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Responding to a Moment of Mercy: St. Philip Howard

Philip's Early Life

St. Philip Howard was born on June 28, 1557 under the reign of the English Catholic Queen Mary I. He was the only son of Thomas, the fourth Duke of Norfolk and Lady Mary Fitzalan. Philip was baptized in Whitehall Palace by the Catholic Archbishop of York with the royal family in attendance. He was named after his godfather King Philip of Spain.
However, everything changed in Philip's world in a little over a year's time. First, Philip's mother died about eight weeks after his birth. Second, Queen Mary died in November of 1558, and Queen Elizabeth I ascended to the throne. Soon, the new queen re-established the Church of England as the only legal religion.
Philip's father Thomas rejoined the Church of England. Thomas would remarry and have four children before his second wife died. Then in 1563, he would marry a third time to a widow named Elizabeth Leyburne Dacre who had three daughters. Thomas had three sons, and therefore, he married each of the sons to the three daughters of Elizabeth. Thomas would be executed in 1572 after being implicated in a plot to overthrow Queen Elizabeth and restore a Catholic monarch to England.

Married But Not Ready for It

For Philip, at the age of fourteen, he found himself married to Anne Dacre and a member of the Church of England. Although marriages at his young age were not uncommon in this time period, it was clear that Philip was not prepared to be married. He lived a frivolous life and was only bent on how he could advance in the world. Although his wife Anne truly loved Philip, he was neglectful, unfaithful, and only thought of advancing in his career.

Seeking the Success of the World

After graduating from Cambridge, he entered the court of the queen at the age of eighteen. Soon he had become a favorite of Queen Elizabeth at the expense of his wife whom the queen loathed. (The queen was actually a second cousin to Philip through his father.) Philip's time was spent advancing his status in the court and living the wasteful and debauched life that was assumed to be necessary as a courtier. Anne was ignored. And yet Anne remained faithful and true.
By the age of twenty-three, Philip had become Earl of Arundel. His star was rising in the royal court and the sky was the limit for his worldly aspirations. However, he did not recognize that everything he was building was a pile of straw, and everything he was neglecting was what was truly important.

A Moment of Grace

Then came an interesting moment of grace for Philip. Philip was in the audience for a debate between the Jesuit priest St. Edmund Campion and a group of theologians of the Church of England. Campion was on trial and the results of the theological confrontation would result in his martyrdom.
However, Campion's words worked there way into Philip's soul in a way that nothing had ever before in his life. Suddenly, the truth mattered. And what he began to realize was the truth about authority. Philip would mull over the words of the martyr for several years. And during that time, he would come to the conclusion that the Church of England was something man-made, but the Catholic Church was from God.
Philip experienced a true conversion. Jesus and His Church became important to him, and his worldly ambitions became less important. As he considered the true Catholic Church, he realized he had neglected his wife Anne for so many years. Through repentance, he came back to his marriage, and the one who had been the saint through all of those difficult years, welcomed him back. And their marriage became one of love and understanding.

Coming Home to the Catholic Church

Anne, for her part, readily embraced the Catholic Church and openly came back into the fold established by Christ. With this last spark, Philip also entered into the fullness of the Catholic Church in 1584 and become a devout follower of Christ. Anne and Philip both practiced their faith fervently and became helpers in the underground Church by hiding priests at their estate.
With his conversion, Philip's star in the royal court began a quick descent. The one who would not go along, to get along was soon marked as being on the outs. And, Philip helped it along by writing to Queen Elizabeth a letter in which he told her how important truth was to him.

Betrayed, Arrested, and Imprisoned

Philip and Anne made the decision to go abroad in order that they might be able to practice their faith. However, it was not allowed to simply leave England without permission. Because Philip reasoned he would never get permission from the queen, they tried to escape. Unfortunately, a servant betrayed them and Philip was arrested in 1585 and taken to the Tower of London. He was charged with being a Roman Catholic, trying to leave England without permission, and sharing in plots against the queen. He was fined £10,000 and returned to prison.
Philip would remain in prison for ten years until his death in 1595 at the age of thirty-eight. During that time, the queen would offer him his freedom and his return to his noble status if he would simply attend a Protestant service. Philip always refused. He appealed to be able to see his wife and the son he had never met who had been born after his imprisonment, but he was given the same offer to deny his faith in order to see the ones he loved.

Finally Freedom After Ten Years

Instead, for ten years, he would spend his days in prayer and meditation never sure if that day would be his last one on earth. As other Catholics were taken to Tower of London, Philip learned of it and was able to communicate with them through his dog which was a greyhound and acted as a go-between. In fact, through the dog, he developed a friendship with the fellow martyr Bl. Robert Southwell. Unbeknownst to others, the dog carried messages of encouragement among the prisoners.
At one point, he carved the message in Latin in the wall of his cell which can be seen today: Quanto plus afflictiones pro Christo in hoc saeculo, tanto, plus gloriae cum Christon in futuro. (The more afflictions we bear for Christ in this world, the more glory we attain with Christ in the world to come.) Certainly, those ten years were years of affliction for Philip. After wasting many years, his life had turned around and he had been able to be restored in faith and in his marriage. Now, he was denied his marriage and punished for his faith.

The queen apparently never signed the certificate for Philip's death, but he was never told that. Instead, he was kept in suspense, and he died a martyr on October 19, 1595 due to dysentery from his imprisonment.

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