Six signatures cut from letters stuck to a larger piece of paper

Signatures of martyrs, including Henry Walpole

Here you can see a sheet of signatures cut from letters from a number of Catholic priests and martyrs. Robert Southwell’s is at the top left-hand side. On the lower right is a signature of another Jesuit martyr of 1595, Henry Walpole.

Henry Walpole was a young, wealthy law student, fond of the good life and destined for a bright future. In December 1581 curiosity led him to Tyburn to witness the gruesome execution of Edmund Campion and his two companions.

Three portraits of martyrs. Henry Walpole has a rope around his neck and a knife in his abdomen. He holds palm leaves in his right hand while his left hand is covering the right side of his chest

Portrait of Henry Walpole, centre, with other 1595 martyrs

Henry Walpole attended Edward Campion’s execution out of a desire to witness the death of this famous figure. He was so close to the scaffold that his clothes were splashed with Campion’s blood- a life changing incident which was to lead to his own execution some fourteen years later for the same crime of being a Catholic priest.

Born in 1558 near Sandringham, the eldest son of a Norfolk squire, Henry Walpole spent seven years at the Norwich Grammar School, and three at Peterhouse, Cambridge, and in 1578 started his law studies at Gray’s Inn. Wrenched from his lukewarm Catholicism by the cathartic execution of Edmund Campion, he wrote an impassioned poem, Why do I use my paper, ink and pen, which contains the verse

‘You thought perhaps when lerned Campion dyes,
his pen must cease, his sugred tong be still,
but you forgot how lowde his death it cryes,
how farre beyounde the sound of tongue and quil,
you did not know how rare and great a good
it was to write his precious giftes in blood.’

The poem was published by Stephen Vallenger in 1582, for which the printer paid dearly - pilloried, imprisoned, his ears severed, and he died from infection in prison. Some of the verses were later set to music by the secret Catholic composer William Byrd, who enjoyed the favour and protection of Elizabeth I, because of his musical genius. On publication, Walpole fled London for his home in Norfolk, and from there he escaped to France. Shortly afterwards he decided to become a Jesuit priest. In December 1593 he returned to England, landing at night but was arrested before he had travelled ten miles. He was taken to York Castle. The infamous priest hunter Richard Topcliffe asked for permission to transfer him to London and Henry Walpole was brought to the Tower of London in February 1594.

He was tortured many times which came close to breaking his spirit and was then left for nearly a year in solitary confinement.

The date fifteen ninety five carved into stone surrounded by carvings of other letters and numbers

Henry Walpole carved inscriptions on the wall of his cell in the Tower of London

‘In its dim light I found the name of the blessed Father Henry Walpole cut with a chisel on the wall…on either side he had chalked the names of all the orders of angels. At, the top… was the name of Mary, Mother of God and above it the name of Jesus, and above that again the name of God written in Latin, Greek and Hebrew. It was a great comfort to me to find myself in a place sanctified by this great and holy martyr, and in the room where he had been tortured so many times- fourteen in all, as I have heard.’

During those long months of solitary confinement in the Tower Henry Walpole carved a series of inscriptions on the wall of his cell. By a strange coincidence this was the very cell in which his fellow Jesuit, John Gerard whose words we have just heard, was later to be imprisoned.

In the spring of 1595 Walpole was sent back to York for trial, where he was joined by a fellow priest Alexander Rawlins who was also awaiting trial. Both were tried on the 3rd April on the charge of being Catholic priests. Both were found guilty and condemned to death.

Up to the end the authorities tried to win him over, even on the very morning of his execution, Monday 7th April 1595, government officials repeatedly tried to convince him to save himself. He refused and died. He was thirty-seven.