Catholic martyrology, trophies and inspirations

These are two from an extraordinary set of early modern engravings. Printed in Rome under the title of Ecclesiae Anglicanae Trophaea (‘The trophies of the English Church’) in 1584, these images were taken from a series of murals painted in the church of the English College in Rome. The English College was one of the most significant of the English seminaries set up in Europe during the reign of Elizabeth I, which trained men as Catholic priests. Many of these returned to England for the English mission: sustaining and increasing the Catholic faith in this officially Protestant nation. This was a dangerous undertaking, for 124 such priests were executed as traitors under Elizabeth. In this context these murals and the figures displayed took on a heightened meaning. Illustrated with gruesome detail, they use a catalogue of martyrs to trace a history of the Catholic Church in England from the conversion to Christianity to the execution of such ‘missionary priests’ in the 1580s. This was in part a challenge to Protestant accounts which sought to erase or reinterpret figures such as Thomas Becket (left). But perhaps more significantly it was an inspiration to those who, gazing upon these murals, contemplated the possibility that they, too, would join the ranks of the martyrs. CL

Ecclesiae Anglicanæ trophaea (Rome, 1584), plates 25 and 33.

CUL: Acton.a.sel.21, item 3

Further reading

Anne Dillon, The Construction of Martyrdom in the English Catholic Community, 1535–1603 (Aldershot, 2002), chapter 4.

Extended captions