I approach once again my annual lecture on the religious poetry of John Donne. I will talk, again, about the third satire, and its difficult admonitions to seek true religion, while doubting wisely, dismissal of the available choices, and (to crown all this), earnest insistence that you must hold the truth you find at any cost, even if it means your death.
However eager to encourage others to martyrdom, Donne chose to opt out of it himself, while trying to establish that in his special cases like his own, ‘not to be martyrs is a martyrdom’.
A Catholic martyr local in time and place to the young Donne is Edmund Geninges, whose avid and successful pursuit of martyrdom is told in his brother’s biography, The life and death of Mr. Edmund Geninges priest, crowned with martyrdome at London, the 10. day of Nouember, in the yeare M.D.XCI.
Whoever drew up the title page had read carelessly: Geninges died on Friday 10th December 1592. The print house over in St Omers also over-inked the woodcuts provided for the volume, at least in the EEBO copy – you can see squeezes of ink forced off the side of the prints. But the resultant crepuscular images are very appropriate for a story of darkness on the earth, and for a young man imprisoned in his last days by Topcliffe in the notorious ‘Little Ease’ cell in Newgate, in complete darkness with no room either to stand or lie down. (My composite image above is of his arrest and trial, and then his execution.)
Jennings was born in 1566 in Staffordshire. His biographer leaves such details unspecified, for obvious reasons, though the family were protestants. His brother-biographer tells instead of Edmund being born with a tooth, to the discomfort of his wet nurse, and the prophecy made about this by a venerable Catholic doctor of divinity who happens to be in the house, to the effect that the tooth meant that the boy would travel, and return to bring comfort to all. There’s even a tenebrous woodcut of the miraculous infant Edmund biting the wet nurse’s nipple.
Jennings’ mother was a widow, and when he was 16, she allowed him to enter the service of a gentleman who was looking for a ‘handsome youth’ to act as his page. This man (Richard Sherwood) was a Catholic, travelling in England to perform secular, quasi-legal services for Catholics, before escaping danger abroad. Without a father of his own, Jennings was immensely susceptible to his master’s influence, and when Sherwood entered a religious order, Jennings begged him to sponsor him in training for the priesthood.
Jennings had his way, as he did throughout his lonely and self-destructive course. He studied so intensely at Rheims, especially in his ‘spiritual exercises’, that he became ill. An attempt to send him back to England without a priesthood, for the sake of his health, foundered when Jennings prayed his way back to better vigour while waiting for passage.
Poor Jennings was so devout, and so ill, that he was allowed special papal dispensation to become a priest at just 23. Without his priesthood, he might miss out on his martyrdom, and he was clearly ill enough that they didn’t want to disappoint by condemning him to a merely natural death. At the thought of his status and what it meant, Jennings succumbed to a shaking that lasted till his death, and duly set off to England, ‘like a sheep to the slaughter’, as his brother-biographer rather unguardedly writes.
After being attacked by local pirates off Scarborough, Jennings landed, like Count Dracula would, under a cliff near Whitby. He has a companion priest with him, they part to make converts, with Jennings taking the long road to London, and to death.
He has learned that all his family are dead except a brother, who is in London. Jennings knew him only as a blonde haired child, eight or nine years before. After a long search in London has almost been despaired of, Jennings sees a dark haired youth in a brown cloak, thinks nothing of it, goes to pray, is suddenly convinced it was his brother, and miraculously runs into the same youth later on that same day, and it is his brother. John Jennings, talking to a man who has introduced himself as ‘Ironmonger’, and who opportunely discovers that the two of them are relatives, repudiates his brother as a ‘notable papist’. ‘Ironmonger’ confesses that he really is that Catholic convert brother, but sees that he cannot do anything with John, who (retrospectively narrating this after his own eventual conversion) says that Edmund went his way to convert souls, while his brother went off to ‘meditate how to corrupt his own’.
Did Protestant John Jennings betray his brother? He does not say so. But Edmund was swiftly caught, serving mass at the house of Swithin Wells in Holborne. Probably the house was already watched: the awful Richard Topcliffe arrived, and caught two priests, and a congregation of ten. Topcliffe was pushed down the stairs, breaking his head. Violently intemperate though he was, he seems to have allowed the mass to finish rather than start another struggle. His ghastly triumph comes when “They carried them all to Newgate, and were not ashamed to leade M. Geninges through the streetes in his Priestly vestements, for greater shew of this theyr insulting triumph, and the more to make him a laughing stocke to all the beholders, who are commonly ready (as they well knew) exceedingly to scoffe at such an vnwonted spectacle”.
Swithin Wells was not actually in his house at the time of the arrests, but courageously tried to get his wife released, talking himself into trouble as he did so. This has to be authentic dialogue: the ‘Justice began to storme when he found him so resolute, and therefore told him in playne termes, he came time inough to tast of the sauce, although he were ignorant how the meate savoured’.
Imprisoned, Jennings was seen as young enough to be broken. They use ridicule:
“especially M. Geninges was scorned and reviled, because he was a very young man, and had angred them with disputes. Nay the more to make him a scoffe to the people, they vested him agayne, not with his priestly garments, but (almost as King Herod and Pilates souldiours did our Sauiour) with a ridiculous fooles coate, which they found in M. Welles his house, and when they had so altered him, they laughing told him, he was more fit in that attire to be presented to the Queene for a jester, then to a Nune for a Confessor.”
