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John Anne, Martyr Of Burghwallis

They dragged John Anne and Robert Dalby on a hurdle to the place of their execution on the Knavesmire at York on March 16, 1589.

An eyewitness wrote that “they lay sweetly with their hands joined as the fearful moment approached”. 

John was the first to die. With the rope fitted, he turned to the people watching, declaring the cause of his death was not treason, but religion.

Cut down while still alive, he was drawn, dismembered and quartered. The watchful sheriff’s men stood by to prevent the mob from carrying off the martyrs blood.

These events during the persecution of Roman Catholics 400 years ago were remembered in 1950 by the Dominican sisters of the congregation of Saint Catherine of Siena in Natal, South Africa who took over Burghwallis Hall, the Anne family home for four centuries, as a rest home for elderly ladies in 1946.

The Anne family were well known Catholics, living in constant fear in Elizabethan times. John – beatified in 1929 as the Blessed John Amyas (the alias he took in France) – was one of four members of the family to suffer death or imprisonment for their faith over 200 year period.

Sister Jane-Francis, administrator at Burghwallis was one of the 22 members of the order in this country and told something of the Anne family story. They came from Normandy in the 11th century, establishing themselves at both Frickley and Burghwallis, William becoming becoming a priest at Rheims in 1581.

In those times it was treason for anyone to attend Mass, for a priest ordained abroad to return to this country; and for a layman to harbour a priest. John Anne was one of many captured and martyred, but Mass continued to be celebrated in secret at Burghwallis in the tiny Attic chapel.

They used portable altars in those turbulent times of the 16th century. They carried a tiny silver paten and a chalice which could be unscrewed into several parts in seconds.

The chalice and paten used by John Anne are still treasured in the library. The priests also wore narrow stoles of thin ribbon all of which could be hidden quickly.

The Burghwallis estate of 2250 acres was sold by George Anne at Doncaster in 1942, the Hall being taken by the Bishop of Leeds, and in 1946 the Sisters of our Lady of Good and Perpetual Succour, an Italian foundation, opened it as a home for elderly ladies.

As the sisters were elderly, and renovation and repair of the building became too expensive, they found they could no longer remain at Burghwallis and so the Bishop of Hallam invited the Dominion sisters from Chingford. 

Then, instead of sisters in black or blue habits, they were sisters in white. It puzzled the locals for quite a time.

Sister Jane-Frances explained “We have a big home in California, another in Pietermaritzburg, and one in the Argentine. Burghwallis, however, was something completely new for the sisters in England”.

But within three years they made tremendous improvements, and had 27 elderly ladies in residence. The place was now a centre for retreat days, and Anglicans also came here. 

In 1950 there were several commemorative events at Burghwallis with similar events being held at other Dominican establishments in Germany, Argentina, in North and South America, and their school of studies in Rome and, especially at Oakford, Durban, site of the Mother House.

Widely travelled Sister Francis says Burghwallis is a very sacred place where people have been prepared to die for their belief. “We live in the aura of a steadfast faith which is almost tangible”.

She pointed to a pile of books on the floor in the corner of the room. ‘Underneath there is a trap door which goes into the underground tunnels. It’s blocked up now. The exit is a quarter of mile away. A perfect way of entering and leaving undetected”.

Part of the building is modern or restored to modern standards. The oldest part is easily recognised; the walls are nearly two feet thick.

“The gorgeous ‘Jerry’, the pet Peacock, wandered across the lawns as we went into the garden to admire the George and Dragon weathervane, the 260-year-old Cedar, said to be one of the oldest in England, and next door the 1000 year old church of Saint Helen with its Saxon style stonework.”

Helen was born in Colchester, daughter of the old King Cole of the nursery rhyme. She became Empress of Rome, was in York when the Roman army proclaimed her son Constantine Emperor, and is said to have stayed at Burghwallis on her way back to Rome.

The gardens of Burghwallis Hall contain the quiet walled graveyard of the Sisters of Perpetual Succour, and a strange little building in which was by turns a place for hanging meat, an icehouse, and a wartime air raid shelter.

But it is at the top of the house that excites the visitor. Sister Francis took me to the once secret chapel. You have to climb up and then down to get into it. It was near here in 1907, that Major Crathorne Anne discovered the priest hole. Measuring up for alterations, he realised the calculations did not fit into the plan. There was a space which could not be accounted for.

Breaking in, he found a room about the size of the small bedroom in a modern semi. He deduced that the terrified priest crawled from the chapel under the apex of the roof for 30 feet and then dropped down into an airless windowless space. The chapel has a tiny mullion window which commands a view of all the entrances to Burghwallis. Sister Francis pictures the scene:

“It is easy to think of George Anne and his terrified wife and their 12 little children gathered for mass. There are watchers at the window; then the priest, disguised, comes in. When this is over all is hidden away and life goes on”.

“Should danger approach, there is the courtyard to be got through, then the back door, then along staircase to the third floor. Then a searcher must pass through the three doors – all of which gives the pursued ample time to climb up to the triangular plaster covered secret door into the Gable, crawl along and drop down into the secret room”.

The attic chapel of daub and wattle, is preserved; a little haven of tranquility for the sisters and those who come to Burghwallis Hall in these more tolerant times to spend a quiet moment in prayer.

The “Blessed John, a gentleman by birth of ancient house” and no traitor, who walked to the gallows with a serene countenance, remains an inspiration. He did not die in vain.

See associated article on the refurbishment of Burghwallis hall

This report was reproduced from a page torn from unknown newspaper article. The reference date and author coincide with the centenary celebration of the Sisters of Perpetual Succour in 1950. If anyone has further information could they please contact us so we may update the reference.

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