were required to take the Oath of Succession in 1534, which implied a recognition of the invalidity of Henry's marriage to Catherine of Aragon and of the legitimacy of his marriage to Anne Boleyn with their daughter's right of succession to the throne. First Houghton and his procurator asked to be left in peace as it was no concern of theirs, then they said they could not see how such a long-standing marriage as that of Henry and Catherine could be invalid. They were then committed to the Tower, where Edward Lee, archbishop of York, persuaded them that the Act (whose preamble they never saw) was not contrary to the Faith, so they agreed to take it ‘in so far as it was lawful’. But with the passing of the Act of Supremacy in 1534, the underlying doctrinal conflict could no longer be evaded. In 1535 commissioners were appointed to administer an Oath of acknowledgement that the king was Supreme Head on earth of the Church in England: in due course they visited the London Charterhouse, where the community had spent three days in prayer and preparation for their ordeal. The priors of Beauvale and Axholme (Robert Lawrence and Augustine Webster) now joined Houghton; together they went to see Thomas Cromwell, the king's Vicar-General, trying without success to negotiate for their communities an acceptable form of the oath ‘so far as the Law of God might allow’. Cromwell refused all such qualifications, said that ‘he cared naught for the Church and Augustine might hold as he pleased’; all he wanted to know was whether they would swear a direct oath or not. On their refusal, due to their belief that a matter of faith was at stake, they were committed to the Tower.

At their trial in Westminster Hall they pleaded not guilty of treason (recently defined as including mere words, or even refusing to acknowledge that the king was Supreme Head of the Church in England). The jury deliberated long and were brow-beaten by Cromwell to produce a verdict of guilty. The Carthusians were executed at Tyburn on 4 May, after being dragged on hurdles in their religious habits through the streets and refusing a pardon offered at the foot of the gallows if they would recant. They were hanged, drawn, and quartered; Houghton's arm was hung up over the gate of the London Charterhouse. Thomas More, imprisoned in the Tower, saw the Carthusians going to their death and remarked to his daughter Margaret: ‘Do you not see that these blessed fathers be now as cheerfully going to their deaths as bridegrooms to their marriage?’ The three priors suffered together on the same day, but the rest of the London Carthusian community endured persecution of various kinds for two years more. Some were sent elsewhere, some conformed, but ten remained steadfast; these were imprisoned at Newgate and starved to death. Houghton, Lawrence, and Webster are among the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales canonized by Paul VI in 1970. Feast: 25 October.

From The Oxford Dictionary of Saints in Oxford Reference.

Subjects: Christianity.


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