May 4, 2022

The Execution of the Carthusian Monks

The Execution of the Carthusian Monks

May 4, 1535. Carthusian monks are hanged, drawn, and quartered for their refusal to acknowledge King Henry VIII as the Supreme Head of the Church of England.


Cold Open

It’s December 29, 1170, in Canterbury, England.

Reginald Fitzurse, a knight of King Henry II, leads three fellow knights on horseback to Canterbury Cathedral. They are on their way to assassinate the highest-ranking religious official in England: the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket.

When they arrive, Reginald dismounts and draws his sword. He tells his companions he wants to drag Becket outside. He says they must not kill the man on holy ground.

Reginald pushes open the door of the great cathedral. Priests cower behind stone columns as Reginald and his men stride into the building. Reginald spots Becket at the high altar.

But the archbishop surprises the knights... He lunges forward knocking one of them to the ground. Reginald and the other two knights grab archbishop Becket and drag him to the door. But Becket clings to a column and refuses to let go. Defiantly, Becket screams if Reginald wants to kill him, he’ll have to do it in the church. So Reginald obliges.

Becket's body falls to the ground, and Reginald steps back, his swords losing blood. 

Another one of the knights draws his sword… and strikes Becket’s head, cleaving through the skull. Reginald and the others stand over Becket’s brutalized body, dip their swords in the archbishop’s pooling blood… and fling it onto the stones of Canterbury Cathedral.

Thomas Becket was a close friend of England’s monarch, King Henry II. But over time, the two became engaged in a bitter dispute for power, one that climaxed with Becket’s murder at the hands of several of the King’s knights. The question of King Henry’s complicity in the crime remains unanswered. Many believe the knights acted on their own to curry favor with the King; while others believe the King ordered the killing.

Either way, many of King Henry II’s subjects, and many in the Catholic Church, hold him responsible for the archbishop’s shocking murder in the cathedral. So the King takes steps to atone. He walks barefoot through the streets of Canterbury. And at the Cathedral, he is flogged before the shrine as penance.

But his atonement doesn't stop there. To get back in the good graces of the Catholic Church, he invites a group of highly devout French Monks to England for the first time. The Carthusians, as they’re known, will live in peace in England for centuries. But Henry II’s decision to bring them to English shores will have unintended consequences. Nearly 400 years later, the Carthusians will find themselves in a bitter dispute of their own with a different King Henry; Henry VIII. The Carthusians’ refusal to acknowledge this new Henry as the Supreme Head of the Church will make them martyrs, when Henry VIII has members of the Carthusian order hanged, drawn, and quartered on May 4th, 1535.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is May 4th: The Execution of the Carthusian Monks.

Act One: Henry VIII argues for Annulment

It’s November of 1528 in Bridewell Palace in London, England.

King Henry VIII stands before a gathering of English nobles. Today, the usually boisterous king is solemn and subdued. He has come to tell these nobles why his marriage to Queen Catherine of Aragon must be annulled.

Catherine of Aragon was originally married to Henry’s older brother, Arthur. But Arthur died shortly after their wedding. In 1509, when Henry became King, he happily married his dead brother’s former wife. But nineteen years later, Catherine still has not produced a male heir. Henry needs a legitimate male successor, and he believes his new lover, a woman named Anne Boleyn, can give him one. But to marry Anne, Henry must first rid himself of Catherine.

Henry takes in the crowd of nobles and then begins his speech. He talks of Catherine’s honor and grace. He says under different circumstances he would marry her all over again. And as Henry’s voice and passion rises, he draws in his audience. He never speaks of Anne Boleyn. Instead, he keeps his focus on religion and his duty to God.

Henry tells his nobles that he has discovered that he lives in a “detestable and abominable adultery.” Henry speaks of his poor, dead brother. Then, he calls on his knowledge of the Bible and shares Leviticus 20:21 with the crowd. Henry says, “If a man takes the wife of his brother, it is an unclean thing. He has uncovered his brother’s nakedness. They shall be childless.” Henry, seemingly heartbroken, tells those gathered that God must see his and Catherine’s marriage as foul, and that is why they have been unable to produce a healthy male child.

Nobles in attendance will say Henry’s speech was masterful, and many leave fully supporting the king’s desire to annul his near 20-year marriage. Henry is bolstered by the response from his nobles. He knows their support will go a long way toward convincing the real decision maker: Pope Clement VII.

