On February 4 1560, three Irish bishops were officially summoned to take the oath of supremacy. Only one of them, Archbishop Bodkin of Tuam, gave his assent, the other two, Thomas Leverous, Bishop of Kildare and William Walsh, Bishop of Meath refused. Bishop Leverous based his opposition to affirming that Queen Elizabeth I was 'supreme governor' of the Church on the grounds that a woman was precluded from exercising any such authority and he was deprived of his see, retiring to Limerick to become a teacher. This left only the Cistercian Bishop of Meath, William Walsh, who had already established a reputation as an uncompromising opponent of the Reformation, to try to continue the fight. He had been appointed by the Catholic Queen Mary in 1554 but the accession of her Protestant half-sister Elizabeth just four years later changed everything. By July of 1560 Walsh had been arrested and began a long period of imprisonment which ended only when he escaped in 1572. He eventually made his way to Spain where he died on January 4, 1577. While he did not die a martyr's death on the scaffold, Bishop Walsh was a courageous confessor of the faith who endured much suffering. The account of his life below has been taken from Myles O'Reilly's 1869 collection Memorials of those who Suffered for the Catholic Faith in Ireland in the 16th, 17th and 18th Centuries:
WILLIAM WALSH, BISHOP OF MEATH, CONFESSOR.
During the reign of Henry VIII, Meath had been disgraced by an apostate bishop. Dr. Edward Staples, an Englishman, had been appointed, in 1530, at the request of Henry VIII, Bishop of Meath. As to the early years of his episcopate little is known. In 1534, he fled to England, in order to escape the anger of Silken Thomas, then in rebellion, to whom he had made himself obnoxious. In 1535, he returned to the diocese of Meath, deeply infected with the principles of the Reformation; and from that time he was a willing assistant of Dr. Browne, the intruder into the see of Dublin, in the work of despoiling the monasteries and endeavouring to force the new heresy on the Irish people.
Mary ascended the throne in 1553, and in April, 1554, Dr. Dowdall, Archbishop of Armagh, lately returned from banishment, and Dr. William Walsh, received a commission to proceed against immoral ecclesiastics, and to depose such as were married and impenitent. By their authority, Edward Staples was, in June of the same year, removed from the diocese of Meath, deprived of his benefice, and suspended from all ecclesiastical jurisdiction, and this Dr. William Walsh was afterward duly appointed Bishop of Meath.
Sir James Ware says that he was a native of Waterford; but another authority, who certainly had better opportunities of information, namely, John alias Malachy Hortrey, a Cistercian monk of the Abbey of Holy Cross, in a manuscript treatise entitled De Cistertiensium Hibernorum Viris Illustribus, states that William Walsh was born at Dunboyne, county Meath, joined the Cistercian order, and lived in the Abbey of Bective, previous to its suppression. Whatever doubt there may be about the place of his birth and his early history, there is none whatever as to his eminent virtues, distinguished abilities, and the heroic fortitude with which he bore numerous and prolonged sufferings for the faith. His unbending orthodoxy and opposition to the innovations of Henry VIII. and Edward VI. marked him out for promotion after the accession of Mary, and accordingly we find him associated with the zealous primate. Dr. Dowdall, in the commission to drive from the sanctuary all such as were faithless to their trust. A congé d'élire was issued to the Archdeacon and clergy of Meath for the election of Dr. Walsh, and, after having received the royal assent and the confirmation of the Holy See, he addressed the following petition to Mary and Philip:
“Petition of William Walsh, stating that he was elected bishop by the chapter and clergy of the bishopric of Meath, and had for his consecration their graces’ letters-patent ; but, not having his lawful consecration from the Universal Catholic Church, like other bishops, he could not, with good conscience, be consecrated; and stating that he was sent into Ireland at his own cost, by commission, to deprive certain married bishops and priests, and was so occupied in execution of this office that he could not attend to his consecration. He therefore prays a grant of the temporalities of the see from the date of the deprivation of the late incumbent, which was the feast of Saints Peter and Paul last past."
On the receipt of this petition the king and queen wrote to the Lord Deputy, the Chancellor, and the Council of Ireland, thus:
" We send you herein enclosed a supplication exhibited to us by our loving subject, Dr. Walsh, Bishop of Meath elect. He desires the temporalities of the bishopric from the time of the deprivation of the late incumbent. Our pleasure is that you shall give order to make forth an utterlemagne, under our Great Seal, whereby 'he may enjoy the whole temporalities of the bishopric from the time of the amotion or deprivation of the late incumbent." — Oct. 18th, 1st and 2d Mary and Philip.
Dr. Walsh was consecrated about the close of 1554, and immediately applied himself with zeal and energy to reform abuses, and to heal the wounds which during the last two reigns had been inflicted on faith, morals, and discipline. The period of his usefulness was, however, destined to be brief, and he had time merely to stimulate his priests and to fortify his diocese when the gathering storm burst over the Irish Church, and sacrificed the Bishop of Meath among its first and noblest victims. Queen Mary died in 1558, and was succeeded by Elizabeth, who at once publicly embraced the reformed tenets, and proceeded to have them enforced on all. In 1560, an act was passed, under the deputyship of the Earl of Suffolk, which ordered all ecclesiastical persons, judges, officers, justices, mayors, and all the other queen's officers, to take the oath of supremacy under penalty of forfeiture, and also enacted that if any person should, by writing, printing, teaching, preaching, by express words, deed, or act, maintain any foreign spiritual jurisdiction, he should for the first offence forfeit all his goods and suffer one year's imprisonment, for the second offence should incur the penalty of praemunire, and for the third be deemed guilty of high treason. (2d Eliz. cap. i.)
