Burnley Martyrs and their Contemporaries.
In the second half of the 16th and into the 17th Century a number of young Catholic men from Burnley trained for the priesthood. Three of these priests suffered martyrdom for their faith; a remarkable number since Burnley’s population in 1550 is estimated to have been around 1,200.
They were beatified on 22 November 1987 with 82 others who died between 1584 and 1679.
Fr John Nutter, Martyr
Born probably in Reedley Hollows he attended St John’s College, Cambridge. John and his brother, Robert, went to Rheims in 1579 to train as seminary priests. Ordained in 1582, he was captured on landing back in England in January 1583 and taken to the Marshalsea Prison where he remained for a year before being tried and was executed at Tyburn on 12 February 1584.
Fr Robert Nutter, Martyr
Born about 1550, younger brother of John, he was educated by the Catholic schoolmaster Thomas Yates at Burnley and Brasenose College, Oxford, and entered Rheims in 1579. He was ordained in 1581. He came to England in 1582 and worked in Oxfordshire and Hampshire. He was captured in Oxford in 1584, was tortured in the Tower of London, and then imprisoned with his brother, John. He witnessed his brother’s execution before being released. He may have been released in the hope that he might, involuntarily, lead the authorities to safe houses.
He was subsequently rearrested and transported to France in 1585. He returned to England escorting newly ordained priests but was arrested at Gravesend. He was imprisoned in Newgate Prison and later transferred to the Marshalsea Prison in 1587 and then to Wisbech Castle, Cambridgeshire in 1590. Whilst there he joined the Dominican order. On 10 March 1600 he escaped with others but was recaptured and sent to Lancaster where he was executed on 26 July 1600. He used the aliases of Askew and Rowley.
Fr Thomas Whitaker, Martyr
Brother of Humphrey, Thomas was baptised at St Peter's in 1611, and was educated at Burnley, St Omers and Valladolid where he was ordained in 1638. He returned to England in 1638 and worked around Goosnargh, Kirkham and St Michael on Wyre. Arrested, he escaped whilst being taken to Lancaster Castle. Arrested again at Goosnargh, he was tried at Lancaster in 1643 and kept in solitary confinement for six weeks. He was detained for three years before his execution there on 7 August 1646.
Fr Thomas Barcroft
One of five sons of Thomas Barcroft, Senior, he was baptised in Burnley in 1566 and educated by Thomas Yates at Burnley Grammar School. He entered Rheims in 1582, went to Rome in 1584, returned to Rheims in 1589 and was ordained in 1589. Returning to England, he worked in this area until at least 1592, but no further references to him have been found to date.
Fr Thomas Towneley
The seventh son of Richard Towneley and Margaret Paston, Thomas was educated at Douai 1689, Paris 1690 and St Maglane in 1694. After ordination he was working in the North of England by 1698 and in Lancashire by 1733. He died in May 1737, probably at Euxton Hall.
Fr Humphrey Whitaker
Born in 1613, Humphrey and his brother, Thomas, were the sons of Thomas Whitaker, master of the Free School in Burnley, and Helen Starkey. The father died in 1627, and the mother in 1652. Humphrey later used the alias of Francis Starkey and Francis Clayton. Educated at Burnley Grammar School, St Omers, and the Venerable English College, Rome, Humphrey was ordained in 1638. He spent 2 years as the agent of the English College at Piacenza, and then went to Lisbon to teach philosophy in 1640. He became Prefect of Studies there in 1642, and then taught at Douai 1647-1649. He acted as Canon and Secretary for the Chapter set up in England by the first Vicar Apostolic and then returned to Lisbon in 1650, becoming President of the College in 1651, and dying there in 1653.
Fr Robert Woodruff
Born at Bank Top in 1552 and educated by Thomas Yates at Burnley Grammar School, he entered Douai in 1577 and was ordained in 1581. Returning to England in 1582, he was working in this area by 1586 and was captured in Little Crosby in 1590. Imprisoned in Wisbech and Framlington, he was banished from the realm in 1601 but returned to England in 1603.
The unsung hero is, of course, the Burnley schoolmaster, Thomas Yates, who educated many of these priests as young boys to be staunch Catholics at a time Catholicism was being persecuted.
The original author of this article was Fr David Lannon, Diocesan Archivist and Parish Priest of St Mary's.
With thanks to Paul and Claire Carney of Christ the King parish for editing and expanding the article.