Sunday 5 July 2020

The Sailors and the Baker: The Wexford Martyrs

Engraving of a 16th-century Baker

Among the seventeen Irish Martyrs beatified in 1992 are a group of laymen from Wexford - baker Matthew Lambert and sailors Robert Meyler, Patrick Cavanagh and Edward Cheevers. These working men were caught up in the aftermath of the rebellion of James Eustace, third viscount Baltinglass, which had begun in the summer of 1580. When Baltinglass arrived in Wexford the following year accompanied by his chaplain, Jesuit Robert Rochfort, it was as a defeated man seeking to flee the country. Wexford was an important port with strong links to continental Europe and the fact that Father Rochfort was a Wexford native may also have influenced their choice of destination. If, however,  Baltinglass was hoping to garner support from the wealthy 'Old English' Catholic merchants of the town he was to be sorely disappointed. The fugitives ended up availing of the hospitality of local baker Matthew Lambert whilst Robert Meyler and the other sailors tried to arrange passage on a ship leaving for the continent. For this they were to pay a terrible price, as Father Edmund Hogan, S.J. explains:
Matthew Lamport, a Waterford miller or baker, was tied to a horse's tail, and hanged, drawn, and quartered in 1581, because he had harboured the Baron of Baltinglass and Father Rochfort; Matthias Lamport, a parish priest of some place near Dublin, was hanged on July 1, 1581, for having often given shelter to Father Rochfort. On July 25, 1581, Robert Meiler, Edward Cheevers, Patrick Canavan, John O'Leary, and a sailor, whose name is not mentioned, all of the town of Wexford, were there hanged, drawn and quartered, for having brought Father Rochfort from Belgium into Ireland.
Rev. Edmund Hogan, S.J., Distinguished Irishmen of the Sixteenth Century, First Series, London, 1894), 17-18.

This account requires some further unpacking as it contains a number of difficulties. Let us deal with the sailors first. A minor discrepancy is the variant spelling of Robert Meyler's surname, it can be found as Miller and Meiler in different sources, but clearly we are dealing with the same individual. The name of John O'Leary, who also appears as John O'Lahy in other places, was not included as one of the martyred sailors in the official submission of their case to Rome. The reason lies in the differing accounts of the early martyrologists who wrote about these men. The most important record is that preserved by Father John Howlin S.J. (1542-1599). He was a Wexford native and may even have been present at their trial. He makes no mention of O'Lahy/O'Leary, citing Meiler, Cavanagh and Cheevers cum duobus aliis nautis (with two other sailors) in his 1590 catalogue of Irish martyrs, Perbreve Compendium. In the following century Franciscan Anthony Bruodin compiled his own catalogue of Irish martyrs, Propugnaculum Catholicae Veritatis, and appears to have followed the 1620 work of John Coppinger in citing John O'Lahy as one of the mariners. It seems that Coppinger had a source for this information independent of Father Howlin, but its reliability is open to question. The name of Edward Cheevers appears to be accepted by all the writers but there is yet another source of confusion surrounding Patrick Canavan/Cavanagh. According to Monsignor Patrick Corish, who prepared the official submission of the Wexford martyrs' case:
Howlin's clear italic script obviously reads 'Cavanagh', a local name much more plausible than 'Canavan' with its Galway associations.  [1]
For some reason, although he must have had access to Father Howlin's work, Bishop Rothe in his De Processu Martyriali of 1619 renders the name as Canavasius, whence it made its way into the works of the nineteenth century writers, Cardinal Moran, Father Murphy and Myles O'Reilly as 'Canavan'. Cavanagh though was the name of the most powerful local Gaelic sept and it is worth noting that sailor Patrick is the only one of the Wexford martyrs with a native Irish surname as those of his companions Meiler and Cheevers are Old English. This reflects the reality that Wexford had been a centre of English influence since the time of the Normans.

The identity of baker Matthew Lambert (also an Old English name) is even more problematic. Initially I struggled to find him at all and instead encountered Matthew Lamport who, as we have seen above, was described as a Dublin parish priest. This confusion also arose from the fact that Coppinger and Bruodin had recorded Matthew Lamport as a priest whereas earlier, Howlin and Rothe had described him as a baker. One explanation put forward is that the Latin term pistor 'baker, miller' used by Howlin to describe Lamport/Lambert has been garbled by the later writers as pastor and thus the baker becomes a priest.

