Of the three hundred and fifteen of our Catholic ancestors who sacrificed their lives for the Catholic faith in England and Wales during the religious persecution of the 16th and 17th centuries, twenty six can be considered as “Martyrs of the North” as they were born, laboured or suffered within the confines of Northumberland and Durham. To return to England as a priest was high treason punishable by hanging, drawing and quartering; to shelter a priest was a felony punishable by imprisonment, fines, confiscation of property and in many cases, death. It was only heroes and heroines who could face such ordeals – these are our martyrs.
During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries England saw a period of turbulence and religious persecution. (For a comprehensive history of this period see History of the Diocese written by Rev. David Milburn.) Many Catholics in the North were imprisoned under appalling conditions. In Newcastle the prison at Newgate and the castle in Durham were dirty, dark and full of disease. Prisoners were kept shackled to a wall in an overcrowded, roofless, cold and often flooded cell.
Some like John Boste for example (one of the 40 English Martyrs) were taken to London to the Tower where they suffered brutal torture. Then they were brought back physically broken to face execution in Durham or Newcastle. Execution was barbaric – by hanging, drawing and quartering.
In 1590 four priests were executed together at Durham; their names were Edmund Duke, Richard Hill, John Holliday and John Hogg. An interesting legend suggests that;
“After the execution, it was noticed that a small stream near the site had completely dried up, and so the area is known as ‘Dryburn’ to this day.”