Another Franciscan to suffer for the Faith, Blessed John Forest, belonged to the Observant friary at Greenwich and was placed here under house arrest for several years. His house was strict and also highly influential, since it was next door to the royal palace at Greenwich. It was in the Franciscan church there that the future Henry VIII was baptised; as were all three of his children, the future Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I. It was (probably) there that Henry married Catherine of Aragon. In 1513 the King had praised the Observants in a letter to Pope Leo X, saying that he could not sufficiently commend the Observant Friars' strict adherence to poverty, their sincerity, charity and devotion. How things would change!
It is little surprising that the Observants of Greenwich were so closely involved in opposing the King’s divorce. This placed them in grave danger. The Warden, William Peto, preached a sermon to the Court condemning the King’s divorce and predicting that black dogs would lick the blood of Henry, like King Ahab in the Old Testament. This was supposedly fulfilled fifteen years later as the King's body was taken to Windsor. Peto, unsurprisingly, had to escape to the continent, though, it is worth mentioning, he returned in Mary Tudor’s reign and was even named a Cardinal in 1557.
Blessed John Forest was less fortunate. He had acted as one of the confessors of Catherine of Aragon, who herself was a Franciscan Tertiary, and he was forthright in his opposition. After several years of imprisonment, he was tried for denying the Oath of Supremacy and condemned to death. On 22 May 1538 he was brought to Smithfield, not far from where we are standing now. A large crowd had gathered, including the bishop of London, the Dukes of Norfolk and Suffolk and the Lord Mayor. Forest made a brave confession of faith; according to one bystander:
That if an angel should come down from Heaven and show him any other thing than he had believed all his lifetime past he would not believe him, and that if his body should be cut joint after joint or member after member, burnt, hanged, or what pain soever might be done to his body, he would never turn from his old sect of this Bishop of Rome.
They hanged him from the gibbet, with a chain placed around his waist. They then lit a fire and placed on it a statue of a Welsh saint, Derfel Gadarn. Curiously, according to tradition, it had been predicted that this venerated statue would one day ‘set a Forest on fire'. ‘The holy man', we read, ‘beat his breast with his right hand, and then raised both his hands to Heaven and said many prayers in Latin, his last spoken words being, Domine, miserere mei: and when the fire reached his breast he spoke no more and gave up his soul to God'.Share