On Wednesday 7 June at 5.30pm there will be a celebration in the College Chapel of the Reformation martyrs of Caius, four men of the College who gave up their lives rather than recanting their faith.
The story of the martyrs – William Deane, John Hewitt, John Fingley and Francis Montfort – reflects a tragic period in the College’s Elizabethan history, when students who refused to give up their Roman Catholic beliefs were forced to hide their faith, flee or risk persecution and death.
Records reveal that, in the late 1570s, around a quarter of the total intake of students were officially described as “popish recusants” – Roman Catholics who refused to accept the Elizabethan Settlement of 1559 and attend Anglican services. The Master, Dr John Caius, was suspected of sympathy with recusancy: on one occasion, Puritan-minded Fellows of the University reportedly invaded the Master’s Lodge and seized and burned mass books, vestments and other treasures.
To mark the death of the four Caians whose only crime was saying mass and administering the sacraments to English Catholics, a quinquennial celebration is now held in the College in the form of a Roman Catholic mass and a commemoration by name of the martyrs.
The mass is in Latin, with music sung by the College Choir, and this year – the third time the celebration has been held - the music will be William Byrd's Mass for Five Voices. The Celebrant will be Fr Alban McCoy of St Edmund's College, and the Preacher will be Professor Richard Rex of the Divinity Faculty and Queens' College.
All are welcome to attend, regardless of their religious affiliations.
Caius Fellow Dr John Casey, a driving force behind the celebration, has written of the persecution at Caius: “It is difficult – perhaps impossible – for us to recapture an atmosphere in which such secrecy, suspicion, dissembling – and heroism, were part of College life”.
The previous celebration of the martyrs, in 2012, was a powerful event, Dr Casey recalled. “Many Fellows attended, and there were some very distinguished visitors, including the poet, Sir Geoffrey Hill, and Professor Eamon Duffey (author of The Stripping of the Altars - a book which fundamentally altered the received narrative of the English Reformation.)
“The Tridentine Mass was at that time still not officially allowed by the Roman Catholic Church - Benedict XVI revived it a little later - so there was a certain frisson about the occasion.”
Of the four Caius martyrs, Deane and Hewitt were beatified in 1929 and Fingley in 1987.
More information about the martyrs and the backdrop to their persecution within Caius and beyond can be found in an essay by Dr Casey in the College’s magazine, Once a Caian.