Only the pope has the power to annul Henry’s marriage, which will grant him the right to marry Anne Boleyn. Henry likes his chances. He knows the pope wants to keep the bond between the Church and the Crown strong. Not to mention, Henry has a powerful political and religious figure in England backing him: the lord chancellor, Cardinal Wolsey.

And one year later, in 1529, Wolsey argues Henry’s case to the pope, his councilors, and cardinals. But the leaders of the Church prove a difficult audience. The Church calls on a legion of theologians to examine and interpret Leviticus 20:21. In response, Henry finds scholars of his own to defend his position, but Henry fails to make any headway. Furious, he lashes out at Wolsey and strips him of his role as lord chancellor.

Throughout the next year of 1530, Henry continues his fight for annulment with Wolsey’s replacement, Sir Thomas More. But Henry and More are now smart enough to realize that the Church’s reasoning for drawing out the debate are not theological; they’re entirely political.

Catherine of Aragon is the daughter of King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella I, the late monarchs who helped unify one of England’s global rivals: Spain. Catherine is also the aunt of Charles V, who is the current King of Spain and Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. The pope fears an annulment of Henry and Catherine’s marriage will anger Spain and the Holy Roman Empire, two of the Church's strongest and most dangerous allies.

So as the clash with the Church wages on, Henry grows increasingly impatient. He’s desperate to marry Anne Boleyn, and he no longer hides his desire from the Church or his own people. But Henry’s growing brazenness angers Pope Clement VII.

On January 5th, 1531, the pope sends Henry a letter, making it clear that if Henry marries Anne without the pope’s consent of annulment from Catherine, Henry’s relationship with the Church will be over. The pope states that any children Henry and Anne might have will be viewed as illegitimate. Further, the pope says Henry, Anne, and any clergymen who oversee their marriage, will be excommunicated.

Henry is furious and lashes out. Soon, he has a falling out with Wolsey’s replacement, Sir Thomas More, who remains a devout Catholic. Henry continues his fight without More, but he realizes the Church is never going to give him what he wants. So Henry decides he doesn’t need permission. Soon, King Henry VIII will marry Anne Boleyn. He will break with the Catholic Church, and turn his rage towards Catholic institutions in England; including the order of the Carthusian Monks who arrived in England nearly four hundred years earlier.  

Act Two: Arrest of the Carthusians

It’s spring of 1532 outside the Mount Grace Priory in Yorkshire, England.

John Houghton, Prior of the Carthusian charterhouse in London, slogs through the mud as the cold rain soaks his robes. John is a high-ranking Carthusian monk. And as part of his job, he has traveled hundreds of miles to visit the monks at Mount Grace and inspect their priory.

The Carthusian order was born in 11th-century France. The monks lived simply, as they believed the first Christians did. They practiced extreme self-discipline and abstention. When Henry II welcomed the Carthusians to England as penance for the death of Thomas Becket, the monks brought with them their ancient practices. And John Houghton embodies the Carthusian commitment to a simple, faithful life. He also harbors a growing fear that King Henry VIII’s actions and lifestyle are turning England away from God.

John finally gets out of the rain and is welcomed to Mount Grace by his fellow Carthusians. They give him new robes and place him by the fire. And when the rain stops, John’s muddy robes are washed and hung outside on a line to dry.

All seems well until something happens that John can’t quite explain. Crows descend from the sky, crying loudly overhead. They swoop down, and attack his robes, tearing them to shreds. This incident leaves John with a feeling of foreboding, and he tells the story to those close to him. Later, some will suggest that the crows were a portend of the horrors to come.

After his time in Yorkshire, John returns to the Carthusian charterhouse in London. All the while, his feeling of foreboding grows as he witnesses the political and religious battles boiling over in the city.

On January 25th of 1533, King Henry VIII marries Anne Boleyn in a small ceremony at Whitehall Palace in London; though there are rumors the two already married in secret some time ago.

At the time of the Whitehall ceremony, Anne is believed to be pregnant with Henry’s child: the future queen, Elizabeth I. But Henry still has a major problem: His marriage to Catherine of Aragon has not been annulled. And with a baby on the way, Henry decides it’s finally time to ignore the Catholic Church and take the issue of annulment into his own hands. So, on May 23rd, 1533, Henry gets the highest-ranking church official in England, the Archbishop of Canterbury, to declare Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon illegal.

Shortly after, on June 1st, Anne Boleyn is crowned queen at Westminster Abbey in London. But the Catholic Church refuses to accept Henry’s split from Catherine. The pope proclaims Henry is not legally married to Anne, and the Church doesn’t acknowledge her coronation as queen. Henry responds by saying the pope no longer has authority in England. And soon, he will declare that he is the head of the Church of England, a new religious order that retains certain aspects of Catholicism, but is largely built on a new Christian denomination gaining popularity: Protestantism.

