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Blessed Richard Whiting and Companions

JohnThorne

This portrait of Blessed John Thorne, O.S.B., is reproduced by kind permission of the Abbot of Douai. The Treasurer of the Abbey suffered martyrdom at Glastonbury on November 1539.

It is conjectured the original Glastonbury “X” Chair was made for this same John Thorne - he being the “Monachus Johannes” to whom reference is made in the Chair's carved inscription. Copies of this Chair can be seen in Churches all over the world.

Richard Whiting is seen on the Tapestry holding a rope, indicating the manner of his death.

His brother monks, Roger James and John Thorne, standing beside him, shared the same fate.

It was during the Wars of the Roses, probably A.D.1460 that Richard Whiting was born of a family settled on the Abbey estates near Wrington. His early life was uneventful, but it must have been coloured by the wonderful traditions of the abbey, where his education was begun. After his Ordination at Wells he taught in the abbey School, and among his pupils would have been Richard Bere (nephew of Abbot Bere), later a Carthusian martyr.

Abbot Bere, the last abbot but one, died in 1525. The community, after deciding to give up their right of choosing their future abbot, agreed to request Cardinal Wolsey to make the choice. He nominated Richard Whiting, then chamberlain of the abbey, describing him as “an upright and religious monk, a provident and discreet man, and a priest commendable for his life, virtues and learning”. Abbot Whiting ruled the monastery in peace for nearly ten years, appearing from the State Papers to be a careful overseer of his abbey, and winning the esteem of all for his learning, piety and discreet administration.

Meanwhile, in January 1533, King Henry VIII had gone through a form of civil marriage with Anne Boleyn. In May, Cranmer declared that Henry's marriage with Catherine had never been a marriage, and pronounced his marriage with Anne good and lawful.

The Act of Succession, passed in 1534, entailed the Crown on the children of Anne Boleyn, and an oath was drawn up to be exacted of every person of lawful age. It was the refusal to take this oath, the preamble of which declared Henry's marriage with Catherine null from the beginning, which sent Thomas More and Bishop Fisher to the block in 1535.

Thomas Cromwell, a layman, was appointed vicar-general to rule the English Church in the King's name. In August 1535 Dr. Layton, least scrupulous of Cromwell's inquisitors, arrived at Glastonbury Abbey, hoping in vain for evidence to justify the end in view. He was annoyed to find everything in order at Glastonbury, and no grounds for calumny. Even so he complained, “there is nothing notable: the brethren be so straight kept that they cannot offend”.

This temporary failure of the Royal Visitors served as a warning to Richard Whiting that his abbey would be “visited” again. He remained quietly at home among his people, ever employed in the duties of his charge, going on as if all were well. He excused himself from attending the Parliament of 1539; he doubtless anticipated what its business would be. He cannot have been astonished when in April a law was passed which not only granted to the King the greater monasteries which he had illegally seized, but also “all which should hereafter happen to be dissolved, suppressed, renounced, relinquished, forfeited, given up or come into the King's highness”.

One by one the monasteries of Somerset went down until at last Glastonbury was the sole survivor. Then on 19th September 1539 the royal commissioners, Layton, Moyle and Pollard arrived at Glastonbury without warning. The Abbot being at his Grange at Sharpham, they hurried there and carried him back to the Abbey, where they proceeded during the night to ransack his papers and search his apartments. “But we could not,” they write, “find any letter that was material”. And so, “with as fair words as they could, he being but a very weak man and sickly”, they sent him up to London, to the Tower for Cromwell to work his will on him. Within six weeks the royal commission had completed its task. The booty noted in the Lord Privy Seal's manuscript, “Remembrance”, was listed thus:

“The plate of Glaston, beside golden, 11,000 ounces The furniture from the house of Glaston In ready money from Glaston, £1,100 and over The rich copes from Glaston. The debts (i.e., owing to the Abbey) £2,000 and above.”

There is no evidence that Abbot Whiting was allowed a trial. He was deemed guilty because he stood in the way, and that was sufficient to seal his fate. Another passage in the “Remembrance” contains the tell-tale entry which is itself the most scathing condemnation of the man who hounded him to his death. “Item : The Abbot of Glaston to be tried at Glaston and also executed there with his accomplices.” Could a more fantastic denial of justice be imagined? He was sentenced “by order”, without even the pretence of an open trial, though a mockery of one seems to have taken place at Wells where he was taken on 14th November.

According to all law, the Abbot, as member of the House of Peers, should have been arrainged before Parliament. But Parliament was not sitting, and the law did not go for much in the days of the Tudors. Though the “jury” was, perhaps, not asked to give a verdict, the martyr was not spared a drop of the bitter cup of indignity, outrage and ingratitude. Without enquiry, without defence, without a judgement even, the cruel farce was hurried through, and the aged prelate who stood like his Master among thieves and murderers, was taken away to wait the end. On the following day, Saturday, 15th November 1539, with two of his monks, John Thorne (Abbey Treasurer) and Roger James (Sacrist), Richard Whiting was dragged on a hurdle through the streets of Glastonbury, in front of his now empty Abbey, up to the Tor for execution.

As they stood beneath the gallows their eyes would have travelled for the last time across the moors to Cheddar in the Mendips, once a home for the Kings of Wessex, to Baltonsborough, the birthplace of St. Dunstan, and along the clouded hills of Brent Knoll and Steep Holme. No other landscape in all England carried such a weight of legend. Below them lay the majestic pile of the Abbey, once poetry in stone, now desolate, solitary and soon to crumble into ruins. The Abbot and his companions “took their death very patiently”. They were hanged, disembowelled, beheaded and quartered. The Abbot's head was stuck on a spike above his abbey gateway for all to see, and his quarters, boiled in pitch, were displayed at Wells, Bath, Ilchester and Bridgwater.

With his Companions, Blessed Richard Whiting was beatified by Pope Leo XIII in 1895. And thus, as Queen of Martyrs, Our Lady of Glastonbury was presented with Jewels infinitely more precious than any sapphire, with which her crown might be adorned.