Blessed Thomas Woodhouse is a real character. I don’t recall ever hearing of him before last night, which is perfectly typical of the man. He was a real life Father Brown of Elizabethan times — sweet, humble, optimistic, likeable, determined to convert souls and make God’s point no matter what, and a lot sharper than people thought.
He was ordained during Queen Mary’s brief reign, and first appeared in history as an ordinary Lincolnshire parish priest and rector. He served there for less than a year before Elizabeth came in, and then ended up earning his bread as a tutor in Wales. He was arrested May 14, 1561, while saying Mass (under ‘Good’ Queen Bess that was a treasonous crime, remember?) and was sent to the Fleet Prison. He remained there for twelve years, living on charity. (You had to pay for your food and keep while imprisoned, or starve. Luckily, the jailers liked him.)
He was generally a model prisoner, but he consistently did as he thought best and could not be stopped. He converted his fellow prisoners to Catholicism. He said Mass for them regularly, despite rules and watchers. He wrote letters whenever it seemed good to him. He even preached to people outside the prison, by writing little messages calling people to repentance, then tying them to stones and throwing them through the windows or over the walls.
One nasty London year, the Fleet was evacuated to the head jailer’s country home, because of plague. It was during Lent, and Father Woodhouse got upset that the jailer was eating meat and not fasting on Fridays. He told the jailer sternly that he could not and would not remain in a house that did not keep Lent. The jailer thought he was joking; but the next morning, Woodhouse was gone. He remained missing until someone thought to check the empty prison. Sure enough, there was Fr. Woodhouse, quietly keeping Lent in his familiar cell.
Fr.Woodhouse kept up with current events, and it seems that he heard all about the good work being done in England by the brave Jesuit missionaries. He got so excited that he wrote to the French head of the Society of Jesus, asking to be admitted despite his obvious inability to fulfill the normal requirements at that time. Apparently, the Jesuits were touched by this, and sent him a letter back admitting him to their company. This made him very happy and proud, but he was too humbled by the honor to inform anyone but his confessor.
Not long after this, Fr. Woodhouse seems to have decided that it was time to step up his twelve-year campaign to get martyred. Obviously, the jailers were too nice. Someone else would have to be tried. It was time to get Ignatian. 🙂 So he wrote a very kind, very earnest letter where he pointed out the obvious nullity of Elizabeth’s rule and all schismatic behavior. Then he hired one of the laundresses (whom he described in his famous letter as “a hot Protestant” and hence nobody to be punished or pursued) to deliver the letter to the house of Lord Burghley, Elizabeth’s treasurer, and then go right away again.
The letter got Lord Burghley’s attention, but mostly seems to have amused him. It seems probable that he only had Fr. Woodhouse called for questioning for amusement, or to see if he might name any other Catholics. But the interview deteriorated when the priest very nicely insisted on calling Lord Burghley by his surname, Cecil, because the noble title had been granted by someone who wasn’t really queen.
Father Woodhouse was on his way to a martyr’s crown, and nobody was going to stop him. There were some interviews designed to find him too crazy or stupid to kill, but Woodhouse quoted the Church Fathers and argued his theological points with great clarity. When the crowd on his way to Tyburn was a little too sympathetic, he sweetly went his own way by insisting on praying in Latin, and thus got them mad at him again. In the end, the executioners (who sometimes mercifully allowed a man to die of hanging before he was quartered) were so annoyed by his behavior that they insisted on keeping him alive, right up to the point his heart was ripped out while still beating. But cute, sweet, insignificant little Father Woodhouse died happy on June 19, 1573 — as the first Jesuit ever martyred in England!
The Fifth of November, by coincidence (or not), is when the Jesuits celebrate all their order’s canonized saints, as well as those named blessed or venerable. Some websites even forget to mention Blessed Thomas Woodhouse — which is entirely in keeping with his style! But I think he’s well worth recall.
Priest, confessor, martyr. Last minute Jesuit, occasional trickster, full time servant of God. Smart, simple, humble, and still under people’s radar.
Bl. Thomas Woodhouse, pray for us.
(Info in this post came from Lives of the English Martyrs (Vol. 2), edited by Dom Bede Camm. Another cool book by Camm is Forgotten Shrines, also at archive.org.)