The Queen’s confessor

Even by the standards of the Reformation martyrs, the courage of the Franciscan friars of Greenwich takes the breath away. When Henry VIII visited the convent in 1533, Friar Peto preached a ferocious homily which implied that Anne Boleyn was like the idolatrous murderer Jezebel. The following week, Henry ordered that a pro-Boleyn friar preach the sermon. This time Friar Elstow stood up and denounced the new homilist for “betraying the king unto endless perdition”.

These were the brethren of Blessed John Forest, a scholarly friar who had his doctorate in theology from Oxford, and who became confessor to Catherine of Aragon. (She called him “the man who has taught me the most in divine things”.) His closeness to the despised Catherine, and his unconcealed opposition to the king’s divorce and remarriage, made him an obvious target.

Negotiations with Henry

Forest was also capable of prudent restraint: in 1532, with Henry considering suppressing the Franciscans, he helped to negotiate a compromise with the king, whereby the order would accept a new commissary general.

But the centre could not hold, and in 1534 Henry shut down the Franciscans. By the end of the year – at the very latest – Forest was in prison. At around this time, he exchanged letters with Queen Catherine herself. She encouraged him to be brave, “for if in these torments you have some pain to bear you will receive an eternal reward, which if anyone were to be ready to lose both you and I would count him to be mad.”

Forest replied that he felt “incredible joy” at Catherine’s steadfast Catholic faith: “If you persevere, without doubt you will attain salvation.” He asked her to “keep free from the pestilent doctrine of the heretics”, and sent her his rosary.

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