The life of John Stone O.S.A. was uneventful, except for the tragic climax which closed it. His life greatly changed on 14th December 1538 in Canterbury, when the visitors appointed by King Henry VIII arrived to suppress all of the communities of mendicant friars in the city. As each friar was expelled he had to sign two documents: one acknowledging the king as supreme head of the church in England, and another attesting that their surrender of their friary was voluntary.
In a lengthy and, no doubt, heated discussion, John Stone firmly declared before his assembled confreres “that the king could not he head of the church, but that it must be a spiritual father appointed by God.” The officers of the king tried to persuade John Stone, but he strongly maintained his conviction and declared his willingness to die for it.
When the visiting officers finally had to admit defeat they sent Stone to Thomas Cromwell in London. Cromwell also failed to change Stone’s mind and sent him back to Canterbury, ordering his imprisonment in one of the city's jails, probably in that of the castle. The harshness of prison life did not break John Stone as it had some other friars. Stone's imprisonment lasted from 14th December 1538 until the last few days of December 1539.
John Stone was then set to trial in Canterbury on a charge of treason. The course of the trial must have been short, for a jury confronted with an indictment for high treason had no alternative but to bring down a verdict of guilty. Usually such a sentence was carried out without delay but in this instance an extraordinary event complicated matters. Anne of Cleves, who was coming to England to be the fourth wife of King Henry VIII, was due to arrive on Sunday, 7th December 1539, and would be stopping at Canterbury overnight on her way to London.
Her arrival, however, was delayed by bad weather. Her visit and John Stone’s execution probably happened on Saturday, 27th December 1539. As bizarre as it sounds, John Stone's execution was timed to be part of the reception festivities arranged for Anne of Cleves, despite the shortness of her stay. This conclusion is deduced from the extraordinary expenses for the execution and from the fact that the paraphernalia needed for it were removed only after her departure. Even so, the historian, Rev Dr Michael Benedict Hackett O.S.A., who was an expert on John Stone and who died in April 2005, questioned whether the execution occurred during Anne of Cleves' time in Canterbury.
The bill for the execution amounted to £15.9.11d (fifteen pounds, nine shillings and eleven pence). This was a great sum when compared to a previous execution which had cost only six pence. Coming from overseas in Anne's company was also the apostate English Augustinian, Dr Robert Barnes, then at the height of his power. He probably witnessed Stone’s execution. In Barnes and Stone the worst and the best of the Order in England in 1539 confronted each other. Paradoxically, also by order of Henry VIII Barnes himself was burned to death at the stake in London just six months later.
Part of the additional expense for John Stone's death was because the place of execution was not Holloway, the traditional site which had a gibbet permanently in place, but the most striking landmark of the city, the Dongeon, now called the Dane John. From his scaffold Stone could see the suppressed former Augustinian friary, where he had dwelt; it had been given by the King to the sheriff of Canterbury who was directing Stone’s execution. Whether Stone had a chance to address the crowd as it happened on similar occasions is not known.
Before the hangman had fully strangled him, John Stone was cut down and disembowelled. His heart and viscera were thrown into the fire, his body cut into four pieces and set up at the four gates of the city. It appears that nobody made a point of informing the Augustinians on the Continent that John Stone had been martyred, although by then all houses of the Austin Friars houses had been forcibly suppressed by the King.
Friar John Stone was soon venerated as martyr. Pope Gregory XIII (pope in 1572-1585) sanctioned a painting of him in the English College at Rome depicting Stone as martyr, and likewise permitted an engraving of him to be printed in 1584. John Stone was beatified by Pope Leo XIII on 9th December 1886, and he was included among the forty English martyrs canonized by Pope Paul VI on 25th December 1970.
His feast day is celebrated on 12 May each year.
Further ReadingFor an extensive coverage of the history of the Order of St Augustine in England, click here.
Photo Gallery For the Augnet gallery on England, click here.
John Stone. An article upon how Catholics endured the English Reformation. http://supremacyandsurvival.blogspot.com.au/2012/12/st-john-stone-supremacy-martyr.html
John Stone. When he refused to take the Oath of Supremacy that declared that King Henry VIII was head of the Church, John Stone O.S.A. was arrested at Canterbury, England in December 1538. He was executed late in 1539. Pope Paul VI declared him a saint in 1970. A web page by the Midwest Province Augustinians, USA. http://midwestaugustinians.org/st-john-stone
John Stone O.S.A., Martyr. When on 14th December 1538, Richard Ingworth, an official of King Henry VIII, appeared at the monastery of the Austin Friars (Augustinians) in Canterbury, John alone among his brothers refused to sign, and spoke in clear terms of his objections to the king's claims over the Church. John was immediately separated from his confreres in order to forestall his influence over them and was urged eventually with threats to alter his position… From the web site of the Augustinians in California, USA. http://osa-west.org/?s=Stone