John Sandys

John Sandys was born between 1550-1555 in the diocese of Chester which at that time comprised Cheshire, Lancashire, Cumberland, Flintshire and parts of Yorkshire.  At an examination of another priest, John Owen, in Winchester in 1585, the name of Sandys is mentioned and he is described as being a Lancashire man.

He studied at Oriel College where he obtained the degree of B.A. in 1573.  One manuscript refers to him as a 'poor scholar of Oriel college in Oxford'.  Sandys then took a position as tutor to the children of Admiral Sir William Winter at Lydney in Gloucestershire.  It is probable that at this time he conformed to the State religion as required by law.  There is no record of the length of his service at Lydney, nor when he converted and decided to become a priest.

On June 4th 1583 he arrived at the English college in Rheims and, after comparatively brief studies, was ordained priest on 31st March 1584 in the chapel of the Holy Cross in Rheims Cathedral by Cardinal de Guise, the Archbishop.  In October of the same year he was sent on the mission to England.  It would appear that most of his apostolate was exercised in Gloucestershire.  One report mentions that 'after he was a priest he returned thither again in layman's apparel and resorted to his old friends of those quarters'.

In the summer of 1586 Sandys was arrested in the house of the Dean at Lydney who had known him when he was a tutor to Sir William Winter's family and who seems to have been friendly with him.  Some of the Dean's enemies discovered that the man being entertained by him was a Catholic priest.  They laid information against the Dean and Sandys was apprehended.  The Dean, charged with harbouring a priest, replied that 'he had known him to be an honest gentleman in Sir William Winter's house but never dreamed he was a priest and had therefore given him entertainment'.  The answer to the charge was accepted and the Dean was cleared.  Later, when Sandys was in prison and under sentence of death, his betrayers came to visit him and, protesting that they had only wanted to be revenged on the Dean, begged his forgiveness.  We do not know what grudge these informers held against the Dean but it must of [have] been something of weight for, had their charge been successful, the Dean would have gone to the scaffold.

A document of c.1587 mentions that John Sandys, tried at the Gloucester summer assizes in 1586, was condemned to death by Sir Roger Manwood.  There are no Assize Records for the Oxford Circuit, to which Gloucester belonged, prior to 1627 but it is clear that Sandys was charged under the Statute of 1585 'against Jesuits and seminary priests and such other disobedient persons'.  This made it an offense for an Englishman ordained abroad to come into, or remain in, England.  Found guilty, he was sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered.

The sentence was carried out at Gloucester on April 11th 1586.  In the morning he was able to celebrate Mass and he made 'a very fervent and forcible exhortation to many Catholics there present in secret, for their perseverance in the Catholic faith'.  Then word came that the officers were at the prison gates to take him to the place of execution: 'desiring their patience a little (he) ended his service, blessed and kissed the company and so departed to his martyrdom'.  Another account mentions 'as he was at his 9 howert or thereabout, word was brought that the executioners staid for him at the prison gate'.  This suggests that Sandys was reciting the canonical hour of None, the last of the Little Hours of the Divine Office.

Contemporary accounts of the execution show a combination of inefficiency and deliberate cruelty which made the onlookers protest.  There was great difficulty in finding an executioner and even in procuring a knife with which to carry out the drawing and quartering of the body demanded by law:

'At last thay found a most base companion, who was yet ashamed to be seen in that bloody action, for he blacked and disfigured his face, and got an old rusty knife full of teeth like a sickle, with which he killed him'.

In spite of the promise of the Sheriff, Paul Stacy of Stanway, that he would be allowed to hang until dead, he was cut down as soon as he was cast off the ladder.  His clothes were then removed and by the time this was done he had recovered consciousness and while being disembowelled he was even able to struggle with the executioner and to grasp the knife.  The butchery was such that the people present protested and some Protestant clergymen condemned it in their sermons.  As he suffered, Sandys 'cried out ever with St. Stephen "Lord forgive my persecutors" and so fell asleep in Our Lord'.

Blessed John Sandys' cause was advanced with that of others in 1874, 1886 and 1923-26.  It is interesting to see that three objections were made by the Promoter General, (Devil's Advocate) as follows:

(i)         Sandys' name was not mentioned by Bishop Challoner

(ii)        the reason for his execution was not known

(iii)       that the way he grasped the knife while being disembowelled suggested that he did not want to die.

In reply to these objections, the postulators of the cause were able to

establish  that Challoner did mention Sandys name, that he was condemned

for being a priest, that he was referred to in contemporary documents as a

'holy martyr' and a 'blessed saint', that the reason for his execution was

clearly established and, lastly, that the attempt to defend himself was

instinctive and involuntary.

D Cottam – transcribed from Gethin September 2013