The Wexford Martyrs
Matthew Lambert, Robert Meyler, Edward Cheevers,
Patrick Cavanagh, and Companions.
[Adapted from an article by Professor Patrick Corish, Maynooth College, in
the Irish Theological Quarterly 64 (1999)]
1. EARLY LIFE
The early lives of these men, a baker and five sailors from the town of
Wexford, are known to us only from incidental references in the accounts of
their deaths. These references may be convincingly set against a background
of what is known of the political and religious history of the town in the
first twenty years of the reign of Queen Elizabeth 1.
All of them were poor men. While Matthew Lambert is stated to have owned a
bakery, the same source stresses that he was 'a simple and completely
unlettered' man. To this might be added the fact that his name does not
occur in any of the surviving records of the town (people listed in these
sources would be the people of substance). While Matthew Lambert owned his
own business, is clear that this business was a modest one.
The principal witness of the events, John Howlin, states that five sailors
in all suffered martyrdom, and there is no reason to doubt the accuracy of
his statement. Of the three whose names have been preserved with certainty,
Meyler and Cheevers, like Lambert, are of Norman origin, while Cavanagh is
the patronymic of the principal Gaelic sept in County Wexford.
Three of the Wexford sailors
The southern part of this county, and more particularly the town of Wexford
and the area surrounding it, had been settled by the Normans immediately on
their arrival in the twelfth century. It had remained consciously English
and English-speaking, all the more so because in a Gaelic revival in the
fourteenth and fifteenth centuries the great Irish sept of the Cavanaghs had
reasserted their authority over much of County Wexford and regularly posed a
threat to the 'English' lands to the south. By the reign of Elizabeth I, the
English monarchy, here as elsewhere, had begun the task of subjugating the
independent Irish lordships to the authority of the Crown. As the Gaelic
system came under pressure, individuals from time to time sought a
livelihood outside it. One of these was Patrick Cavanagh, who became a
sailor in the port of Wexford.
As in the larger and wealthier 'English Pale' surrounding Dublin and
Drogheda, all the traditions of 'English Wexford' disposed it to be loyal to
the Crown. As one of the new English adventurers, Sir Henry Wallop, wrote
from Wexford on 8 June 1581 to Sir Francis Walsingham:
This countye of Wexford was the first place our nation landyd and
inhabityd in, to this day they generally speke owle Inglische and
best affected to owre nation and easyest to be governed had they
The people of 'English Wexford' were disposed to welcome the increased
presence of the English administration in that it promised to control the
neighbouring Cavanaghs who had threatened them for centuries. By this time
also the 'English of Ireland', under humanist influence, had come to see
themselves as the natural civilising force as far as their Gaelic neighbours
However, latent tensions began to surface in the reign of Elizabeth. The
subjugation of the native Irish was expensive, and the government demanded
taxation to pay for it.' This was much resented in a society which for
centuries had had to rely on self-defence but was now expected to pay tax to
support the Queen's administration and the Queen's army. In County Wexford,
as elsewhere, most of the profits from the subjugation of the Gaelic
lordships went to newly arrived and more thrusting Englishmen. The poor
people seem to have found these even more oppressive than their native
gentry had been.
By this time the religious issue was also emerging as a source of tension.
By and large, 'English Ireland' seems to have had few hesitations in
accepting Henry VIII (1509-47) as in some sense 'head of the Church', if
only because this had little or no impact on daily life. Religious changes
did begin to impinge, however, when the Book of Common Prayer was introduced
in the reign of Edward VI (1547-53). This change in the Sunday religious
service was widely and positively resented.
By the 1570s 'recusancy', or an unwillingness to follow the government
religion, was being strengthened by the influence of the Catholic
Counter-Reformation, as may be seen in the case of the priest Richard
French' and even more strikingly with the merchants and shipowners like
Jasper Codd, Richard Sinnott and Patrick Hay. These had clearly taken what
must have been a very difficult decision, namely, to commit themselves to
political and even military action against Queen Elizabeth in the light of
the papal excommunication of 1570.
Matthew Lambert and the sailors were arrested because they had
helped Viscount Baltinglass, and his Jesuit chaplain, Robert Rochford, in
what proved to be an unsuccessful attempt to flee the country through the
port of Wexford at a time when Baltinglass had decided that he had no
further hope of maintaining his revolt against the Queen. On 18 July 1579
James Fitzmaurice had landed at Smerwick in County Kerry, proclaiming, with
papal authority, a war for the defence of the Catholic religion against the
deposed and heretical Queen. What hopes there may have been of initiating
such a war became much slimmer when he was killed a month later.
