Saint John Rigby
Feast Day: June 21st.
Really Existed? Definitely.
Timeframe: Born c. 1570; Died June 21, 1600
Credentials: Canonized in 1970 as one of the representative group of “Forty Martyrs of England and Wales” by Pope Paul VI.
Martyrdom: Hung, drawn, and quartered.
Patron Saint of: Bachelors -- but one of at least 16 saints so credited.
There aren’t too many people around these days, at least in my sheltered experience, who get particularly worked up by the Catholic/Protestant schism, and this makes the political history of England after Henry VIII’s big divorce scheme seem more than a little overblown. Queen “Bloody” Mary I, Henry’s daughter, tried to reimpose Catholicism and is famous for creating the political environment in which some 280 Protestants were burned alive. Elizabeth I, who flipped England back to Protestantism, has a reputation as a don’t-ask-don’t-tell religious moderate, but in her later years, as she began to lose some of her authority, quite a few Catholics started being punished under long-dormant “recusancy laws.” John Rigby was one of them.
No one pretends that Mr. Rigby was an important or influential man. Born one of too many children in a strapped aristocratic family, he was forced into the undignified position of working for a living. The general line among the internet sources is that his employer was “the avid Protestant, Sir Edmund Heddleston.” Sir Heddleston’s daughter, the story goes, had been ill and therefore unable to attend church, and this unlawful truancy got her picked up on recusancy charges. Rigby, brought in to testify at her hearing, was put in a position of having to admit his own Catholicism, and his refusal to “conform” led to his doom.
Well, maybe. But parts of this background story seem unlikely to me. I haven’t found out much about Heddleston except that his father was a major supporter of Queen Mary. Between that fact, his longtime employment of an openly Catholic gentleman, and his daughter's “I-couldn’t-attend-Church-of-English-services-because-I-had-the-sniffles” story, it would seem a good bet that, in the absence of other evidence, we are probably looking at a discretely Catholic household here, not an avid Protestant one.
Well. Although John Rigby is not associated with any supernatural events, acts of evangelism, great deeds, or other qualities you might think of in relation to the concept of sainthood, he definitely embodies the courage of conviction. He had any number of opportunities over a period of five months to get himself off the hook by simply affirming his willingness to be a C of E man like everybody else. No one would have cared if he still held Catholic beliefs; all he would have to do is keep is mouth shut about them. Yet, despite knowing that he was at risk of drawing and quartering – which consists of…
…well, it’s pretty awful. I’ve written it in white letters so that the historically curious can select the text and see exactly how awful. Or you can take my word for it: it was slow, humiliating, and extremely painful.
Drawing and quartering meant, first, being dragged through town by a horse on a kind of sled, while folks in the street jeered or lamented or looked away in horror. Once at the gallows, and in front of whatever crowd was brought out that day by rough entertainment, you were hung by the neck for a while, twitching and thrashing. After a few minutes of this, you were cut down and, if necessary, restored to consciousness. Then, you were held down and castrated, and then disemboweled, quickly or slowly depending in large part on the mood of the crowd. You were encouraged to watch while your guts and genitals were thrown onto a fire. At this point, finally, you were dispatched by beheading, and if you were lucky and had a good headsman this would only take a couple of chops. The quartering came afterwards, with your body being carved up and the pieces sent out to be displayed in various public settings; apparently knowing that your corpse would be desecrated was apparently a very significant source of additional horror to people of the time.
Despite knowing what he was in for, and having multiple easy ways out, Mr. Rigby stayed true to his Catholicism. I mean, a public official with the power to get him off the hook stopped his "drawing" -- which is to say, stopped the horse on the way to the gallows -- to encourage him to beg off, but he wouldn’t do it. It’s easy for those of us of an ecumenical turn, who tend to emphasize the similarities instead of the differences among the various faiths of the God of Abraham, to question his common sense, but you simply can not fault the man’s courage and devotion to his sense of what was right.
John Rigby’s mix of rotten luck and superhuman bravery was relatively rare; the Vatican estimates that around 300 people were judicially murdered for practicing Catholicism in the century and a half following 1535. In 1970, a well-documented “Forty Martyrs of England and Wales” were picked out for sainthood, a symbolic act more or less sanctifying the Catholic resistance to militant Protestantism during England’s religious dark years.
What do we know about the man John Rigby outside of his awful end? Nothing much, really. But all accounts, although with widely contradictory details, mention his answer to a question about his marital status. He was, he said, "both a bachelor and a maid." That's an odd line. The “maid” part, says more than one source, must refer “to his job as a servant in the household of the avid Protestant Sir Edmund Heddleston.” I'm not buying it. The English language has an lush effulgence of words that describe specific positions in household service, and Rigby would have known them all. My guess is that Rigby, with his minutes numbered, was either bragging of or complaining of a lifetime of chastity.
May you be have the courage of your beliefs this St. John Rigby’s Day – yet may you also be spared the necessity of making extreme choices in their defense.