The Tudor Society

1 December – A Catholic priest is tortured then executed

On this day in Tudor history, 1st December 1581, twenty-five-year-old Roman Catholic priest Alexander Briant was hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn, along with Ralph Sherwin and Edmund Campion.

Briant had been imprisoned, starved, racked and tortured in other awful ways, but he claimed that he felt no pain due to God's help. He refused to give his interrogators the information he wanted, and he was tried for treason and suffered a full traitor's death.

In today's talk, I share Alexander Briant's story, what led to his arrest, his account of what happened when he was tortured and his fellow prisoner's account of what was done to him.

Also on this day in Tudor history, 1st December 1541, Thomas Culpeper and Francis Dereham were tried for high treason at Guildhall, London. Both men had been linked romantically with Queen Catherine Howard. They were both found guilty of treason and sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered. But what about Catherine Howard and her lady, Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochford, who had also been arrested. What was happening with them? Find out more about them, and the trial of Dereham and Culpeper in last year’s video:

Also on this day in history:

  • 1530 – Death of Margaret of Austria at Mechelen. She was buried alongside her second husband, Philibert II, Duke of Savoy, in their mausoleum at Bourg-en-Bresse.
  • 1539 – Execution of Thomas Marshall, Abbot of Colchester, at Colchester. Marshall was hanged, drawn and quartered for treason for his opposition to the dissolution of the monasteries, his refusal to accept Henry VIII as the Supreme Head of the Church in England and his belief that those carrying out the King's wishes regarding religion and the monasteries were heretics.


On this day in Tudor history, 1st December 1581, Roman Catholic priest Alexander Briant was hanged, drawn and quartered on 1st December 1581 at Tyburn. He was executed with Ralph Sherwin and Edmund Campion. All three men were canonised by Pope Paul VI in 1970 and today is St Alexander Briant’s feast day.

Let me tell you a bit more about Briant and how he came to be executed…

Briant was originally from either Dorset or Somerset, from a yeoman family, and was born in 1556. He studied at Oxford University, first at Hart Hall and then at Balliol College, where his tutors included Richard Holtby and Robert Persons, who later became Jesuits. Their influence led to him abandoning his studies and joining the seminary at Douai in France, which he did in the summer of 1577. On 29th March 1578, he was ordained as a priest at Cambrai, and in August 1579, he was sent on a mission to England by William Allen, along with twenty other priests. The mission, of course, was to convert the English people to Catholicism.

In March 1581, men with a warrant for Father Persons, Briant's former tutor and now his friend, arrested Briant at a London bookseller. Briant was taken to the Counter prison and then, on 5th May to the Tower of London, taking with him a piece of hard cheese hidden about his person in case he was starved. The Lieutenant of the Tower was sent orders “to put him unto the torture, and by the pain and terror of the same to wring from him the knowledge of such things as shall appertain.” Fellow prisoner John Hart recorded that “Alexander Briant, a priest, was brought into the Tower from another prison, where he had almost died of thirst, and was loaded with most heavy shackles. Then sharp needles were thrust under his nails to force him to disclose where he had seen Father Persons, which, however, with unshaken resolution, he refused. He was also put to the rack to try and get him to talk about Persons and his whereabouts, the names of other Catholics, and the mission he had been sent on.

In a confession made on 6th May 1581, Briant affirmed that Elizabeth I was “his sovereign lady”, but that he could not “affirm that she is so lawfully and ought to be so, and to be obeyed by him as her subject if the Pope declare or command the contrary.”
After that, according to John Hart, Briant “was thrown into the pit”, where he remained for eight days, before being racked several more times.

While he was imprisoned, Briant wrote to the Jesuit order, asking to be admitted, and writing of how he had suffered no pain during torture, writing “The same day that I was first tormented on the rack before I came to this place, giving my mind to prayer, and commending myself and all mine to our Lord, I was replenished and filled up with a kind of supernatural sweetness of spirit ; and even while I was calling upon the most holy Name of Jesus, and upon the blessed Virgin Mary (for I was in saying the Rosary), my mind was cheerfully disposed, well comforted, and readily prepared and bent to suffer and endure those torments” and “For in all my afflictions and torments, He of His infinite goodness, mercifully and tenderly did stand by and assist me, comforting me in my trouble and necessity ; delivering my soul from wicked lips, from the deceitful tongue, and from the roaring lions, then ready gaping for their prey. Whether this that I say be miraculous or no, God knoweth. But true it is, and thereof my conscience is a witness before God. And this I say, that in the end of the torture, though my hands and feet were violently stretched and racked, and my adversaries fulfilled their wicked lust, in practising their cruel tyranny upon my body, yet notwithstanding I was without sense and feeling, well-nigh of all grief and pain”. I do hope that’s true!

In November 1581, Briant, along with six other Roman Catholic priests, was arraigned for high treason. At his trial, he held a small wooden cross that he had made during his time in prison. When it was snatched from his hand, Briant was said to have said “You can tear it from my hands, but you cannot tear it from my heart. I shall die for him, who first died for me.”

Briant was condemned to death for plotting the “death and final destruction” of Queen Elizabeth I. Briant, who was about 25 years old, suffered a full traitor’s death on 1st December 1581 along with Ralph Sherwin and Edmund Campion. All three men were canonised in 1970 by Pope Paul VI. Today, 1st December is St Alexander Briant’s feast day.

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1 December – A Catholic priest is tortured then executed