The government was even more alarmed when in July 1580 James Eustace,
Viscount Baltinglass, took up arms and proclaimed his cause to be support
for the Pope and refusal to accept the Queen's Church. There is no
satisfactory study of Baltinglass, but the sincerity of his religious
motivation is beyond question. He came from near Dublin, and from a social
group regarded as essentially loyal. Though many of the gentry of the Pale
came under suspicion, the greater magnates did not give him active support,
and he had to rely on some of the lesser gentry and Gaelic septs of
Leinster. These included the O'Bymes of Wicklow, hereditary foes of his own
family, and the Cavanaghs, hereditary foes of the people of 'English
Despite a heavy defeat of the government forces at Glenmalure in the Wicklow
mountains on 25 August 1580, when the new Lord Deputy Lord Grey de Wilton,
rashly tried to penetrate the stronghold of the S O'Bymes, Baltinglass was
unable to extend his control beyond the mountains. Inevitably his war linked
up with the fighting in Munster. In the middle of September, Spanish forces
landed at Smerwick, and Baltinglass moved into Munster, but on 9 November
Smerwick surrendered to the English and the garrison was massacred.
Baltinglass returned to Leinster with only a small following. He made
confused and uncertain attempt to surrender, but they came to nothing and he
decided to flee the country This was early in February 1581.
It was natural that he should think of the port of Wexford. He had no hopes
in Dublin, to the north of the mountains. The way south to Wexford lay
through Cavanagh lands, and Father Rochford was a native of 'English
Wexford' and might reasonably expect some help there.
As already indicated, the magnates of the Dublin Pale had refused help to
Baltinglass, though there can be little doubt that at least some of then
were sympathetic to his cause. Numbers of the gentry of 'English Wexford'
seem to have committed themselves more openly, though the motives of some of
them, such as Nicholas Devereux of Ballymagir, must have been mixed. This
wealthy landed family was the most prominent in 'English Wexford'.
Nicholas's brother Alexander had been Abbot of the Cistercian abbey of
Dunbrody at the time of its dissolution in the 1530s. He had become Henry
Vlll's Bishop of Ferns in 1539, and held his see alternating between
Catholicism and Protestantism from one reign to another, until his death in
1566. He was succeeded by his nephew, John Devereux (1566-78). It is
unlikely that the family were crusaders for Catholicism in 1580.
In any case, when Baltinglass reached Wexford his cause was clearly lost,
and it would appear that he found no person of wealth or standing to help
him, not even in the town, where several merchants had in previous years
committed themselves deeply to the Catholic cause. It was only a handful of
obscure men who gave succour to Baltinglass and Father Rochford -- Matthew
Lambert the baker who gave them lodging, and a group of sailors who tried to
arrange a passage for them, though without success.
II ARREST AND IMPRISONMENT.
In the early summer of 1581, the Crown was reasserting its authority in
County Wexford, both in 'English Wexford' and in the Cavanagh territories.
It is fairly clear that the executions carried out among the Cavanaghs were
under martial law. In 'English Wexford', however, the assizes of Queen's
Bench had been regularly held every year, and those accused of favouring
Baltinglass were in prison awaiting trial. They included many men of
standing and substance, and also Matthew Lambert and the group of sailors.
I am an unlettered man.
But I speak
for my friends
accused here with me.
I do not undersand
you ask me,
and I believe in the faith
of my mother,
the holy Catholic faith."
a baker There must have been a great number on trial. Many had been
arraigned, but it was difficult to get a jury to convict members of the
landed gentry. The Lord Deputy was naturally anxious that exemplary and
public punishment should be meted out in Wexford. The poor men, Matthew
Lambert and the sailors, were the obvious victims. At his preliminary
hearing Matthew Lambert was at least threatened with torture, and quite
probably was tortured. He was questioned on his loyalty to the Pope and to
the Queen. To this he replied simply that he was a Catholic, that he
believed what the Catholic Church believed, and that he did not understand
these controversies. It would appear that he repeated these statements when
he came before the court. But, since the papal deposition of Elizabeth in
1570, a profession of loyalty to the Pope was necessarily a profession of
disloyalty to the Queen. In consequence, he was condemned to be hanged,
drawn and quartered as a traitor.
John Howlin states explicitly that the sailors were tortured. Despite this
and despite the entreaties of their families, they persisted in professing
the Catholic faith, and continued to do so in open court. In consequence,
they too were condemned to die as traitors.
The Walls of Wexford.
All were hanged, drawn, and quartered at Wexford, probably on the 5th July.
While the legal charge was treason, there is no reason to believe that these
simple and unletterd men were conscious traitors to the Queen. The political
leaders had consciously concluded that after 1570 their loyalty to the Pope
implied that they must be disloyal to the Queen, but Matthew Lambert is to
be believed when he said that he did not understand these things: he acted
as he did simply because he was a Catholic. The sailors were concerned to
make the same point.
On 27th September 1992 they were beatified by Pope John Paul II as 'Matthew
Lambert, baker and Robert Meyler, Edward Cheevers and Patrick Cavanagh,
In the Diocese of Ferns their Feast day is 5th July.