It was now the fidelity of Dr. Walsh was tested to the utmost. Had he, like a few of his contemporaries, sacrificed conscience to expediency, worldly comfort and ephemeral honour were soon to have been his portion. But he felt he had a higher authority to obey than Queen Elizabeth, and hence he repudiated her pretensions to rule the church, and guarded his flock, even at the peril of his life, against her parliamentary creed. Ware thus narrates the event:
"After the return of the Earl of Sussex to Ireland, letters came from her majesty signifying her pleasure for a general meeting of the clergy of Ireland, and the establishment of the Protestant religion through the several dioceses of this kingdom. Among the bishops, the Bishop of Meath was very zealous for the Romish Church; not content with what offers her majesty had proposed, but very much enraged, (after the assembly had dispersed themselves,) he fell to preach against the Common Prayer in his diocese at Trim, which was newly come over and ordered to be observed, for which the lord lieutenant confined him till he acquainted her majesty with it, who sent over her orders to clap him up in prison. Within a few months after, persisting in the same mind, he was deposed, and the bishopric of Meath was about two years vacant, till, by her majesty's provision, Hugh Brady became Walsh's successor."
On the 16th of July, 1565, Adam Loftus, Protestant Archbishop of Armagh, writes to Sir William Cecil:
" The XIIIth of this monthe by vertu of our commission for cawsis ecclesiastycall, we committed to the castell of Dublyn, doctor Welcke, late byssippe of Methe, there to remayne untill the queenes majesties pleasure were knowne. He refused the othe and to answer such articles as we required of him; and besides that, ever sithens the last parliament, he hath manifestly contemned and openly showed himself to be a mislyker of all the queenes majesties proceedings; he openly protested before all the
people the same day he was before us, that he would never communicate or be present (by his will) where the service should be ministrid, for it was against his conscience and (as he thought) against God's woord. If it shall seeme good to your honour and the rest of her majesties most honourable counseyle, in myne opinion, it wer fit he showld be sent to England, and peradventure by conferring with the lerned bishoppes there, he might be brought to sum conformitie; he is one of great creadit amongst his countrimen, and uppon whome (as tutchinge cawsis of religion) thay wholy depend."
As no pretext could be devised for leading him to the scaffold, he once more received the culprit's chains, (he bore the scars of them to his tomb) and was reconducted to his former prison; this was "a subterraneous dungeon, damp and noisome — not a ray of light penetrated thither; and for thirteen years this was his unvarying abode." During all that time his food was of the coarsest kind, and, with the exception of rare intervals, when the intercession of some influential friends obtained a momentary relaxation, he was allowed no occupation that could cheer the tedium of his imprisonment. In all this lengthened martyrdom, prayer was his resource, and, as he himself subsequently avowed, he oftentimes passed whole days and nights overwhelmed with heavenly consolations, so that his dungeon seemed transformed into a paradise of delights. To preclude the possibility of idleness, he procured a bed made of twisted cords, and whensoever his mind was fatigued with prayer, he applied himself to untie those cords, and often was he well wearied with the exertion before he could reunite them to compose himself to sleep.
His persecutors, overcome by his constancy, and finding his fervour in spiritual contemplation a continual reproach to their own wickedness, at length, about Christmas, 1572, connived at his escape. Sailing from our shores, his only regret was to abandon the field of his spiritual labours, and to leave his flock defenceless amid the many enemies that now compassed its destruction. He says himself, (letter of July 5th, 1573,) "I was snatched from that place by the liberality and care of my friends, and having met with the opportunity of a ship of Brittany, I threw myself into it, not heeding my age, which was above sixty years, or my state of health, deeming it safer to trust my life to the danger of the sea than again to experience the cruelty of the enemies of the Catholic religion." For sixteen days he was tossed on the waves by a violent storm, and was at length driven in shipwreck on the coast of France. Weighed down with the infirmities which he had contracted in prison, and with the burden of more than sixty years, he was compelled to remain for six months unknown and abandoned in Nantes. At length, receiving aid from the nuncio, he proceeded to Paris, and thence to Spain.
The closing years of his life were spent in Alcalá. A noble Spanish lady received him into her house, and attended him as though he were an angel from heaven. The sores which yet remained from his dungeon chains she kissed as the trophies of his martyrdom. She would allow none but herself to wait on him, and on her knees she usually dressed his wounds and ministered to his wants. From this asylum of charity, thus providentially prepared for him, he passed to the convent of the Cistercian fathers in the same city, and there, on the 4th of January, 1577, he happily closed his earthly life, which, as many attested, he had never sullied by any stain of mortal sin.His remains were placed in the Collegiate Church of Saint Secundinus, and a monument erected over them by the Bishop of Grenada, with the following inscription:
"Here lieth William Walsh, a Cistercian monk, and Bishop of Meath, who, after thirteen years imprisonment, and many labours for the Catholic faith, at last died in exile at Alcalá, on the day before the nones of January, 1577”
He is held in veneration by his Cistercian brothers as a holy martyr in the cause of the Catholic faith, and his memory lives in benediction in the diocese he adorned.
M. O'Reilly, Memorials of those who Suffered for the Catholic Faith in Ireland in the 16th, 17th and 18th Centuries, (New York 1869), 25-31.
The name of Bishop William Walsh was among those submitted to Rome for consideration and he is number 4 on the Official List of Irish Martyrs (1918).
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