Arrowsmith. At first mention, the word brings to mind the 80’s rock band of a similar sounding name, but to many a devout Catholic in 17th century England, it conjured the image of a brave martyr priest, hunted and eventually executed for his faith.
Brian Arrowsmith was born in 1585 in the small hamlet of Haydock, Lancashire near England’s west coast to devout Catholic parents.
Faith and perseverance ran in his blood. Because of their faith, both of his grandfathers were regulars at the local prison, and in one instance his grandfather Nicholas was forced to attend a protestant service, where he was promptly dragged back to prison after loudly singing the hymns in Latin.
Brian’s parents fared no better, and were often dragged to jail, leaving a young Brian to feed and care for his siblings. Though his family came from noble stock, the perpetual fines soon drove them to destitution and near starvation. During this hardship, Brian never abandoned his faith, and by his teenage years, he began considering the priesthood; a vocation that meant certain imprisonment or martyrdom.
When he was 20, Edmund was able to sneak out of England to study at the College of Doui in France, a university now immortalized by the Douey Rheims Bible translation. While at Doui, Brian received the sacrament of confirmation, where he took the name Edmund, in honor of the martyr Edmund Campion, a name he was fittingly called for the rest of his life.
Edmund was ordained 1612 and was presented with an unenviable choice: instead of remaining in the comforts of Catholic France, Edmund chose instead to return to his native England and tend to his hunted flock.
Edmund spent the majority of his life ministering to his life in Lancashire, where the dangers were many.
Since Henry VIII’s split from Rome in the previous century, English Catholics faced a bleak choice: either renounce their faith for the Church of Henry or face certain harassment and persecution.
Elizabeth’s officials stirred public paranoia about an impending invasion from Catholic Spain, and cast Catholic citizens—especially priests—as agents of the Spanish crown.
A series of laws were enacted, including The Religion Act of 1580, which allowed for imprisonment of any person caught attending a Catholic mass, followed by the Jesuit Act in 1584, which ordered all Catholic priests to leave England or pledge allegiance to the Queen.
Edmund operated under a number of disguises and aliases, including that of a local merchant named “Mr. Ridley” and communicated the times and locations of secret masses to his congregants using secret code and hidden messages.
Fr. Edmund managed to sustain his cover for almost 10 years before he was discovered and arrested in 1622 under the charge of Jesuit act. Although Edmund braced for impending torture and execution was unexpectedly freed after King James ordered all imprisoned Catholics to be released, in a public relations effort to secure a marriage between his son and a Catholic French princess.
James’ abatement of persecution proved to temporary, however, yet Edmund managed to escape
imprisonment by continuing disguise and hiding in a series of safe houses fixed with “priest holes”, saying secret masses in a home or forest, always on alert for Elizabeth’s dreaded priest-hunters, who scoured the green valleys of Lancashire for hidden priests and faithful Catholics, with handsome reward at stake.
Continuing in the path of St. Edmund Campion, Arrowsmith secretly joined the Jesuit order in 1624.
Despite constant danger, the priest was renowned for his sharp wit, humility, and care for his flock. He was known to spare his coat to the homeless in the dead of winter, and never shied from visiting fellow imprisoned Catholics, while under one of his many guises.
In summer of 1628, Edmund was attending a clandestine meeting with two fellow priests at the Blue Anchor Inn—a pub owned by undercover Catholics—when he was approached by his relative, also Catholic, who asked the priest to preside over his secret wedding. There was one major issue: this man’s bride was also his cousin, a union which the Church simply could not recognize. When Edmund refused, his relative—in a fit of rage—stormed to the nearest constable’s office to report the whereabouts of the fugitive priest.
Edmund attempted to flee the safe house on horseback, and led the priest-hunters on a daring chase through the wooded thickets and hedge-rowed fields of the Lancashire countryside, until ultimate capture after his horse refused to jump over a drainage ditch.
Edmund was imprisoned and speedily tried and sentenced to death. Upon sentencing, he made his final confession to a fellow prisoner and martyr St. John Southworth. On August 28, 1628, Fr. Edmund Brian Arrowsmith was hung, drawn, and quartered before a crowd in Lancaster.
Before his execution, it is claimed he said the following: “Be witnesses with me that I die a constant Roman Catholic and for Christ’s sake; let my death be an encouragement to your going forward in the Catholic religion.”
Edmund was canonized in 1970 by Pope Paul VI, and is venerated at St. Oswald’s Church in Ashton, England, where his entire hand is preserved as a relic; a constant reminder of his steady leadership, faithfulness, and courage.