The persecution of Catholics in Elizabethan England intensified. Statues along each side of the Upper Church testify to the men and women of the district who stayed loyal to their ancient faith and who became martyrs.
Swithin Wells was an Elizabethan gentleman living in a house near St Etheldreda’s. He put his house at the disposal of priests and mass was regularly said there. On November 8th 1591, Father Edmund Gennings, a 24 year old priest, was saying mass when the house was raided by the arch priest hunter, Richard Topcliffe, and his men. Ten people hearing the mass were arrested and later sentenced to be hanged. Father Gennings was found guilty of treason and was sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered.
Swithin Wells was arrested on his return to the house and at his trial was found guilty of harbouring a priest and was hanged outside his own front door.
Margaret Ward learnt of a tormented priest in the notorious Bridewell Prison. Having befriended the jailer’s wife, she managed to smuggle a rope into the cell. The priest let himself down to the river below in the middle of the night to where a waterman John Roche had a boat waiting for him. The priest escaped but Margaret and the boatman were arrested. Margaret was strung up so that only the tips of her toes touched the ground when she was flogged. Then she and John Roche were hanged at Tyburn.
In 1620, the Spanish Ambassador, the Count of Gondomar, a face so loved by the artist El Greco, moved into Ely Place. The Bishop’s Palace was his residence and mass was again allowed to be said in St Etheldreda’s, because an ambassadorial residence and grounds are considered part of the country they represent.
To hear mass was still punishable by death for English Catholics but despite the dangers they flocked to St Etheldreda’s. It was written at the time that more persons were drawn to mass at Gondomar’s little private chapel in Holborn than anywhere else.