St. John Stone was an Augustinian Friar (Austin Friar) belonging to the Canterbury house of that Order. The Augustinian Friary stood approximately where Riceman’s departmental store now stands; the main entrance to the Friary was in St George’s Street in front of the passageway housing an escalator to the first floor of Riceman’s and Marks & Spencer’s. In the pavement in front of the passageway there is an inscription marking the spot of the Friary’s main entrance. The whole area of Canterbury where the Augustinian Friary once stood is still called Whitefriars (after the colour of the Augustinian Friars’ habit).
Little is know of John Stone’s early life. In November 1534 parliament ratified the Act of Supremacy which declared the king to be the only supreme head of the Church in England. Henry VIII formally assumed the title on 1st. February 1535. The Act of Supremacy was quickly followed by the Treason Act, and explicitly enjoined the penalty of high treason on anyone who might ‘maliciously’ desire to deprive the king of his title of supreme head of the Church. All bishops, priests and religious were required to sign a formal document explicitly acknowledging Henry VIII as head of the church in England. Richard Ingworth, who had been a Dominican friar and who had signed the Act of Supremacy, had been made Bishop of Dover in the new Church of England. On Saturday, 14th December 1538 Ingworth visited Canterbury and called on the Augustinian Friary with an order to close it down. Every friar was forced to sign a formal document agreeing to the Act of Supremacy. John Stone refused to sign. In his report to Chancellor Cromwell Ingworth described his meeting with John Stone:
|Being in the Austin friars there the 14th day of December, one Friar there very rudely and traitorously used himself before all the company as by a bill here enclosed you shall perceive part. To write half his words and order there it were too long to write. I perceiving his demeanour straight sequestered him so that none spoke with him. I sent for the mayor and ere that he came I examined him before master Spilman and also afterwards before the mayor and master Spilman and at all times he still held and still will die for it that the King may not be head of the Church of England, but it must be a spiritual father appointed by God|
While awaiting trial, Friar Stone was probably kept in the cells of Canterbury Castle, the remains of which still stand near the present day Wincheap roundabout. John’s friend, Nicholas Harpsfield, relates the following details:John Stone was sent to London where he languished in the Tower for many months. However, on 27th October 1539 a commission of ‘Oyer et Terminer‘ (Hear and Determine) was addressed to the Mayor of Canterbury, John Starky, and four other worthy gentlemen. So, Friar Stone was sent back to Canterbury to be tried for treason under the 1535 Treason Act, which declared that the penalty for high Treason was death. There was no appeal allowed, he had professed.
|Having poured forth prayers to God in prison and fasted continuously for three days he heard a voice though he saw no one, which addressed him by name and bade him to be of good heart and not to hesitate to suffer death with constancy for the belief which he had professed. From which afterwards he gained such eagerness and strength as never to allow himself by persuasion or terror to be drawn from his purpose.|
We do not know the exact date of John Stone’s trial in December 1539, but it would appear to have been before Christmas. The trial took place in Guildhall (now demolished) in Guildhall Street. The presiding judges were Thomas Bele, the new mayor. Sir Christopher Hales and probably Baron John Hales. It was a very short trial. A jury confronted with an indictment for High Treason had no alternative but to find the defendant guilty. John Stone was taken to Westgate tower to await his execution. In order to show to the populace that he was an exceptional criminal the actual execution took place on the Donjeon (now called Dane John), a prominent hillock inside the city walls near the present Canterbury East railway station; as well as this, no expense was spared in the preparations so as to ensure maximum publicity.
John Stone was dragged on a hurdle from Westgate Tower to Dane John. Whether by design or accident the choice of Dane John meant that, as John Stone stood on the scaffold, he would have seen his beloved Augustinian Friary, now barred and empty, beneath him. John was hanged, drawn and quartered. We are not certain of the exact date of St. John Stone’s martyrdom, but most authors suggest that it took place on Saturday, 27th December 1539,
John Stone was beatified by Pope Leo XIII in 1886 and was canonised as one of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales by Pope Paul VI in 1970.
There is a fine relief of St. John Stone by Sister Concordia of Minster Abbey in the Martyrs’ chapel of St. Thomas’ Catholic Church, Burgate, Canterbury, and the Catholic Chaplaincy building at the University of Kent Canterbury is named St. John Stone House in memory of a man who chose death rather than go against his conscience.
By Canon Michael Bunce