The Martyrs of Cumbria – 24 July

Today we remember ten martyrs who were born in the present county of Cumbria and who were all martyred elsewhere except Blessed Christopher Robinson who was born, worked, and was martyred in Carlisle. They include St. John Boste, along with Blessed John Mason, layman, Thomas Somers, James Duckett, layman, Thomas Tunstall OSB, William Ward, John Duckett, Thomas Pickering OSB, and Thomas Sprott. Today we give thanks for the witness of the martyrs which always calls us to a life of strong and generous faith.

Blessed Christopher Robinson, the Carlisle Martyr

Blessed Christopher Robinson was executed at Carlisle on August 19, 1598. The model above reflects the circumstances of his martyrdom, as the rope on which he was to be hung kept breaking!  Christopher Robinson is on all the ancient lists of those martyred during the Reformation, but his life is still little known. Nevertheless, his memory has never been effaced in Cumberland, of which he is the only Catholic martyr. His death evidently made a deep impression especially in his native Carlisle.

Christopher Robinson was probably born at Woodside, near Carlisle, between 1565 and 1570. He was admitted as a student with six others on 17 August 1590 at Douai as a student. This college had been founded on 29 September 1568 by William Allen, a former Oxford Professor and later Cardinal. The first four priests were sent to England in 1574, and in the next ten years just over a hundred left the College ordained for the English Mission. From 1568 to 1594 the College was re-settled beside the university of Rheims and it was during this period that Christopher Robinson was a student of the College.

He was at once entered for theological studies and was given the tonsure and first Minor Orders on 18 August 1590. Such was the urgent need for priests that the College had been granted a general dispensation to shorten the usual six-year course of preparation for the priesthood. Christopher Robinson was given the remaining Minor Orders, together with the subdiaconate and diaconate, on the last three days of March 1591. On 24 February he was ordained to the priesthood by Cardinal Philip Sega in his private chapel at Rheims. He departed for England on 1 September 1592.

Cumberland and probably part of Westmorland was to be his field of labour. In a list of 1596 he is described by name as ‘dwelling for the most part at Woodside nigh Carlisle in Cumberland’. The only house known with certainty to have been visited and used by him was Johnby Hall, the home of the Musgrave family, about six miles from Penrith, near Greystoke Castle.
He would surely have known John Boste, a native of Dufton, near Appleby, who was the most hunted priest in the northern counties. He was eventually captured near Brancepeth, County Durham, on 13 September 1593. Christopher Robinson heard of his capture and, feeling sure no one would recognise him, rode over to attend his trial. Afterwards he wrote a detailed account of the trial and death of John Boste. This is a unique, first hand evidence of a martyrdom, hardly paralleled elsewhere.

He himself was arrested three and a half years later on 4 March 1597. A letter by Fr. Henry Garnett SJ dated 7 April 1597 states:
‘One Robinson, a seminary priest, was lately in a purchased gaol-delivery hanged at Carlisle. The rope broke twice and the third time he rebuked the sheriff for cruelty saying that, although he meant no way to yield but was glad of the combat, yet flesh and blood were weak, and therefore he showed little humanity to torment a man for so long. And when they took order to put two ropes, then, said he, by this means I shall be longer a-dying, but it is no matter, I am willing to suffer all.’
Although the indictment upon which Christopher Robinson suffered is no longer to be found, there is abundant evidence that the cause of his death was his priesthood.
There is also much evidence that his memory as a martyr has been persistently held in honour in Carlisle, where Christopher Robinson’s name is not only remembered but also invoked as a true martyr.
He was declared Blessed by Pope John Paul II in 1987.

St John Boste (c.1544-1594)

John Boste was born in Westmorland around 1544. He studied at Queen’s College, Oxford where he became a Fellow. He converted to Catholicism in 1576. He left England and was ordained a priest at Reims in 1581. He returned as an active missionary priest to Northern England. He was betrayed to the authorities near Durham in 1593. Following his arrest he was taken to the Tower of London for interrogation. Returned to Durham he was condemned by the Assizes and hanged, drawn and quartered at nearby Dryburn on 24 July 1594. He denied that he was a traitor saying: “My function is to invade souls, not to meddle in temporal invasions”.