Two men are accused of dissent because of their Catholic faith. This article tells the story of their capture, their escape and their eventual fate.
John Thewlis and Roger Wrennall: Two Lancaster Martyrs Who Got Away (well, almost)
Posted by Tim Hoare
The stories of the Lancaster Catholic Martyrs in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries often seem to follow a very similar pattern: a clinging or conversion to the Old Faith, priests trained abroad to return to England and die a horrible death for defying the Anglican Establishment, and a willingness, even an eagerness, to suffer as Christ on the Cross suffered. There is drama in the stories but, as we do not know great detail about many of these people, whether men or women, the focus tends to be on that final suffering rather than on just who the Martyrs were and what they were like as individuals. The way the stories are told can reinforce this focus on pure piety and the nature of Catholic faith without giving us much more.
To say this is in no way to belittle the courage, conviction and faith of the Martyrs, but it is good for our historical understanding if we can begin to sketch in some of the background detail, to give the Martyrs flesh and life. In the story of two linked Martyrs, John Thewlis and Roger Wrennall, an effort has been made to give the picture a little more depth, however Sketchily. The events narrated and discussed do not represent original source research and investigation, but attempt a synthesis of the details in the sources that exist.
When we look at the various printed sources for these two men we can notice immediately the fact that their names differ in spelling. John Thewlis sometimes appears as John Thulis or Thules, and Roger Wrennall as Roger Wrenno. This probably means that authorities and officials who dealt with them heard their names spoken rather than written and wrote down what they thought was the correct spelling. There is no doubt from the sources, however, that we are looking at the same two men. In this account we have chosen to spell the names as Thewlis and Wrennall.
Thewlis maintained his stand and the authorities maintained theirs.
John Thewlis – his background and motivation
John Thewlis was born in Upholland in the mid to late 1560s, probably 1568. Whether his family were Old Believers or whether he was converted to Catholicism is uncertain, but he arrived at the English College in Reims on 25th May 1583, receiving his tonsure from no less a figure than Cardinal Louis de Guise on 23rd September of the same year. He went to Rome on 27th march 1590 and was ordained a priest. Thewlis was then sent back to England to begin his ministry and, if necessary, risk arrest and eventual martyrdom. So far the story runs on familiar lines.
Back to England….
When he arrived back in England in 1592, Thewlis was soon arrested and imprisoned in Wisbech Castle, Cambridgeshire. How long he was held there and in what conditions we cannot say, but he was eventually released, some sources say he escaped, and resumed his life as a Catholic priest. Does this mean that he made himself outwardly agreeable to his captors, or that they were incompetent or could be bribed? The question arises again later in Thewlis’s story.
….and to Lancashire
Thewlis now began travelling in Lancashire, preaching and administering the sacraments where he could. Local traditions, particularly in the areas of Chorley and Whalley, suggest that he was highly successful in this work, and it is at this point that Roger Wrennall comes into the picture.
Wrennall and Thewlis form a team
We have less detail about Wrennall’s background than we do about Thewlis, but it seems that he must have been a hand weaver by occupation, either from Kirkham or Chorley, sources differing on location. Wrennall attached himself to Thewlis as a travelling companion, probably dealing with the daily practicalities of a priest’s life on the move. Maybe he too had abilities as a lay preacher and had a good working knowledge of the local people, whom to approach, whom to avoid, where to go. It does seem that for a time Thewlis and Wrennall made an effective team, perhaps too effective in the long run.
He ascended to the gallows, was hanged and, amazingly, the rope broke and Wrennall fell to the ground
Betrayed and imprisoned
Eventually their activities came to the attention of William Stanley, 6th Earl of Derby, and it is possible that they were betrayed by a cousin of Thewlis. They were arrested and sent to Lancaster Castle, their trials set for the period of the Lent Assizes in 1616. There is some calendar disagreement over the year date but 1616 seems most likely to be correct.
