Blessed Everard Hanse
Pragmatist who found certainty
Join me today for the story of two brothers struggling to make the best of the bad times they were born into.
Name: Everard Hanse, alias Evans Duckett
Life: Died 1581
Feast: 30 July
Both of the Hanse brothers, William and his younger brother Everard, had the same vocation. They were going to become priests.
If they had been born in a different time, they would have been colleagues who encouraged one another along the way. But that wasn’t how things had worked out. William and Everard pursued their vocations in the years after the English Supremacy Act of 1559. The Act and its consequences drove a wedge between the two, and would keep the brothers at odds.
The problem was that, in 1559, Queen Elizabeth I of England used the Supremacy Act to declare that it was she, Elizabeth, rather than the Pope, who was the supreme spiritual leader of England. It was an escalation of her father Henry VIII’s attempt to nationalize the English church. According to the 1559 Act, all clergy in England had to swear an oath stating that their primary loyalty was to Elizabeth. If they refused, they could no longer be officially recognized as priests. They would be cut off from universities and funding. They would be left with nothing.
The result of Henry and Elizabeth’s policies was that there were two churches where there had previously only been one. One was the official, wealthy, state-approved national church. The other was the Catholic church as it had been for a thousand years, now unofficial and poor and semi-disreputable. Most people could see that it would soon be not just disreputable, but illegal to be a Catholic. Catholics were already being tried for treason on the assumption that they were not fully loyal to the crown. This meant that thanks to Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, everyone in England had to choose between the faith of his fathers and his own safety and comfort.
William and Everard’s parents seemed to be natural fence sitters, which meant they drifted into the new Church of England. So it was William who was the rebel when he announced that he was going to become a Roman Catholic priest.
William followed his vocation in the only way that was still possible. He went to France, where the priest and future Cardinal William Allen had set up a seminary at Douai, though by the time William arrived it had moved to Reims. William understood that his training would not give him an easy life. When he finished his studies and became a priest in 1579, he slipped back into England quietly and began an underground ministry, supported by the network of secret and semi-secret Catholics who were still there.
Everard looked at the situation and did what any pragmatic person would do: he chose safety and success. He became an Anglican priest in the Church of England, studying at Cambridge University. While he was there, he discovered he had a way with words. He graduated with an excellent education and found that the world was open to him. He soon settled in a comfortable and lucrative position and embarked on a very promising career.
Everard and William kept in touch, and Everard kept his brother’s secret. Their parents were still alive, so the brothers had many occasions to meet. When they did, sparks flew.
William could not understand how Everard could serve a church which had popped up so recently, basically so that Henry VIII could have a divorce. Everard could not understand why his brother insisted on dredging up history and doing things the hard way.
I can’t help but wonder whether either brother had second thoughts. I wonder whether William envied his brother’s success. And I wonder whether while he was lying awake in the dark Everard asked himself whether William’s criticisms had some merit.
Perhaps Everard was even as conflicted as his senior colleague, the vice chancellor of Cambridge, Doctor Andrew Perne. When it was pragmatic to leave Catholicism behind, the learned Doctor Perne had done it without hesitation. No one was quite sure what he privately thought, until one day a young lady asked Perne. In a moment of parental affection, Perne dropped the mask of neutrality, and this is what he said.
“I beg you never to tell anyone what I am going to say. Since, however, you have asked me to answer as if I were responsible for your salvation, I will tell you. If you wish, you can live in the religion which the Queen and the whole kingdom profess—you will have a good life, you will have none of the vexations which Catholics have to suffer. But don’t die in it. Die in faith and communion with the Catholic Church, that is, if you want to save your soul.”
If he was telling the truth, we can infer that Perne’s secret plan was to go along to get along. Then, when he was old and dying and politically irrelevant, Perne would convert to Catholicism. Perhaps Everard Hanse even knew of Doctor Perne’s clever plan and contemplated something similar.
As it happens, Perne was never able to carry out his last-minute conversion plan. In 1589 he had dinner with the Archbishop of Canterbury - possibly the most Anglican thing you could do - and died suddenly as he was coming home. But Everard Hanse would receive the opportunity that slipped away from Doctor Perne.
In the middle of his success, Everard got very sick. The disease progressed, and Everard thought he was dying. As he lay in agony Everard reconsidered his longstanding argument with his brother William, and realized that he no longer believed that the easy way was the right way. Maybe he found he had never realy believed it. Facing the end, there was only one man he trusted to give him spiritual advice. It was his brother William.
