Life for English Catholics became close to impossible under Queen Elizabeth I. Catholics who refused to attend Protestant services were burdened with crippling fines that over a period of years ruined the fortunes of well-to-do families and bankrupted middle class or working class families within a matter of months. Catholics were forbidden to have their children baptized by a priest, or to send their children overseas for a Catholic education. To attend Mass or go to confession was a crime. To open’s one home to a priest was a crime punishable by death. Yet in spite of these penalties, not only did England’s Catholics try to persevere, but many Protestant English men and women actually returned to the faith of their ancestors.
Anne Heigham was not yet 20 years old when she, along with her brother William, became Catholic. Their parents, both staunch Protestants with strong Puritan sympathies, would not tolerate Catholics in the family. They disinherited Anne and William.
Not long afterward Anne married Roger Line, another disinherited Catholic convert. Sadly, they did not enjoy a long life together. Roger was arrested for attending Mass and then banished from England. He died in Flanders (modern-day Belgium), leaving Anne alone and almost destitute.
About this time Anne met Father John Gerard, a Jesuit priest who ran a clandestine mission to England’s persecuted Catholics. He invited Anne to settle in London and operate a safe house for visiting priests and Catholic laity. Anne took the job, but soon she was doing much more than housekeeping. She built up a Catholic network throughout England so that priests traveling through the country in disguise would always have a secure place to rest, celebrate Mass and administer the sacraments. Anne even planned the priests’ itinerary. In her “spare time,” she taught secret catechism classes to Catholic children and made Mass vestments. All of these activities put Anne in danger of prison and execution, but she remained absolutely fearless.
If Anne took enormous risks, she also received tremendous consolation. Since there was almost always a priest in her house, she could go to Mass almost every day. In Elizabethan England, very, very few Catholics enjoyed such a blessing.
It was only a matter of time, of course, before the priest-hunters caught up with Anne. On Feb. 2, 1601, some London Catholics made their way to Anne’s house to hear Mass on Candlemas Day. Jesuit Father Francis Page was about to begin when there came a loud pounding on the door. Thinking quickly, Father Page removed his vestments and took a seat among the congregation. When the authorities broke in, they couldn’t identify the priest, but the presence of an altar, furnished for Mass, was enough to arrest the head of the household, Anne Line. After 24 days in prison, Anne was given a swift trial and condemned to death, with her execution set for the following day.
When she reached the gallows at Tyburn Anne made a brief speech to the crowd. “I am sentenced to die for harboring a Catholic priest,” she said. “And so far I am from repenting for having done so, that I wish, with all my soul, that where I have entertained one, I could have entertained a thousand.”