From the Independent
By Simon Caldwell and Jerome Taylor
Saturday, 31 January 2009
For centuries, the “Tyburn Tree” near Marble Arch in London was a place of abject horror for Catholics. Between 1535 and 1679 nearly 400 Roman Catholics were executed on the triple-pillared gallows for refusing to recant their faith, as priest hunters scoured Britain looking for traitors to the post-Reformation crown.
Even to this day devotees make an annual pilgrimage to the site and it is not unusual to see flowers and rosaries placed on the busy traffic island near Speaker’s Corner where the gallows once stood.
Since the 1950s the site has been marked simply by a stone roundel but Westminster City Council has begun looking for ideas for a more fitting memorial in honour of the hundreds of martyrs who swung from the Tyburn Tree – one that will very publicly associate one of Britain’s busiest shopping areas with the persecution of Catholics.
The council’s Public Art Advisory Panel has discussed some of the proposals at a private meeting, including an etching of the shadow of the Tyburn Tree into Yorkstone pavement brickwork. Another proposal is understood to involve three illuminated pillars to stand above the site the three-sided gallows once occupied.
Rosemarie MacQueen, Westminster’s strategic director for built environment, said: “We have been looking at ways to make the memorial to the Tyburn martyrs more substantial and informative. We feel that the hangings which happened there should be clearly marked for anyone who might want to understand the area’s history.”
Local Catholics have welcomed the decision to make a more public showing of Tyburn’s history. Monsignor Anthony Stark, a London priest and master of the Guild of Our Lady of Ransom which leads annual pilgrimages to the site, said: “It is the one site in the country where more people died for their Catholic faith than anywhere else. It is very important.”
Tyburn became a place of public execution in the 12th century and as the “King’s gallows”, it was used in particular for those people convicted of capital offences against the Crown. The first martyrs of the Protestant Reformation – St John Houghton and four other priests – were executed for treason there on 4 May 1535 for refusing to recognise Henry VIII as the head of the English Church. Houghton was hanged, drawn and quartered.
Watching their procession towards Tyburn from the window at his prison in the Tower of London, soon-to-be martyr Thomas More was said to have remarked to his daughter: “Look Meg! These blessed Fathers be now as cheerfully going to their deaths as bridegrooms to their marriage!”
In 1571, Queen Elizabeth I erected the Tyburn Tree, a triangular gallows purposely built for multiple executions. The supports were strong enough to hang eight people from each side of the gallows, allowing a gruesome public spectacle that visibly reinforced the Crown’s power.
The last Catholic to die at Tyburn for their faith was St Oliver Plunkett, the Archbishop of Armagh, on 1 July 1679. He had been falsely accused of being part of a papist plot to assassinate Charles II. The plot had been fabricated by Titus Oates, who falsely implicated more than 25 people who went on to be executed. Public executions continued for common criminals for a further century until they were transferred to the area outside Newgate Prison.
The stone roundel was taken up by the council last summer when roadworks were carried out, prompting an outcry from Catholics who feared that its removal was permanent.
Benedictine nuns from the nearby Tyburn Convent succeeded in persuading the council to put the roundel back in place. But they were told that the stone would remain on the site only temporarily while plans for a grander memorial were being drawn up.
Colin Barrow, the leader of Westminster City Council, said in a letter to the nuns that the local authority “recognises the historical importance of this plaque and designs have been produced to enhance the surroundings of the plaque”.