John Nelson, Jesuit Martyr

Nelson was from Skelton, near York. The son of Sir Nicholas Nelson, he was born in about 1535. He was firm in his conviction that Catholics should be bold in professing their faith and did not accept the practice of attending Protestant services to avoid penalties. He was nearing 40 when he left for Douai in 1573 for training as a priest. Two of his four brothers Martin and Thomas would later follow him there to become priests. He was ordained at Binche in Hainaut by Monsignor Louis de Berlaymont, Archbishop of Cambrai, on June 11, 1576. The next November, he left for his mission, which appears to have been in London.

Little is known about Father Nelson's ministry except that it lasted only one year before he was arrested on the evening of Dec. 1, 1578 when priest-catchers burst into his residence "late in the evening as he was saying the Nocturne of the Matins for the next day following". They arrested him on suspicion of being a Catholic; but when he was brought before the queen's high commissioners and asked who the head of the Church was, he boldly answered that it was the pope, thus sealing his fate. He was put into Newgate Prison.

220px-tyburn treeWhen interrogated about a week or so later, he refused to take the oath recognizing the Queen's supremacy in spiritual matters, and was induced by the commissioners to declare the Queen a schismatic. Under the Legislation of 1571, this was high treason and punishable by death. He was condemned a few weeks later on Saturday February 1, 1578 and was confined after the trial in an underground dungeon in the Tower of London, the so-called Pit of the Tower. While in prison he subsided on bread and water and was able to say Mass and confess. 

On his execution day, he refused several Protestant ministers after meeting family members. Taken to Tyburn he was allowed to speak before the bystanders, who were mostly hostile in the historically Protestant London. He refused to ask pardon of the Queen and asked any Catholics in the crowd to pray with him as he recited several common prayers in Latin. He led the Catholics assembled there in the Credo, the Pater Noster, and the Ave Maria. Then he said, "I die in the unity of the Catholic Church; and for that unity do now most willingly suffer my blood to be shed; therefore, I beseech God . . . to make you, and all others that are not such already, true Catholic men, and both to live and die in the unity of our Holy Mother, the Catholic Roman Church."

hung-drawn-quarterHe then asked forgiveness of any he had offended and forgave his enemies and his executioners. Blessed John Nelson was hanged but then cut down while he was still alive and disembowelled. He was beheaded and quartered with his body parts exhibited on London Bridge and the city gates as a warning.  As the executioner plucked out his heart, his last words were reportedly "I forgive the Queen and all the authors of my death." He was beatified on 29 December 1886 by Pope Leo XIII.

Also martyred by Queen Elizabeth was Blessed Thomas Nelson, Jesuit student. Hanged, drawn, and quartered at Tyburn on February 3, 1578.



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