On August 30 1588 an Irishman, John Roche, was among the five laypeople hanged at Tyburn along with a priest, Father Richard Leigh. One of the others on the scaffold was a female martyr, Margaret Ward, whose story is linked to that of John Roche. Both had been convicted of helping another priest, Father William Watson, one of the martyred Father Leigh's co-workers on the English mission, to escape from prison. Roche's role was to provide shelter and transport for the priest once he was on the outside. He exchanged clothes with Father Watson and was later arrested in mistake for him. The priest got away with his life but Margaret Ward and John Roche paid with theirs. Bishop Richard Challoner (1691-1781) was one of the first to publish an account of their martyrdom in his Memoirs of Missionary Priests and Other Catholics of Both Sexes that have Suffered Death in England on Religious Accounts, from the Year 1577 to 1684, first printed in 1742. Challoner's work was invaluable in preserving the records of English martyrs and by the time the nineteenth-century writers Edwin Burton and John Hungerford Pollen, S.J. were producing their Lives of the English Martyrs series, some new information on the case of John Roche had come to light. Bishop Challoner had referred to an unnamed 'waterman' who had assisted in the escape of Father Watson, we now know that this man was John Roche.
The account which follows portrays Roche being drawn into the escape plan after a serendipitous meeting with Margaret Ward, just at the time when another boatman had refused to carry the priest to safety. I am wondering however about the circumstances in which this pair came to know one another at all. Margaret Ward is described as a 'gentlewoman' who is in the service of a Mrs Whittel, 'a lady of distinction'. John Roche was a working man, described as a 'waterman' or 'boatman'. As there are references in various sources to a family called Whittel being involved in harbouring priests and allowing Mass to be celebrated in their home, it seems most likely that the disparity in social status between the English gentlewoman and the Irish working man was bridged by their common commitment to the Catholic cause in Elizabethan London. The Roches were a Munster family of Old English origin, how John came to be working as a boatman in London in the 1580s would be interesting to know. In some sources he is referred to as John Neele or Neale, was this an alias he employed in the underground Catholic network? Overall, I am left with the impression that there might be more to our humble boatman than meets the eye. The account below of the martyrs and the daring escape which cost them their lives relies primarily on the work of Bishop Challoner, but has been taken from Burton and Pollen's The Lives of the English Martyrs:
The story of these two martyrs is centred round William Watson, who was a native of the diocese of Durham and an alumnus of the English College of Rheims. In the Douay Diaries there are records of his receiving the Sacrament of Confirmation, the tonsure and four minor orders, the subdiaconate, diaconate and priesthood. He was sent into England on 16 June, 1586, with Richard Leigh and three other priests. As Richard Leigh fell into the hands of the persecutors before the end of the year, a similar fate happened to William Watson: for he was captured almost immediately and imprisoned in the Marshalsea. But he was soon released on condition of leaving England within a specified time. Richard Topcliffe, however, seized him and cast him into Bridewell Prison. Here, being overcome by hardships, he consented to go to the Protestant church. But afterwards he repented and by way of reparation declared his fault publicly in the church of Bridewell, whither he had gone previously through human weakness. He was again, therefore, thrown into prison and grievous sufferings inflicted upon him. At the end of a month, he was moved to a lodging at the top of the house, where the enemies of the faith endeavoured to persuade him to go to church a second time. Meanwhile, no Catholic had visited him, until Margaret Ward made an attempt to do so.
This courageous woman was born at Congleton in Cheshire of a gentleman's family, and entered the service of Mrs. Whittel, a lady of distinction. In the Historia Particular of Bishop Yepez, as quoted by Challoner, the vigilance of the prison authorities and the noble conduct of Margaret Ward are described as follows:
"She (Margaret Ward) was in the service of a lady of the first rank, who then resided at London; and hearing of the most afflicted condition of Mr. Watson, asked and obtained leave of her lady to go and attempt to visit and relieve him. In order to this, she changed her dress, and taking a basket upon her arm, full of provisions, went to the prison, but could not have leave to come at the priest, till, by the intercession of the jailer's wife, whom Mrs. Ward had found means to make her friend, with much ado she obtained permission to see him from time to time, and bring him necessaries, upon condition, that she should be searched in coming in and going out, that she might carry no letter to him, or from him; which was so strictly observed for the first month, that they even broke the loaves, or pies, that she brought him, lest any paper should thereby be conveyed to him; and all the while she was with him, care was taken that some one should stand by to hear all that was said. But at length, beginning to be persuaded that she came out of pure compassion to assist him, they were less strict in searching her basket, and in hearkening to their conversation; so that he had an opportunity of telling her, that he had found a way by which, if he had a cord long enough for that purpose, he could let himself down from the top of the house, and make his escape. "Mrs. Ward soon procured a cord, which she brought in her basket under the bread and other eatables."