Henry knows the battle lines are drawn, and there’s no going back. He rallies English nobles, clergy, and politicians to his side. And while clearly, he has some personal reasons for breaking with the Church, he frames his argument in terms of England’s glory.

Henry publicly lays out how a split from Rome will make England wealthier, more unified, and more powerful. Henry is persuasive and brings most of the English leadership along with him. But there is still one group that Henry is especially eager to have in his corner; the order of the Carthusian monks. In order to make the new Church of England viable, he will need the approval of respected English Catholics. And no one carries more weight with Catholics than the venerable Carthusians.

But John Houghton and the rest of the Carthusians in the London charterhouse refuse to accept the marriage between Henry and Anne. They continue to maintain their belief in the pope’s authority. Henry cannot persuade them so he leaves the Carthusians alone for a time but he doesn’t forget their disloyalty and defiance.

By November of 1534, the bulk of the English government supports Henry's break from Rome. Parliament passes the Act of Supremacy, declaring Henry to be “the supreme head on Earth of the Church of England.” The Supremacy Act also includes a loyalty oath demanding that English subjects recognize Henry’s marriage to Anne and her legitimacy as queen.

But the Carthusians refuse to take the oath. John Houghton and the rest of the monks speak out publicly against the Act of Supremacy. They reiterate that the pope, not the king, is the head of the Church in England. And their loud dissent is growing conspicuous. Henry can no longer ignore the Carthusians’ resistance.

In 1535, King Henry VIII seeks help from one of his most loyal advisors: Thomas Cromwell. Cromwell has no love for monasteries and charterhouses. He feels they have far too much sway over the people; and because monks collect generous tithes, Cromwell feels they have too much money, too. So Cromwell is all too eager to seek retribution. John Houghton and other Carthusian leaders will be dragged from their charterhouses, tortured, and tried for treason. And soon, all of them will be found guilty and sentenced to death.

Act Three: The Execution

It’s May 4th, 1535 at Tyburn, an area of London. 

John Houghton’s entire body screams in pain. His wrists and legs are bound to a large piece of wood, and he’s being dragged behind a horse with several other monks alongside him. John hears shouts from a rabid crowd as the horse pulls him toward the gallows.

John and the others have been found guilty of treason and sentenced to death. While being held captive, John refused to acknowledge Henry as the head of the Church, even after being tortured. And now, the King and Thomas Cromwell want to demonstrate what happens to those who side with the pope.

The crowd cheers in anticipation as John takes his place on the gallows. He closes his eyes and prays silently as the executioner slips a rope over his head. It's pulled tight around his neck, and when the trap releases, John’s body drops, but his neck doesn’t break. Instead, his body thrashes, until finally, the executioner cuts him down. John struggles to breathe as the executioner lays him down on a block, produces a sharp blade and slices open his belly. After the vicious disemboweling, John’s lifeless body is quartered, and the pieces are displayed at four different locations across London.

John Houghton is one of five Carthusian monks executed. And he is the first of what will come to be called “the forty martyrs”; a group of mostly Catholic, largely English men and women who die as a result of their resistance to the Act of Supremacy. Over the next several months and years, more Carthusian monks are found guilty of treason and executed with the brutality that sets the stage for religious conflicts in England that will continue long after Henry's reign. But in the 1530s, the violence is just beginning. After John Houghton’s execution, Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell raid and dissolve English monasteries, seizing their lands and wealth for the Crown. In 1538, Henry sends his men to Canterbury Cathedral to destroy the shrine of the Catholic martyr, Thomas Becket, who was murdered nearly 400 years prior.

But in spite of King Henry’s actions, John Houghton will remain a powerful symbol for English Catholics. His martyrdom stands as a testament to the faith and strength of the Carthusians. Artwork depicting his final moments is featured proudly in charterhouses for generations. And centuries later, in 1970, Pope Paul VI canonizes John along with the rest of the “forty martyrs.” Their sainthood ensures that the Catholic Church will not forget what happened to John and Carthusian monks on May 4th, 1535.


Next on History Daily. May 5th, 1862. Following the French invasion of Mexico, Mexican soldiers succeed in defending the town of Puebla, sealing a victory that will be commemorated by the national holiday, Cinco de Mayo.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Mollie Baack.

Sound design by Derek Behrens. 

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Michael Federico.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.