Henry Morse (1595-1645) was five times arrested for being Catholic and four times was released or escaped. His ability to get out of prison meant that he had a much longer ministry career than most Jesuits in England.
He began his studies at Cambridge then took up the study of law at Barnard's Inn, London; at the same time he became increasingly dissatisfied with the established religion and more convinced of the truth of the Catholic faith. He was received into the Catholic church at the English College at Douai, Flanders, and then returned to England to prepare to enter the seminary that autumn. Port authorities in England asked him to take the oath of allegiance acknowledging the king's supremacy in religious matters. The recent convert refused to do so and was arrested the first time. He was imprisoned four years before being set free in 1618 when the king released hundreds of religious dissenters and exiled them to France. Morse first went to Douai but the English College had too many students, so he was sent to Rome, where studied theology and was ordained in 1623.
Before Morse left Rome, he met the Jesuit superior general and asked to be admitted into the Society; the general said Morse would be admitted as soon as he returned to England. He probably entered the Jesuits in 1624, and spent his novitiate period doing pastoral work in the Newcastle area in northern England. After 18 months of traveling from station to station, he was due to make the month-long Spiritual Exercises to complete his novitiate. He was supposed to do so at Watten, Flanders; but the ship he boarded to take him there was halted in the mouth of the Tyne River so soldiers could search for a priest, possibly disguised as a foreign merchant. They discovered Father Morse instead, although he carried only a rosary. He was arrested the second time and sent to Newcastle's prison. Soon another Jesuit was imprisoned, Father John Robinson, a classmate from Rome, who was on his way to take Morse's place. Both ended up at York Castle, where Robinson directed Morse in the retreat which completed his novitiate. Morse spent three years in prison before he was released and banned from the land. The young Jesuit returned to Flanders and served as chaplain to the English soldiers serving in the Spanish army then in Flanders. He had to give up this work when his health broke; then he became assistant to the novice master.
In 1633 he was again assigned to England to work at the parish of St. Giles in a poor district outside London. While he was there, the city was ravaged by a plague. Several isolated cases were discovered in late 1635, but by mid-April both city and suburbs were afflicted by the dread disease. Morse threw himself into caring for the sick, in the classic Jesuit fashion. He found medicine for the sick, took viaticum to the dying and prepared the dead for burial. His reward for this selfless service was to be arrested a third time when a priest-hunter recognized him and incarcerated him in Newgate Prison. On April 22 he came to trial and ably defended himself, but was convicted anyway although sentence was never passed. He was released on June 17 because of the intervention of Queen Henrietta Marie in recognition of his service to plague victims. He briefly returned to pastoral work, but could no longer move about safely so he returned to the continent and again became chaplain to the soldiers.
He was again assigned to England in 1643, but sent to Cumberland where he was less well-known. This strategy worked for 18 months until he accidentally walked into a group of soldiers late one night. They suspected he was a priest because he was travelling alone, so they arrested him and held him overnight in the home of a local official. Fortunately, the official's wife was Catholic and she helped the Jesuit escape. For six weeks he enjoyed freedom, but then had the extreme bad fortune to knock on a door seeking directions when he was lost. The man who opened the door happened to be one of the soldiers who had recently apprehended him and remembered him well.
There would be no fifth escape. He was moved from local jails to London's Newgate Prison in January 1645 and tried in Old Bailey; his very presence in England proved him guilty of violating the law by coming back after he had been banished. He was quickly found guilty of high treason and condemned to death. Early in the morning of his last day, he celebrated Mass and then was dragged to Tyburn to be executed. He stood on a cart under the gallows and was left hanging when the cart moved away. After he was dead, his body was torn open, his heart removed and his entrails burned. His head was exposed on London bridge and the four sections of his quartered body were mounted on the city's four gates.
Other English Martyrs
Originally Collected and edited by: Tom Rochford, SJ