It is now that the story of the two men takes another twist. Somehow Thewlis and Wrennall contrived to make an escape attempt from Lancaster Castle. Were they confined together or was Wrennall adept at passing messages and fooling the gaolers, whose regime may have been both harsh and incompetent, as could earlier have been the case at Wisbech?
An escape – nearly
The attempt, however contrived, was momentarily successful. Thewlis and Wrennall managed to get out of the Castle and wandered about the Lancaster area under cover of darkness, but seemingly had no idea where they were going. It is possible that they got to the River Lune and thought that by following it they might somehow reach Whalley. If so, their knowledge of local geography was woefully lacking. The next morning found them still close to the town of Lancaster and they were easily recaptured and incarcerated. Some readers may wonder what was the motive behind their botched escape. Could it have been fear of death, a failure of nerve at becoming martyrs to the old Faith? The answer must surely be no. Their subsequent story shows great courage and steadfastness, so their motive was probably to try and continue their ministry for as long as possible. A dead priest cannot administer the sacraments to a waiting congregation, cannot preach, cannot convert.
The gallows loom
From this point on, the story of Thewlis and Wrennall continues to its tragic and inevitable conclusion on 18th March 1616, though some attempts were made to turn Thewlis away from his Catholic position. The renowned Puritan rector William Leigh of Standish was brought in to dispute with him but to no avail. Thewlis’s Godson, a Mr Ashton (or Assheton) of Lever, meanwhile offered him £20 a year to renounce his faith, again with no response other than a refusal. Thewlis was therefore condemned, because of his Catholic priesthood, as a traitor.
Why do you boggle at it?
Firm in faith
Yet even on the gallows he was invited to take an oath of renunciation and allegiance to the King, but still refused. The authorities demanded, “Why do you boggle at it?” Thewlis responded that if he were offered an oath containing nothing but civil allegiance to the King he would take it. Since the King was head of both Church and State, such a position was unacceptable. Thewlis maintained his stand and the authorities maintained theirs. He was duly hung, drawn and quartered and his head fixed as an example and warning to others on Lancaster Castle walls. His quarters were meanwhile displayed at Lancaster, Preston, Wigan and Warrington. Even on the point of death he remained a formidable presence and is said to have converted four other prisoners charged as thieves.
Wrennall, at his trial, showed just as much determination in his stand. He was primarily condemned as a felon who had unlawfully assisted a priest. He ascended to the gallows, was hanged and, amazingly, the rope broke and Wrennall fell to the ground. Seeing this as a chance to force him to take an oath of renunciation, the authorities tried to apply psychological pressure. Wrennall, however, stated: “I am the same man I was, and in the same mind; use your pleasure with me.” He then ran up the ladder, having, he said, had a vision of the “good things of the Lord.” A new rope was brought and his execution reached its conclusion.
An end to the story
This brings us to the end of the story of Thewlis and Wrennall, though it clearly captured the popular imagination amongst local Catholic people. A poem was later composed about the two martyrs. It is dificult not to admire them, whether the listener to their story is a Catholic or not, and the account does resonate in the mind and heart as telling us about real persons. It is not just an enduring example of Catholic piety in the Penal Era.
REFERENCES & FURTHER READING
Billington, R.N. & Brownbill, J. (1910) St. Peter’s, Lancaster, a history. London: Sands & Co. Pages 39-40.
Billington’s Blog. Wednesday March 18 2009. Blessed John Thewlis and Roger Wrennall.
Andrews, W.E. (1826) Review of Fox’s Book of Martyrs. Vol. 3. London: W.E. Andrews. Pages 148-150. Available online.
Myerscough, J.A. (1958) A procession of Lancaster martyrs and confessors. Glasgow: Burns. Pages 123-126.
English Martyrs Church, the Sands, Whalley, Sunday 18 March 2012. Feature on Thulis and Wrenno. Online information from website of St. Mary’s Church, Chorley, JCW March 2012.
Wikipedia. Short article on Thulis and Wrenno
The poem about these martyrs, plus portions of a verse by Thewlis, has been printed by J. Hungerford Pollen in Acts of the English Martyrs. London, 1891. pages 194-207.