Saint John Boste, 1544 – 1594, is one of the forty English and Welsh Martyrs canonised by Pope Paul VI in 1970. He was a priest that served the faithful in our area at a time when it was illegal to say Mass or practise the Catholic faith. He was captured by the authorities in Waterhouses, now in the Parish of Our Lady Queen of Martyrs, in 1593 and executed in what is now the grounds of St Leonard’s school, Durham in 1594. The feast day of all the English and Welsh martyrs is October 25th, but St John Boste is commemorated on the day of his execution, July 24th.
John Boste was born in Dufton, Westmorland (now Cumbria) and then went on to become a lecturer in logic at Oxford University, before returning to Westmorland to become Master of the school at Appleby. He became more and more interested in the Catholic faith and in 1580 went to France to train to be a priest. He was ordained in early 1581 and quietly returned to England, landing in Hartlepool in April 1581. He then spent the next twelve years as a priest working in secret throughout England and sometimes in Scotland. After a little time in the South he focussed on the North, and in particular the North East, with evidence of him being active in Newcastle and in Brancepeth Castle, home of Lady Margaret Neville.
John was a very effective missionary and the authorities were very keen for him to be captured. Lots of effort and resources went in to this but for over ten years he always managed to evade capture. Lord Huntington, the president of the Council of the North and entrusted by Elizabeth I to capture John, was obsessed in hunting him down, describing him as “The Greatest Stag of the North”.
St John Boste in West Durham
John Boste would often say Mass at the home of William and Grace Claxton, a house in the Brancepeth estate that became known as the Waterhouse. This was built by the banks of the Deerness in what was then a very densely wooded and isolated valley. Old farms called Low and High Waterhouse still exist, but the site of the original Waterhouse is unknown and was probably on the south side of the river between the modern positions of the villages of Waterhouses and Esh Winning. By 1593 William Claxton had been sent to prison for his Catholic sympathies but Boste still regularly attended to say mass for Grace and the rest of the household. Unknown to Boste and the Claxton’s one of the household, Francis Eglesfield, was actually a secret agent employed by Huntington. Eglesfield pretended to be a faithful Catholic but was passing information on all activities at the house. By early September word had been passed that Boste was staying at the house, and a group of armed searchers began watching it closely in secret.
On the tenth of September Eglesfield gave a sign to the searchers and the raid began. Those present, including Lady Neville and Grace Claxton, were arrested, but they could not find Boste. Eglesfield insisted that he was there and so they began to hack into the walls, according to some accounts finding Boste in a priest hole behind the fireplace.
Imprisonment and Torture
John Boste was taken to Durham, questioned, then sent to York, Windsor and eventually the Tower of London, where he was repeatedly questioned about his activities. He never denied going abroad illegally to become a priest, or regularly saying mass adding “that if he said not mass every day it was against his will.” This, however, was not enough for his captors who wanted him to incriminate others and admit to political motives, something he would not do. He was imprisoned for almost a year, and regularly tortured by being placed on the rack as well as being hung from the wall by his wrists. This permanently disabled him: “He walked all double, very slowly and with the assistance of a stick. When he sat down as he usually did on his heels, he was all on a heap, as if he had been all in pieces. Yet he would have got up of himself and spoken cheerfully to any that came to him”. It says much for his resilience that he even contemplated escape, but was unsuccessful.
Trial and Martyrdom
In July 1594 Boste was moved back to Durham for his trial in court of assize on Palace Green. One of Boste’s friends, Christopher Robinson, also a priest, witnessedf both the trial and execution and wrote down his account of it, so we have some detail of what happened. The charge of “adhering to the queen’s enemies and for compassing the overthrow of the state” was dropped, its place taken by the specific charge that having left the realm without licence and been made priest by authority of the bishop of Rome, Boste had returned to preach the Catholic faith contrary to her majesty’s laws, her crown and dignity. This he had confessed the day after his capture. He now confessed it again. “I am a priest of the holy Catholic church: and I came, though unworthy, according to St. Paul, to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ, whereof I am not ashamed, and to administer the sacraments to my beloved countrymen….. All this I needs must confess, and I am not ashamed of it, but do greatly rejoice that I have done so.” He denied working to politically undermine the queen, saying: “My function is to invade souls, not to meddle in temporal invasions”
The next morning, Wednesday 24 July, John Boste, along with two others, Ingram and Southwell, both converts to Catholicism, were brought back into court for sentence. The jury found him guilty of treason. The priests were then asked in turn whether they wished to say anything before sentence was passed on them. Boste replied that he was glad that God had called him to this trial of his priesthood and profession, and was very sorry that the laws of his country did not allow of the Catholic faith. He was then sentenced: “You will be carried to the place from whence you came, and from thence you shall be carried either upon a sled or upon a hurdle to the place of execution, there you will be hanged by the neck, presently you shall be cut down and your members shall be cut from you and cast into the fire even in your own sight, your bowels shall be pulled out of your bodies, and cast likewise into the fire, your heads shall be cut off, your bodies quartered and the parts of your bodies shall be disposed as officers shall see occasion.”
The sentence was carried out that day. About 4.00 p.m. he was taken in a cart from the prison (most likely the Northgate of the Bailey), down Saddler Street, up through Millburngate to the “trees” outside the city at Dryburn, almost certainly within what is now the grounds of St. Leonard’s Catholic School. A large crowd lined the route, some hostile, many sympathetic. On arrival Boste climbed the hangman’s ladder, saying the Angelus. At the top, with the rope round his neck he recited psalm 114. When someone in the crowd shouted that he should seek the forgiveness for his offences against the queen, he replied: “I never offended her … I take it upon my death, I never went about to offend her. I wish to God that my blood may be in satisfaction for her sins.” At this the Sherriff ordered for the hanging to begin. Having hung for about twenty seconds he was then cut down, and he revived as he was carried to a fire to carry out the disembowelling and quartering. Before the executioner disembowelled him he said: “God forgive you. Go on, go on. Lay not this sin to their charge.” When the butchery was finished, the severed limbs of the martyr were displayed on the castle walls and his head impaled on Framwellgate Bridge.
St John Boste is still remembered as a powerful witness to our faith in our area. In 1994 celebrations were held to commemorate the 400th anniversary of his martyrdom, with events both at Our Lady Queen of Martyrs, Newhouse, the parish that includes the site of his capture, and St Godric’s, Durham (now part of Durham Martyrs parish), the parish that includes the site of his execution. An anniversary window was installed in the church at Newhouse.