Defending Catholicism without compromise and facing martyrdom with a sense of humour - The life of St John Roberts
St John Roberts - Benedictine martyr
Childhood and conversion
John Roberts was born into a Welsh family in Trawsfynydd in 1575. His parents were called John and Anna, and they seemed to have been the local landowners of the substantial Rhiw Goch farm. In fact, it is possible that John was descended from Welsh nobility, and it is certain that he receiveded a good preliminary education - a rare privilege at that time. Indeed, it is thought that one of his early teachers was a former monk of the nearby dissolved abbey of Cymer, and that this man instilled in him a sense of Catholic identity. After his initial schooling, John Roberts continued his studies at the relatively Catholic St John's College, Oxford. Whilst not graduating with a degree, his time at Oxford was followed by a spell at one of the Inns of Court in London - where he intended to become a lawyer.
During a holiday to celebrate the end of his studies, spent with a friend in Paris, something quite extraordinary and life-changing happened to John Roberts. Whilst in France, he decided to be reconciled to the old Faith - an act he might have been contemplating for some time. As a result of this decision, he was received into the Catholic Church at Notre Dame de Paris and abandoned any notion of being called to the bar. Soon after his conversion, John Roberts went even further - risking all in order to study for the priesthood with the intention of working as a missionary in his now Protestant homeland.
From seminary to cloister
John Roberts entered the newly erected Royal English College at Valladolid in 1598, but didn't stay long in this Jesuit run seminary, which had been founded by King Philip II of Spain soon after the Spanish Armada. In fact, he had abandoned his studies before the academic year was out. An anecdote from the time relates that John had left the College because he felt that the food on offer there wasn't wholesome enough. Somehow, though, I doubt this was the real reason for John Roberts' departure. It seems that what actually led him to abandon his studies for the secular priesthood was his fractious relationship with the then Rector, Father Robert Persons SJ. In all, five men left the English seminary at Valladolid to enter the local Benedictine monastery at the same time (early 1599), which suggests that the seminary was going through some sort of crisis. Whatever the immediate reasons for John's decision to test his monastic vocation, it is true to say that he had actually been feeling a genuine calling to the religious life for some time.
The old Abbey of San Benito in Valladolid
The concepts of simplicity, silence, penance, and the holiness of the cloister have always been popular ones in the Welsh imagination, and might also have been the real inspiration behind John Roberts' move to the local Benedictine abbey at Valladolid. This monastery was relatively close to the College – one can still walk there quite easily in less than half an hour (though it now belongs to the Augustinians). Having made up his mind, John entered the monastic life in 1599, at which time he became known as Fray Juan de Mervinia (Brother John of Merionnydd). He soon left the city of Valladolid altogether, though - being sent to complete his novitiate at the Benedictine abbey in Santiago de Compostela. Living so close to his former College might have proved difficult both for John and his former Rector - especially seeing that there might also have been some tensions at the time between the Spanish monks and the English Jesuits.
Missionary priest and prisoner of Jesus Christ
Soon after his ordination to the sacred priesthood on St Stephen’s Day 1602, John Roberts was sent to England to work as a missionary monk. At the time, many professed Benedictines left the cloister in order to enter the English mission - following the example of the old British saints of the 5th and 6th centuries, most of whom were also missionary monks. At times of crisis, it seems that this form of monastic life - a dedicated and contemplative priesthood - becomes both necessary and beneficial to the Church's survival.
Before re-entering the British Isles, John Roberts would have been aware that the punishment for preaching the Catholic faith in England as a priest was a most horrific form of execution. Whilst ministering to the Catholics of England, then, not only would the newly ordained Father John have had to contend with plague and poverty, but he would also have had to evade the tyrannical machinations of the state and its network of spies. On several occasions he was arrested and exiled – yet back he came to minister to the poor and persecuted Catholic population of London. He was also imprisoned on several occasions, and would therefore have faced deprivations of all kinds for the sake of his faith. Yet, he remained steadfast - refusing to bow to fear, unwilling to compromise the truth and determined not to capitulate for the sake of an easier life. During one of his banishments, John Roberts actually became the first prior of the new English Benedictine foundation at Douai – this monastic community was later re-founded as the great Abbey of St Gregory at Downside (a well-known English monastery and school to this day).
Like so many other missionary priests of the time, St John Roberts constantly returned from exile to serve the people of his country – even in the face of imprisonment, torture and execution. In fact, it seemed that the prospect of martyrdom might have been a motivation for his persistent returns to England. Like so many other priests working in post-Reformation England and Wales, such as St John Southworth (whose remains are to be found in Westminster Cathedral), John Roberts was kept for long periods as a prisoner at the Gatehouse in Westminster. This was the old prison attached to Westminster Abbey, and served as a semi-open prison where inmates could sometimes come and go. In 1609, though, John Roberts was arrested after having escaped from the Gatehouse to minister to local Catholics. As punishment, he was placed in the hellish Newgate Prison. Aware of his plight, the French ambassador, Antonie de la Broderie, appealed to King James I on his behalf, and John Roberts narrowly escaped execution. Instead, he was exiled to France, where he returned to his beloved monastery at Douai. Needless to say, though, John Roberts was back in London before too long - determined to preach the gospel and reconcile Protestant England to Rome.
After being arrested seven times, escaping from prison twice and being banished three times, the Welsh Benedictine priest was apprehended for the last time on 2 December 1610 - whilst celebrating Mass in secret for his persecuted flock. He was immediately dragged through the streets back to Newgate Prison, whilst still dressed in his vestments. His trial was unjustly held only three days after his arrest and during it John Roberts was quickly found guilty of being a Catholic priest and therefore of high treason against the Crown. He was executed only five days later, on 10 December 1610.
An arrow points to St John Roberts as he stands with the other Forty Martyrs of England and Wales
The Martyrs' Crown, well deserved
John Roberts suffered the horrendous execution reserved for traitors - being hanged, drawn and quartered. But he refused to be overcome at the thought of the horror that was about to befall him. Known for his keen sense of humour, and like many a martyr before him, St John Roberts joked right to the end. Whilst being led to the scaffold, someone in the crowd suggested that he should wear his cap. "Why?" he asked, "are you afraid that I might catch a cold?" Also, when John Roberts saw the flames in which his bowels were to be burned, he is said to have exclaimed, "I see you have prepared a hot breakfast for us!"
Due to the affection of the crowd who knew all about the way he had cared for the poor and dispossessed of Westminster, John Roberts was actually spared the more gruesome horrors of his sentence. The people who had gathered at Tyburn that day also remained silent and horrified throughout the Saint's execution - many could not believe that the Crown would do such a thing to an obviously holy man. There was no rejoicing amongst the usually exuberant execution-watchers that day. Not even the most Protestant of Englishmen could find much to celebrate over the death of this Welsh Catholic priest on that cold December morning.
After his painful martyrdom, St John Roberts' body was taken back to his monastic community, St Gregory’s in Douai. As happened to St John Southworth's body, John Roberts' remains were lost during the French Revolution. Whereas, though, John Southworth’s body was rediscovered in the 1920s, and returned to Westminster Cathedral, all we have of St John Roberts are a few relics, which are mainly to be found at Downside Abbey, the Catholic church at Gellilydan (Trawsfynydd), and Tyburn Convent - near the site where he offered his life to God for the sake of Christ's true Church and the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
Pope Leo XIII approved the opening of John Roberts' Cause on 4 December 1886. He was subsequently beatified by Pope Pius XI in 1929 and was canonised by Pope Paul VI on 25 October 1970, along with the other representative Forty Martyrs of England and Wales.
Saint John Roberts, pray for us