Henry Webley

Henry Webley was born in Gloucester about 1558.  He was possibly a relative of the martyr Thomas Webley, also a citizen of Gloucester, who was executed at Tyburn on July 6th 1585.

We know nothing of his life before the year 1586 when he was arrested with four companions.  They were apprehended on board a ship in Chichester harbour prior to their leaving for France.  There is evidence to suggest that Henry Webley spent some time in London because, after his arrest, he was accused of assisting a priest, Blessed William Dean, who is known to have worked in the capital.

The five prisoners were examined in Chichester by the Mayor before being despatched to London to be dealt with by the Privy Council.  They were committed to the Marshalsea prison where Webley was to spend the next two years.  In contemporary prison lists he is classed among 'recusants' and 'prisoners for the matter of religion'.  A spy, Nicholas Berdon, described him as 'neither wealthy nor wise but very arrant'.  Among papers sent by Nicholas Berdon to Sir Francis Walsingham, Secretary of State, were lists of all priests in London prisons and also lists of laymen.  One of the latter contained five names and marked 'Gentlemen of wealth' and 'meet for Wisbech'.  Wisbech was a prison in Cambridgeshire where confinement was less trying for wealthy prisoners.  Webley, not being wealthy, would not have been able to pay for little comforts within prison walls.

Webley was brought to trial with many Catholics in the wave of persecution that followed the coming of the Armada in 1588.  In August of that year, John Pickering, a lawyer acting for the Crown, drew up a list of Catholic prisoners and put Webley's name among those to be charged with being reconciled to the Catholic Church.  Under the Statute of 1581 this was high treason.  Lord Burghley, however, wrote the word 'felony' in the margin opposite this group, implying that he thought Webley should be charged under the Statute of 1585.  This covered those charged with receiving or helping Englishmen ordained priests abroad.  After Webley's name on the list are two comments: 'take the Q(ueen's) part', which is deleted, and 'refuse pardon'.  The cancelled comment indicates that, when the famous 'bloody question' was put to Webley (how he would behave in the event of an invasion of England organised by the Pope for the purpose of restoring the Catholic religion), he refused to declare that he would support the Queen.  The other comment, 'refuse pardon', signifies that he was offered a pardon on the usual condition that he would conform to the Established church.  This he refused to accept.

Henry Webley was one of a group of sixteen Catholics, clergy and laity, who were arraigned at Newgate Sessions in London on August 26th 1588.  The priests were charged under the Statute of 1585.  The laymen were variously charged, under the same Statute for the felony of assisting priests, or under the Statute of 1581 for the treasonable offence of being reconciled to the Catholic Church.

The charge against Webley was that of assisting priests.  Of the sixteen arraigned, thirteen were to suffer execution, the other three had recanted.  Four of the prisoners, including Webley, were to be hanged for their felony, the rest were sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered.  Queen Elizabeth mitigated the sentence passed on those guilty of treason from hanging, drawing and quartering to death by hanging.  The sentences were carried out in various places in and around London on the 28th and 30th August 1588.  It seems clear that the thirteen could have saved their lives if they had been willing to conform to State Church and acknowledge the Queen as its head as did their three companions.

On the morning of August 28th the Sheriff and his officers took Henry Webley and two priests, William Gunter and William Dean, from Newgate prison.  They were put on a cart and taken to Mile End Green where Webley and Dean were to be hanged.  At the place of execution the martyrs were not permitted to address the assembled crowd and when William Dean tried to do so a cloth was stuffed violently into his mouth.  William Gunter was then taken by the Sheriff to Holywell Fields, Shoreditch, where he met the same fate as Dean and Webley.  The martyrs are said to have died 'with great constancy and joy'.  After their death the scaffolds were guarded to prevent people removing the bodies for burial or taking away relics.

Henry Webley's name is included in all the principal catalogues of martyrs.  He was amongst those dealt with in the Ordinary Process of English and Welsh Martyrs at Westminster in 1874 and was one of the 241 martyrs whose Cause was introduced in 1886.  His Cause was again considered in the Apostolic Process at Westminster 1923-26.  Although the martyr's Cause met with objections, these were overcome and his name is now to be counted among those of his fellow countrymen who exchanged their lives for an incorruptible crown.

D Cottam – transcribed from Gethen Sept 2013.