Jennings is offered mercy in return for renunciation, but he says that he cannot accept the Queen as spiritual head of the church. He is kept in ‘little Ease’ until his execution. The others die at Tyburn, Jennings and Wells suffer in Gray’s Inn Fields opposite Wells’ house. The death is brutal, and best told in the author’s own words. Jennings confesses his priesthood, and says he would follow the same course at the hazard of a thousand lives:
“Which wordes M. Topliffe hearing, being much troubled therwith, scarce giving him leave to say a Pater noster, bad the Hangman turne the ladder, which in an instant being done, presently he caused him to be cut downe, the Blessed martyr in the sight of all the beholders, being yet able to stand on his feete, & casting his eyes towardes heaven, his senses were very little astonished, in so much that the Hangman was forced to trippe up his heeles from under him to make him fall on the blocke. And being dismembred, through very payne, in the hearing of many, with a lowde voyce he uttered these wordes, Oh it smartes; which M. Welles hearing, replyed thus: Alas sweete soule thy payne is great indeed, but almost past, pray for me now most holy Saynt, that mine may come. He being ripped up, & his bowelles cast into the fire, if credit may be given to hundreds of People standing by, and to the Hangman himselfe, the blessed Martyr uttered (his hart being in the executioners hand) these wordes, Sancte Gregori ora pro me, which the Hangman hearing, with open mouth swore this damnable oath; Gods woundes, See his hart is in my hand, and yet Gregory in his mouth; ô egregious Papist! Thus the afflicted Martyr even to the last of his torments cryed for the ayde & succour of Saynts, and especially of S. Gregory his deuoted patron, and our countries Apostle that by his intercession he might passe the sharpnes of that torment.
And thus with barbarons cruelty our thrice happy Martyr finished the course of his mortall life, and purchased no doubt a crowne of immortality in the glorious Court of heaven.”
After this ghastly scene, the quarters of the body are loaded onto the hurdle to be taken back to Newgate for boiling (before being placed on London Bridge, or wherever the authorities thought to put these mementos of their justice). The crowd follows, and Jennings’ first miracle occurs: “Amongst the rest there was a Virgin who had wholy dedicated her selfe to the service of God”. She is seeking a relic, and the text marginally annotates what happens with ‘A Miracle’:
“And comming to the prison, the people flocked togeather to behold the fresh bleeding quarters, according to theyr wonted custome, when any such thing is to be seene, before they were carryed vp to boyling, desiring the executioner to shew them peece by peece, that so their curiosity might give censure (as they said) whether he was fat or leane, blacke or fayre. To satisfie theyr request, by chance Bull the Hangman tooke up one of his forequarters by the arme, which when he had shewed to the People, he contemptuosly flung it downe into the baskett agayne wherin it lay, and tooke up the head that they might see his face. And (as God would have it) both arme and hand of the foresayd quarter hung out over the sides of the basket, which the said virgin espying, drew neare to touch it, and approaching warily with feare lest any should take notice of her so doing, having a determination and vehement desire to touch his holy & annoynted thumbe which then appeared next her, if it were possible; and because it was a part of his hand which so often had elevated the immaculate body of our B. Saviour Jesus Christ, she purposed not to leave it unhandled for her last farewell.
This her determination and purpose she presently performed, and taking the thumbe in her hand, by the instinct of Almighty God, she gave it a little pull, only to shew her loue and desire of having it. The sequele was miraculous: for behold she not imagining any such matter would have followed, by the divine power, the thumbe was instantly loosed from his hand, and being separated she carryed it away safely both flesh, skinne, and bone without sight of any, to her great joy and admiration. O strange and miraculous separation! O benefit past all requitall! The thumbe of a man newly dead and quartered, to depart from the hand, as it were, sponte sua, of it owne accord, to pleasure a friend, that loved him so entirely, and that in the middest of so many hundreds of people, of a different Religion, yet not espyed by any. But the strangnes therof I leave to your pious consideration, confessing my selfe altogeather unworthy, and not any wayes able to explicate the worthines of the same.”
John Jennings had ‘rejoiced’ at the death of his brother, though (counter to the ODNB account, which says he was present) he by his own account “neglected, yea rather scorned to go to see his brother, eyther imprisoned, arraigned, or martyred; such was the froward blindnes of his heresie”. But he continued in his bad courses of life for just ten days, until a night came when he fell into reflections which contrasted his late brother’s life with his own, and converted.
John Jennings went abroad, and became a Franciscan friar. He wrote his brother’s biography and published it in 1614. Edmund Jennings was canonized in 1970.
As for the unspeakable Topcliffe, here’s another of his executions of 1592, that of the priest Thomas Pormort (from the ODNB):
“During the proceedings Pormort informed the court not only of Topcliffe’s proposed deal, but also about the bizarre sexual fantasies with which his tormentor had regaled him: fantasies which focused on the person of Queen Elizabeth, whose legs, breasts, and belly Topcliffe claimed to have frequently fondled. Pormort was condemned to death. On the day of his execution in St Paul's Churchyard, 20 February 1592, he was ‘enforced to stand in his shirt almost two hours upon the ladder in Lent time upon a very cold day’ while Topcliffe ranted at him in a vain attempt to make him retract the accusations he had made in court.”