Martyrdom

The_Manner_of_Execution_at_Tyburn

While Ralph waited for the date of his execution he wrote to his friends outside of the Tower; these letters reveal a great calmness and eloquence, courage and impatience for the martyrs crown to come. From among those condemned Lord Burghley chose three to die on Saturday 25th November. Edward Campion from the Jesuits; Ralph Sherwin and Alexander Briant from Douai and the English College. The execution was they postponed until the 29th of November, before finally being moved to Friday 1st December 1581.

It was a cold and wet day. Ralph was brought to Coleharbour Tower where he met the others to be executed with him. A guard who had been reconciled with the Church brought them a strengthening drink and Ralph chatted with the Protestant ministers who were present, and they later vouched  for his innocence. As the three priests were called out they embraced for the last time.

A large crowd had gathered outside the tower. Ralph and Briant were strapped together to one hurdle pulled by a horse, Campion to another. They were then dragged through the mud and rain the three miles to Tyburn reciting hymns and psalms whilst the crowd shouted insults. At Tyburn the crowd was larger than had ever been seen before at an execution. Campion was the first to win the martyrs crown followed by Ralph. William Allen, his cousins husband, provides an eye-witness account highlighting the calm joy with which Ralph approached death. Mounting the scaffold he was full of joy and exultation, giving thanks to God for so great a benefit. He stood on the cart engrossed in silent prayer.

Ralph was given an opportunity to speak and took his stand on the ladder and made a most powerful address to the people, praising each person of the Trinity before beginning to give an account of his faith before being cut off by Sir Francis Knowles who demanded that he confess his treason. Ralph professed his innocence and when further pressed replied:

“I have no occasion to tell a lie: it is a case where my soul is at stake; and although in this short time of mortal life I am to undergo the infamy and punishment of a traitor, I make no doubt of my future happiness through Jesus Christ, in whose death, passion and blood I only trust.”

When pushed yet further by Sir Francis Ralph boldly answered:

“If to be a Catholic only, if to be a perfect Catholic, be to be a traitor, then am I a traitor.”

Being then forbidden to speak further he added only:

“I forgive all who, either by general presumption or particular error, have procured my death.”

Finally he was asked to pray for the Queen and he said that he did so. On being asked which Queen he prayed for Ralph replied:

“Yea, for Elizabeth, Queen, I now at this instant pray my Lord God to make her His servant in this life, and after this life co-heir with Jesus Christ.”

This caused great objection that he meant for the Queen to become a papist to which he replied:

“God forbid otherwise!”

He then put his head into the noose and with a happy countenance and a voice of exultation repeated over and over again until he could speak no more,

“Iesu, Iesu, Iesu, esto mihi Iesus!”

(Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, be thou unto me Jesus!)

Thus Saint Ralph Sherwin of Rodsley died at Tyburn on 1st December 1581 at the age of thirty-one. He was the first student of the English College to die for his priesthood. He was beatified on 29th December 1886 by Pope Leo XIII and canonized on 25th October 1970 by Pope Paul VI as one of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales. His feast day is celebrated on 1st December, the day of his martyrdom.

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