And so it was that Father William Hanse received his dying brother, Everard Hanse, into the Catholic church. Or at least, they both thought that Everard was dying. Everard did not die. He got better. Or perhaps a part of Everard died. Everard Hanse the worldly pragmatist was gone. The man who stood up from the sick bed had a very different disposition, and he was ready to take his place among the manly saints.
Everard Hanse had finally found his vocation. He sailed to France as soon as he was able, in 1580, enrolling in William Allen’s seminary. While he was there, bad news trickled in from England. The persecutions were getting worse. Pope Pius V had excommunicated Elizabeth some time ago, and Anglicans were using that fact to ask Catholics whose side they were on, Elizabeth’s or the Pope’s? But William Allen’s diaries reveal that Everard Hanse and his eighteen classmates weren’t discouraged by this bad news. They were eager to return. They knew exactly what awaited them, but they felt God at work in their preparation for this mission and almost certain martyrdom. And so it was that, as soon as he became a priest, the new Father Everard Hanse set sail for England, arriving on the 24th of April 1581, under the alias Evans Duckett.
He returned to a country in which the agents of Elizabeth I’s spymaster, Francis Walsingham, were actively hunting Catholic priests. In response, priests had developed their own tradecraft. The fake name of Evans Duckett was only the start. Everard would have worn ordinary clothes, English clothes, because wearing anything from Catholic France was a dead giveaway. He would probably have tried to build a base of support as a private chaplain for a wealthy Catholic, which was how his brother William was surviving. When visiting a sick or dying person, Everard would have pretended to be a doctor. He probably bought a horse, because riders tended not to be hassled as much as walkers, and even a routine inspection could reveal a secret priest.
For a few months, Father Everard Hanse worked his way through the Catholic network in England. But it turned out he had made a tiny mistake. It was his shoes. Hanse had replaced his French clothes and hidden his priestly habit, but he had not thought that anyone would recognize the work of a French shoemaker. He was wrong. When he was going into a prison to speak with the prisoners, someone noticed that this Evans Duckett was not what he seemed, and he was arrested.
At this point, Hanse had not broken any laws. What he was doing would become illegal in 1584 through the Act Against Jesuits and Seminarists - the seminarists in question were those coming from William Allen’s seminary. But that did not mean that Walsingham’s agents could do nothing to captured priests. On the contrary.
Later in France, the future Cardinal William Allen got the news of what had happened, and it filled him with outrage. He pieced the story together for his book A briefe historie of the glorious martyrdom of twelve reverend priests. Allen includes his own marginal notes, which are sometimes informative but sometimes almost comically furious. For example, when explaining that Everard Hanse had graduated in just one year, Allen knows that some people might object that Hanse did not study long enough to become a proper priest. In the marginal note he fires back: “The heretikes say that he could not gett lerning inough to be a priest so quickly and yet they thought him lerned inough to be a Minister 4 or 5 yeres before”
Everard Hanse was held in prison, tortured, and then interrogated by an experienced interrogator and Catholic hunter named Fleetwood. The trick was to get Hanse to say something that would be treasonous. Fleetwood knew just how to do it.
Fleetwood asked him whether he was subject to the Pope.
Hanse said that he was, which got recorded as him saying that only the Pope ruled England. Allen’s marginal note: “How heretikes bely Catholikes”
Could the Pope make a mistake, Fleetwood asked.
Hanse laid out what was then and is now Catholic teaching. Yes of course the Pope is fallible in all sorts of ways as a private person. As Allen put it, “in life and maners [the Pope] might offend, & as in his private doctrine or writing erre also, yet as in iudicial definition and deciding matters of controversie he did never erre.” What Fleetwood wrote down was that Hanse had claimed that the pope cannot sin. Marginal note: “An other forgerie of the Protestants”
After he had got Hanse to admit that the Pope could teach infallibly, Fleetwood brought out a copy of Regnans in excelsis, the document which Pope Pius V had written declaring queen Elizabeth I a heretic:
Therefore, resting upon the authority of Him whose pleasure it was to place us (though unequal to such a burden) upon this supreme justice-seat, we do out of the fullness of our apostolic power declare the foresaid Elizabeth to be a heretic and favourer of heretics … And also (declare) the nobles, subjects and people of the said realm and all others who have in any way sworn oaths to her, to be forever absolved from such an oath and from any duty arising from lordship, fealty and obedience; and we do, by authority of these presents, so absolve them and so deprive the same Elizabeth of her pretended title to the crown (Sister Claudia Carlen translation)
By now I imagine Fleetwood smiling as he asked Hanse the question that would close the trap.
