On 24th September 1589, William Spenser, a Roman Catholic priest, and layman Robert Hardesty were executed at York. Spenser was executed for being a priest, and Hardesty for sheltering Spenser.
In his book Acts of English martyrs, John Hungerford Pollen, writes that William Spenser was born in Gisburn in Yorkshire and that he was educated at Trinity College, Oxford, supported by his uncle William Horn. There he was a scholar and fellow, and graduated MA in 1580. Pollen states that he met Spenser at Oxford:
"There I knew him for about eight years, always leading a most upright life, but suffering much at the hands of the heretics even before he left the university, because he was looked on as leaning somewhat towards the Catholic faith. They brought many charges against him, and he would argue against them, but never recklessly. From the time he was a boy his zeal for souls was marvellous, and he never neglected the first rudiments of faith taught him by his uncles, but acted up to them with zeal and constancy to the time of his death."
In 1582, Spenser was a member of a group of men who travelled to the Jesuit College, Reims, to study "cases of conscience, Holy Scripture, and controversy" and to get ready to travel back to England to "harvest" souls for the Catholic faith. After two years in Reims, he was ordained as a priest and returned to England. Pollen writes of how Spenser worked so "earnestly in order to help souls" that he voluntarily made himself a prisoner at York Prison so that he could save the prisoners there.
Spenser was apprehended while on a journey by a justice who was out hunting and recognised as "some Papist or seminary priest". He was condemned under the Act against Jesuits, seminary priests, and such other like disobedient persons (27 Elizabeth, c. 2) for being a priest. Pollen writes that "he answered at the bar with intrepidity, and met his death with joy".
In his Examination of Fox’s Calendar of Protestant Saints, Martyrs etc. etc. Contrasted with a Biographical Sketch of Catholic Missionary Priests and others Executed under Protestant Penal Laws from the Years 1535 to 1684, William Eusebius Andrews writes:
"William Spencer, Priest, and Robert Hardesty, Layman. William Spenser was born in Yorkshire, and educated at the college at Rheims, from whence he was set upon the English mission in 1584. The particulars of his labours and sufferings are not known, only that he was apprehended, tried and condemned for receiving holy orders beyond the seas, by authority derived from the bishop of Rome, and coming over to England, and there exercising his priestly functions. He received the sentence of death with an undaunted courage, and suffered with great constancy, being hanged, drawn and quartered at York, the 24th of September, 1589.
With Mr Spenser was hanged one Mr Robert Hardesty, a layman of great probity and piety, for having harboured and relieved the confessor of Christ, knowing him to be a priest."
Notes and Sources
Photo: York City Walls, © Copyright Lisa Jarvis and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence, geograph.org.uk.
- Pollen, John Hungerford, Acts of English martyrs hitherto unpublished, edited by John Morris (1891), Burns and Oates, p273-278. Read online at https://archive.org/stream/actsofenglishmar00polluoft#page/272/mode/2up
- Andrew, William Eusebius (1826) Examination of Fox’s Calendar of Protestant Saints, Martyrs etc. etc. Contrasted with a Biographical Sketch of Catholic Missionary Priests and others Executed under Protestant Penal Laws from the Years 1535 to 1684, Abridged from Parson’s Examen and Challoner’s Memoirs, Volume III, p407.