Stephen Rowsham

Stephen Rowsham was born in Oxford about the year 1555.  In 1572 he entered as a Commoner the college called 'The House of the Blessed Mary the Virgin' founded by Edward II, or 'Oriel College' as it became known.  This was, in more recent years, the College of which Cardinal John Henry Newman was a Fellow.

There is no record of Stephen Rowsham having graduated but he became a clergyman in the Church of England.  This we know from a document granting dispensation from abstinence in Lent which was issued by the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford in 1579 on the recommendation of 'Stephen Rowsham, Curate of the Parish Church of St. Mary's and others'.  Whilst Curate of St Mary's, he was known personally by William Warford S.J., who wrote that he was a 'man of prayer and piety' and that during this ministry in Oxford he was said to have experienced supernatural visions.  We are told that on one occasion, when with many others he rushed out to see strange meteors in the sky, he and they saw over his own head a 'crown very bright and splendent, which he showed to his fellows that stayed by him'.

From Fr. Warford we have the description of 'a man of pleasant countenance, with a brown beard and full sweet voice; small and a little crooked, his neck awry and one shoulder higher than the other'.  This was confirmed by other writers, including Bishop Challoner, who wrote that 'he was not learned and of a weak and sickly constitution, but his soul was robust and constant'.

Within two years of his taking orders in the Church of England, he resigned his Living at Oxford and was reconciled to the Roman Catholic Church.  Rowsham journeyed to Rheims and, on his arrival in France, he knelt to give thanks to God for his safe crossing, and said 'providing I might live as a good Catholic I care not if I have to earn my bread at the plough tail'.

He began his studies for the priesthood on the Feast of St. George, 1581, and was ordained priest at Soissons about Michaelmas in the same year.  After a further seven months of preparation he was commissioned on 30th April 1582 in the church of St. Stephen, for work on the English Mission.

It is said that, during this time, he was saying Mass one day when a large spider fell into the Chalice which was uncovered during the Consecration.  Overcoming his natural repugnance, he swallowed the spider together with the Precious Blood of Our Lord and was rewarded by a wonderful experience of confirmation in his faith.  He later asserted that on this occasion his 'repugnance turned into great relish'.

Following his appointment to the English Mission, Stephen Rowsham set out in the company of another priest, Robert Ludlam, who was also to suffer martyrdom.

There is no recorded information concerning his activities in England, but he was arrested almost immediately and sent to the Tower on 19th May 1582.  The official Tower Diary for that period states that on the 14th August that year, by orders of Secretary Walsingham, Stephen Rowsham was put into the notorious dungeon known as 'Little Ease', where the unfortunates confined there could neither stand nor lie down with any comfort.  This hole was near the torture chamber and he was to remain in it for eighteen months and thirty days.

Comfort of another kind was not lacking for, according to an account written towards the end of that century, Rowsham told a fellow prisoner that whilst in 'Little Ease' he was visited there by 'God the Father, Christe our Saviour, Our Blessed Ladye and glorious soules of Saintes full often', so that on one occasion 'for the space of one days and a halfe he thought himself in heaven'.

Three of those imprisoned with Rowsham were taken out to execution on 28th May 1582.  They were Thomas Ford and Robert Johnson, priests, and John Smart.  He had looked forward to sharing their sufferings but had to endure more months of confinement in his cramped cell.  As his companions died at Tyburn, Rowsham felt three gentle strokes on his hand and saw light in his cell.  He took this to signify the pain and the joy his friends experienced.  A letter from him describing these happenings was found upon one, Thomas Pounde, a fellow prisoner, and sent to Secretary Walsingham on 1st September 1586, by which time its contents had been copied and circulated throughout England.

After his weary months in the Tower, Stephen Rowsham was moved to Marshalsea prison, together with Mr Godsalf another seminary priest, in February 1584.  Here he was to stay until September 1585 when, following a change in the Government's policy, he was sent overseas with the promise of certain death should he return.  He reached the English College at Rheims on 8th October 1585.  In February 1586, undaunted by his previous experience, he once again set out for England.

His second mission lasted little more than the first and he was at liberty for only a few months.  Arrested at the house of a Catholic recusant, Mrs Strange, a widow, he was taken to Gloucester gaol.  Here he seems to have been treated in a comparatively humane way and was able to say Mass daily.  In 1587 Stephen Rowsham was brought before the Lenten Assizes in Gloucester and charged under the Statute of 1585.  He freely admitted his priesthood but denied any guilt or treason in what he had done, and openly declared that if he had had several lives he would willingly lay them all down for the same cause.  He was found guilty and sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered.

Even in captivity the martyr converted and reconciled some half-dozen of his fellow prisoners.  A contemporary report says that 'Mr Thomson, a gent(leman) of Oxfordshire, then a prysoner, and seinge and hearinge all his doinges, wished him to cease in that place from such actions, bycause of the danger of lawe, but he answered that he was past feare of such lawes and therefore went forward still'.

Mr Thomson was a well-known recusant from Burford, Oxfordshire, the father of several young children, who had fled to the Forest of Dean, where he lived and still sheltered a priest.  He was discovered by Robert Alfield and taken to Gloucester gaol where he was a prisoner with Stephen Rowsham.  It was this Mr Thomson who persuaded Stephen Rowsham to tell of his strange visions which were circulated in an anonymous account of the persecution of Catholics, written in 1595, the writer having the story from Mr Thomson himself.

After his trial Stephen Rowsham was returned to Gloucester Gaol and on the way was subjected to insults from a number of apprentices and boys from Gloucester who 'were gotten to one of the dunghills, from which they pelted this holy confessor most spitefully and all berayed his face and clothes'.

On the morning of his execution, which probably took place near the gaol, he celebrated his last Mass which many Catholics attended and was able to hear confessions and give Holy Communion to those present.  After Mass, when the Sherriff's Officers were already waiting to take him to the scaffold, he said his Evensong, blessed, kissed and embraced everyone present and went cheerfully to the hurdle.  One of the jailers said to him 'Oh, Mr Rowsham, if I were in the like danger as you are and might avoid it as easily as you may by going to church, surely I would soon yield to that'.  Rowsham answered 'I pray thee be contented good friend, within this hour I shall conquer the world, the flesh and the devil'.

When he was laid on the hurdle to take him to his execution, one of his legs dragged on the ground as he was drawn along.  When a woman bystander advised him to draw it up, he replied 'No, all is too little for Christ's sake', and so he went to his martyrdom.

Before leaving for his execution, remembering the savagery dealt out to Blessed John Sandys, Stephen Rowsham had prepared his clothing for quick removal after he was cut down from the rope so that there would be less time for him to recover consciousness before the fearful butchery was carried out on him.  Mercifully the precautions were not necessary for on the outcry of the people, the Dean and Preachers, he was let hang until he was dead and the rest of the sentence carried out.  March 1587 is the traditional date of his death.

D Cottam – transcribed from Gethen Sept 2013.