It is to be regretted that the official records of the trial of the Wexford martyrs were lost in 1922 but Monsignor Corish has reconstructed events from other surviving evidence. Using the correspondence of Lord Deputy Grey he suggests that the outcome of another trial, that of wealthy local landowner Nicholas Devereux, may have influenced that of the baker and the sailors. Despite having publicly confessed what Grey terms 'matter worthy death', the Wexford jury refused to convict Devereux. Corish speculates that if the Lord Deputy needed someone else to make an example of, then our poor working men were ideal for his purpose. Although as a baker Matthew Lambert was a business owner, there is no trace of him in Wexford town records as one might expect had he been a man of substance. Father Howlin describes him as simplex et literarum omnium ignarus  'a simple and completely unlettered' man. Lambert was also threatened with torture at his initial hearing and this may have been carried out, certainly Howlin records that the sailors were tortured. Touchingly, he also records that they withstood the pleas of wives and families and continued to proclaim their loyalty to the Catholic faith. In the absence of the official court record his testimony is a primary source of what took place at the trial:
Rev John Howlin, S.J, describing their incarceration and death, spoke of their deep faith. These men of no property were hanged for their aid to Baltinglass and Fr Rochford. Matthew Lambert, when asked how he reconciled his loyalty to the pope with his loyalty to the queen, replied that he was an unlettered man, unable to discuss such matters, he was a Catholic and held the faith of the Catholic Church. [2]
Monsignor Corish agrees that the political ramifications of the Pope's excommunication of Queen Elizabeth in 1570 were lost on the Wexford defendants:
While the legal charge was treason, there is no reason to believe that these simple and unlettered men were conscious traitors to the queen. The political leaders, James Fitzmaurice and Viscount Baltinglass, had consciously concluded that after 1570 their loyalty to the pope implied that they must be disloyal to the queen, but Matthew Lambert is to be believed when he said that he did not understand these things: he acted as he did simply because he was a Catholic. The sailors were concerned to make the same point. [3]
Nevertheless, Lambert and all of the sailors were found guilty of treason and condemned to death by hanging, drawing and quartering. Uncertainty surrounds the precise date of their execution. In his reconstruction of the timeline of events Corish is convinced that the assizes had finished in Wexford by the end of June. It was usual for the sentence to be carried out soon after it had been handed down. Father Howlin who, as a Wexford man on the ground might reasonably be expected to know, records July 25 as the execution date for the sailors, but Corish feels this is too late. Significantly, Bishop Rothe, who usually follows Howlin closely, has amended the date to July 5 and Corish feels that he may well have preserved the actual date on which the mariners met their terrible end. Lambert would have suffered around the same time, possibly even on the same day, although Coppinger gives the date of July 1 for the martyrdom of his 'priest' Matthew Lamport.

I find the case of these men extremely moving. They gave help and hospitality when the great and the good of the town turned away. As illiterate commoners they were subject to the full rigour of the law, while wealthy gentlemen were able to escape with their lives. It thus seems entirely just that they should be chosen as representatives of the laity and of ordinary, working people at that. Yet if it had not been for the circumstances in which they met their deaths they would have remained anonymous and unknown to history. But in Rome on September 27 1992, Pope John Paul II announced the names of 'Matthew Lambert, baker and Robert Meyler, Edward Cheevers and Patrick Cavanagh, sailors' as among the seventeen beatified martyrs of Ireland, acknowledging their faith and their courage before the world.


[1] P.J. Corish and B. Millett, OFM, eds, The Irish Martyrs, (Dublin, 2005), 64.

[2] Elizabeth Ann O'Connor, The Rebellion of James Eustace, Viscount Baltinglass III, 1580 - 81: A study of the causes, course and consequences of the response of an Anglo-Irish Catholic layman to Elizabethan religious repression. ( Masters thesis, National University of Ireland Maynooth, 1989).

[3] Ibid.

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