Mr. George Stoker and Mr. Heath in their Relation thus continue the narrative.
"She provided him ... a man to accompany him, and a boat to convey him, assigning the hour when he should come down; the time was between 10 and 11 o'clock. When she came afterwards to the boatman he altogether refused, at which she was much grieved, thinking she had utterly cast away the good priest.
"By chance she met with a young man (Venerable John Roche) whom she had not seen in half a year before, who seeing her in that mournful plight demanded the cause. She denied to tell him; he more enforcing her, said he would willingly adventure his life to do her any pleasure ; and she said that so he must if he would help her in that respect. To this he accorded with faithful promise, whereupon she told him the whole matter. Then he went and provided another boat, and she came to the place appointed, and so received the priest and went his way.
"At his coming down there fell a stone which awaked all the house, so that they followed him with hue and cry; and his keeper making haste overtook them at Lambeth Marsh. The priest seeing him come after them said unto the man, 'Sure we be undone, for yonder comes my keeper'. Whereupon he returned towards him and bade him good morrow; but the keeper ran away, not knowing him. When he was gone they [changed] clothes, but the man upon his return was taken by the priest's apparel."
There are, indeed, some divergencies in the accounts that we possess of the above story of William Watson's escape from prison, which took place in August, 1588. Bishop Yepez, whom Challoner quotes, says that the time appointed was between two and three o'clock in the morning. Moreover, William Watson is said to have fallen down upon an old shed or penthouse, and it was the noise ensuing which attracted the attention of the jailers and others. Bishop Yepez, as quoted by Challoner, also relates that two watermen rescued the priest, and that one of them (John Roche) concealed him in his house, until he had recovered; for he was much hurt by the fall and had broken his right leg and right arm.
Although William Watson escaped, Margaret Ward and John Roche were to win the crown of martyrdom instead. The rope, by means of which William Watson had obtained his liberty, was seen by the jailer, who convinced that Margaret Ward alone could have brought it to the priest, proceeded to secure her arrest early next day. She was found by the justices and constables, on the point of departing in order to change her lodgings. Thereupon she was arrested, thrown into prison and loaded with irons. Father Robert Southwell, in a letter to Father General Claudio Aquaviva, dated 31 August, 1588, further describes her sufferings.
" She was flogged and hung up by the wrists, the tips of her toes only touching the ground, for so long a time, that she was crippled and paralysed, but these sufferings greatly strengthened the glorious Martyr for her last struggle."
After eight days she was brought to trial at Newgate on 26 August, where she cheerfully admitted that she had furnished the means by which William Watson had eluded the persecutors. Threats were employed to induce her to disclose the whereabouts of the priest; but they were all in vain. Various reasons are assigned for her condemnation. Venerable Henry Walpole in his Relation says that she was "condemned for giving of two shillings unto a priest at Bridewell"; while in the Relation of the Penkevels it is said that "[She was] condemned for bringing a rope to a priest being prisoner in Bridewell, who by that means escaped". Liberty was offered to her, if she would ask pardon of the Queen's majesty and promise to go to church. In reply, Margaret Ward refused to ask pardon for an offence against the Queen, which she had not committed, and expressed her belief that the Queen herself, if she had the compassion of a woman, would have done as much under similar circumstances. With regard to going to church, she had been convinced for many years that it was not lawful to do so, and she would lay down many lives, if she had them, rather than act against her conscience or do anything against God and His holy religion. John Roche was also tried and condemned at the same sessions.
In conclusion an extract may be given from the postscript of a letter, written by Mr. James Younge, priest, from Douay, 9 February, 1595. "Margaret Ward, gentlewoman, was hanged at Tyburn, because she brought a rope, enwrapped in a clean shirt, to one Watson, a priest, being in Bridewell prison, out of which he escaped by the help of that rope.
"John Neele (Roche), an Irishman, was also executed with her at Tyburn. He, in a search, was found in that apparel which the priest had on, when he escaped out of prison. Neele being a servingman, had given the priest his own clothes the better to get away. He was examined what he was, for at the first they thought he had been Watson the priest, but he confessed that he was a Catholic and had holpen the priest to escape, for which he was executed at Tyburn."
Rev. Edwin H. Burton and J.H. Pollen, S.J., eds, Lives of the English Martyrs , Second Series, The Martyrs Declared Venerable, Volume I, 1583-1588 (1914), 430-438.
Both John Roche and Margaret Ward were beatified in 1929 and in 1970 Margaret Ward was one of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales canonized by Pope Paul VI.
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