Did the Pope err when he wrote the words in Regnans in excelsis?
Hanse understood the trap. If he said that the Pope erred in this important “matter of controversie”, he was essentially giving up his faith. But if he said that the Pope did not err, that meant that according to Regnans in excelisis, Hanse was absolved of his duty of loyalty to Elizabeth.
Which meant he was not loyal to the queen.
Which meant he was a traitor.
Which meant he would be put to death.
But Father Everard Hanse was not some callow student. So his answer to the question of whether the Pope did err in what he had written about Elizabeth was:
“I hope that he did not.”
This ambiguous confession was then held up against Everard Hanse before a judge. The judge asked whether Hanse had confessed, and Hanse’s reply underscored the unfairness of the accusation. He said that “he was not altogether guiltie in those thinges as they were set downe, he yet acknowledged the sub stance & the sence thereof”. The judge found this sufficient. Hanse was sentenced to die.
Everard Hanse had been caught up in a problem that Christians and indeed religious people have always faced. The problem has a philosophical dimension. That’s why the issue of Christian loyalties was the focus of the first Christian philosopher, Justin Martyr.
All decent people recognize that we owe a duty of loyalty to our families, and by the same logic, to the extended families that we call nations. Now when people with philosophical ability consider the question of the existence of God, they recognize what even philosophical pagans like Plato and Aristotle understood: there must be a single supreme God. This Being holds our universe in existence through a continuous creative act. If we are loyal to our families because they create us through reproduction, we owe a deeper ontological debt to the One who creates us in the full sense. If God chooses to make demands of us, we have to answer - that was what the philosopher Socrates believed was true of him and why he was willing to die rather than stop obeying God’s commands. We Christians likewise believe that our Maker requires certain things of us. In the ordinary course of things, our duties to family and our duties to God are complementary. Indeed, God invites us to call him Father, and it is through loving and honouring our human fathers that we understand what that means. That is why it is a tragedy and an evil when these two deep and important loyalties seem to conflict.
In the time in which Everard and his brother William lived, these loyalties were difficult to reconcile. The English kings had - I would say selfishly - cast aside centuries of faith and forced their people to take sides. Pius V’s decision to excommunicate Elizabeth I had complicated the situation for Catholics in England. In 1588, Cardinal William Allen would side with the Spanish Armada that tried to invade England because he hoped that they would make England Catholic again. Perhaps they would have, if they had won, but Allen’s choice made it more difficult for loyal Englishmen to admire the Catholic church. The consequences of such decisions made by kings and queens, popes and cardinals are borne by ordinary people. Everard Hanse was one such person, and in his case, it meant that he had to die.
As he waited on a cart with a rope around his neck, Hanse was given a chance to speak with the crowd who had gathered to see his execution. I imagine that it was assumed he’d be shouted down, and even if not, that a man about to die would be too nervous to say anything coherent. Unfortunately for his executioners, Hanse’s words did not desert him. He answered questions and spoke well, and won over the crowd.
Winning the opinion of the crowd didn’t save Hanse’s life. It did, however, guarantee that after his death the people who had watched him die, who believed that they had seen a saintly death, grabbed every possible relic, so that the only official relic of Everard Hanse that remained was a bit of bloody fabric.
Father Everard Hanse was hanged. His executioners aimed for maximum cruelty, so he was cut down before he was completely dead and disembowelled, then had his body cut into pieces, which were then burned. As the executioner was disemboweling him, he is supposed to have said a few words. They are not what we would expect of a man in his terrible situation.
“Oh happy day.”
What did Father Everard Hanse mean by this? We can find out from the letter he wrote the night before his execution. In this short letter, we see a man who is setting his affairs in order. But sandwiched between his last requests about money and who will get his slippers is another message aimed at his brother William. It is the conclusion to their longstanding argument from years ago when Everard had been taking the easy way. Now he was taking the hard way, perhaps the hardest way, but Everard Hanse was finally where he needed to be.
Brother, I pray you to be careful for my parents… Give thanks to God for all that he hath sent, cast not yourselfe into dangers wilfully, but pray to God when occasion is offered, you may take it with patience. The comforts of the present instance are unspeakable, the diginitie too high for a sinner, but God is merciful: Bestowe my things you find ungeven away upon my poor kinfolks. … Have me commended to my frends, let them thinke that I will not forget them. The day and hour of my birth is at hand, and my Master saith, Tolle crucem tuam & sequere me (take up your cross and follow me).
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