The Durham Martyrs
The time of the Tudor kings and queens was a difficult time for religious people. Henry VIII broke away from the Catholic church and started what is now called the Protestant Church, or Church of England. Part of this involved taking away the wealth and closing down Finchale Priory which fell into ruins.
Mary I was Henry’s daughter from his marriage to Catherine of Aragon who was a Catholic. She tried to reverse her fathers changes and executed so many people for being Protestants that she earned the nickname “Bloody Mary”
When Bloody Mary died she was followed by her half-sister Elizabeth I who was a Protestant, and she started persecuting Catholics. Nobody was allowed to say the Catholic Mass in its traditional form, and anyone who tried to do so was charged with treason, the worst crime possible.
Three Durham priests, John Boste, George Swallowell and John Ingram continued to say the traditional Mass despite the dangers. They were hunted all over the country, often hiding in carefully hidden “priest holes” in the houses of sympathisers. At last, after many narrow escapes, John Boste was taken to Waterhouses, the house of William Claxton, near Durham, betrayed by a man called Eglesfield [or Ecclesfield], on 5 July, 1593. The place is still visited by Catholic pilgrims. From Durham he was taken in chains to London, so that Queen Elizabeth could question him for herself. He was tortured on the rack in the Tower of London so brutally that he was permanently crippled, but remained “resolute, bold, joyful, and pleasant” and refused to give up his Catholic faith.
Eventually he was sent back to Durham for the July Assizes 1594 for a show-trial that confirmed his guilt and sentenced him to the most severe penalty the law could inflict. He was sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered. Swallowell and Ingram suffered a similar fate.
John Ingram was executed at Gateshead. According to one account his executioner was “little more than a boy” and does not seem to have had very much experience as a hangman. The rope broke twice and on the third time Ingram begged to have the whole process speeded up. George Swallowell was executed in Darlington marketplace, and his boiled intestines were buried there.
John Boste was executed at Dryburn in Durham, opposite the site of the present-day Durham County Hall on 24th July 1594. Reading the account of his death it seems that the executioner was keen to get the whole thing done as quickly as possible. A gallows was set up with a ladder leaning against it . Boste recited the Angelus while climbing the ladder, then the execution was carried out with unusual speed and brutality. The noose was put around his neck and the ladder turned round so that he fell a short distance then remained dangling and kicking.
Almost immediately the executioner cut the rope and Boste fell upright on his feet. He is said to have remained standing as the remainder of the operation took place. He was castrated and his severed genitals thrown on a fire. His abdomen was slit open and his intestines spilled out. Finally the executioner stabbed Boste in the chest and cut out his heart. As the dying man lay on the ground the executioner cut off his head and showed it to the crowd with the traditional words of “Here is the head of a traitor!” Finally Boste’s body was cut into four pieces.
Local legend says that the place name “Dryburn” came about because Boste is supposed to have said that if he was truly innocent then the burn (a small stream nearby) would run dry. There is no record of this in the account written at the time and it may have been added later as evidence of a miraculous event needed to justify making Boste a saint. An alternative explanation is that Dryburn sounds very much like Tyburn, the well-known name of the place of execution in London.
Boste was canonised by Pope Paul VI in 1970. Today a memorial commemorating the Durham Martyrs stands near the crossroads at the bottom of the new Dryburn housing estate.