Three martyrs were beatified in 1929.
Edward Oldcorne was born in York in 1561, the son of John Oldcorne, a bricklayer, and his wife Mary. John Oldcorne was a Protestant, and Mary was a Catholic who had spent some time in prison because of her faith. The young Edward was educated at St Peter's School in York, where his classmates were John and Christopher Wright and Guy Fawkes, who were all later implicated in the Gunpowder Plot. Edward initially trained to be a doctor, but then decided to enter the priesthood, studying at seminaries in France and Rome. In 1588 he was ordained as a Jesuit priest.
Later that year Oldcorne returned to England secretly, in the company of fellow Jesuit, John Gerard, to work as an underground missionary among English Catholics. They crossed the Channel shortly after the defeat of the Spanish Armada; England was in turmoil and the authorities were on the watch for foreign invaders and Catholic sympathisers. Landing after dark on a deserted beach near Cromer in Norfolk, Gerard described the event,
‘we looked for a path to take us as far inland as possible before dawn broke. But the night was dark and overcast and we could not find a path. Every track we took led up to a house, as we knew at once when the dogs began to bark. We decided to go off into a nearby wood and rest until morning. It was about the end of October, raining and wet, and we passed a sleepless night.’
Fr Gerard saying a secret mass
Oldcorne’s mission in England and Wales lasted for seventeen years, based mainly at Baddesley Clinton and in Worcestershire. He was regarded with great affection by local Catholics, and renowned for his powerful preaching and his gentle temperament, as John Gerard recorded,
‘For sixteen years … it was his work to bring many to the faith. Everyone looked on him as a father - he was prudent, hard-working and long-suffering, never failing anyone who needed him. Countless poor Catholics relied on him for alms.’
Relics from St Winefride's well
In 1601 he developed a cancerous tumour in his mouth, which was cured, he believed, by touching it with a mossy stone from the well of St Winefride in North Wales. The reddish moss which grew in abundance in the well has long been believed to have curative powers. You can see 17th and 18th century samples of this moss here, collected as relics by pilgrims to St Winefride’s at Holywell, and preserved as remedies against illness.
Four years later Oldcorne himself made a pilgrimage of thanksgiving for the cure, along with a large group of Catholics, including other Jesuits and some laymen who were later discovered to have been part of the Gunpowder Plot. This pilgrimage was to be regarded as proof of Oldcorne’s involvement in the ill-fated Plot, which intended to blow up the Houses of Parliament with King James, and to restore the Catholic faith to England and Wales. The failure of the Plot on November 5th 1605 led to a nationwide hunt for Catholics and priests who might have been associated with it.
Edward Oldcorne being tortured on the rack
Edward Oldcorne was arrested at Hindlip Hall in Worcestershire in January 1606 after several days concealed in a hiding hole in the house. His claim to have no knowledge of the Gunpowder Plot was ignored, and he was tortured at length over several days. On April 7th 1606 he was hanged, drawn and quartered at Worcester.
Oldcorne’s popularity drew many Catholics, who attended his execution to bear witness to his martyrdom.
Edward Oldcorne's eye relic
The gruesome last part of the execution process involved the boiling of the head and quartered body parts, and it is at this point that Edward Oldcorne’s eyeball became detached. An unknown Catholic managed to obtain this relic from the scene of execution. The eyeball was set on red silk and placed in this small silver reliquary, with an eye shaped window. An engraved Latin inscription on the back of the reliquary translates as ‘the right eye of Reverend Father Edward Oldcorne of the Society of Jesus.’ You can see the inscription here in this drawing of the relic made by John Morris in the 1880s.
John Morris' notes on the relic
Such a relic would have been highly incriminating if it were found in the possession of a Catholic in England. It is likely that it was smuggled to the English Jesuit College of St Omers, near Calais, where Oldcorne’s longstanding friend, John Gerard, took refuge after his escape from England following the Plot.