The Great Martyrdom, 10 September 1622
Depiction of the Great Martyrdom by an anonymous Japanese artist. Credit: By Japanese artist, unknown [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Below I have transcribed an account of the Great Martyrdom of 1622 from an English translation (1705) of Jean Crasset’s Histoire de l’Eglise du Japon (History of the Church of Japan), published in Paris in 1689. I have changed only the archaic capitalizations (in the original, all nouns were capitalized) and the inaccurate or non-standard renderings of Japanese names. Otherwise, the translator’s spellings and punctuation remain.
We begin this book [The Sixteenth Book of Crasset’s History] with one of the most glorious sights that hath yet appear’d in Japan. One and fifty, partly religious, and partly seculars, burnt alive, and beheaded for the Holy Faith, and the celebrated Father Spinola of the Society of Jesus, at the head of the troop, whose precious death falls next under our consideration.
Gonroku, Governour of Nagasaki, pursuant to his last instructions from Court, order’d Hikoemon Lieutenant to the Prince of Omura, to bring all the prisoners in those parts, under a strong guard to Nagasaki. In the mean while, he pick’d up at home of men and women, to the number of thirty, and condemn’d them to be beheaded, for professing the holy Faith.
These good Religious had now laid four years languishing in the prisons of Omura. Nine of them were of the Society of Jesus, the rest partly of St. Dominick, and partly of St. Francis’s Order, together with ten pious Christians. They lay winter and summer, expos’d to the weather. Brother Fernandez was perfectly starv’d to death. Father Charles Spinola never once chang’d his cloaths in three years time, so that he was in a manner cover’d over with odure and filth. But the greatest torment of all was the intollerable stench, and noisomness of the prison, and it was so streight withall, that they had not room to lie in. Moreover, they wou’d not so much as let them move out of the spot, for the common ease and benefit of nature, which bread such swarms of vermin about them, that they were little better than eaten alive. In a word, the place was in it self a perfect resemblance of Hell, and their life (abstracting from the interiour quiet of their souls) a continual martyrdom. Their common allowance was a spoonful of black rice boil’d in water, with porridge made of roots, and sometimes a herring half rotten ; but this dainty was soon retrench’d.
The Governour of Omura having orders to conduct the Prisoners to Nagasaki, chose out of the respective Orders to the number of twenty four, viz. nine of the Society [of Jesus], namely Father Charles Spinola, and Father Sebastian Kimura, with seven other novices, who made their vows afterwards to the foresaid Father Spinola, as the Provincial had directed. The rest were all Dominicans and Fryars. But as it happen’d heretofore, in the case of the Forty Martyrs at Sebaste, so it fair’d now with these Saints, all did not gain the crown, for two sunk under torments, as Father Spinola had more than once foretold.
All the prisoners were ship’d off for Nangoya [Nagayo], besides two Priests of the Order of St. Dominick and St. Francis, and the guards strictly charg’d to let none speak with them on the way. This notwithstanding, one Leo Sukezayemon, a noble Japonian, made up to Father Kimura, and recommending himself to his prayers, cut off a piece of his garment by way of relick.
From this village began the glorious cavalcade of the Martyrs. First of all went an officer, and numbers of guards after him, both foot and horse, arm’d with lances, pikes, and musquets. Next after them follow’d Father Spinola, and then the rest of the Martyrs, but without any order or distinction. Each of them had a cord about his neck, and an executioner at his side, to drag him along, God so permitting, for the greater glory of his Saints.
Being benighted at Urakami, they shut them up in a double enclosure, but the rain coming on at the same time, were forc’d to remove them into a little straw hut till next morning. At break of day three Christians were permitted to speak with them, and amongst the rest, Father Spinola’s catechist, who brought him the first news of his death [-sentence]. The Father was overjoy’d at the account, and in acknowledgment of the happy tidings, presented him with a discipline [a scourge] which he had us’d in prison, and a pair of beads. These were all the riches of that holy man.
He desir’d extremely to enter into the field of battel in his surplice, with an embroider’d banner of the name of Jesus in his hand, which he had caus’d to be made for this purpose, and design’d that Father Kimura should do the same, but the guards positively refus’d it. Then they mounted them again on horseback, and conducted them in the same order as before, to the place of execution, about a league off. The ways were all lin’d with people, and the Christians from all parts flock’d thither to ask their blessing, weeping and lamenting to see their Pastors, who came from the end of the world to teach them the way of salvation, so barbarously murther’d.
Drawing near to the place of execution, on an eminence near the sea side, within sight of Nagasaki, they found the whole bordering plain clad with people, insomuch, that it was impossible to distinguish what the Saints spoke, for the noise and clamour of the multitude. Father Kimura indeed raising his voice, pray’d a moment’s silence, and then said (so that all might hear him) He long’d with all his heart to let them know what joy he felt in his soul upon his approaching end ; but the noise of the people depriv’d us of the rest of his discourse, which he pronounc’d with the zeal of an apostle and Martyr.
Notwithstanding their earnestness to consummate the sacrifice, a stop was put to the execution, till such time as thirty more of their companions, who were condemn’d for harbouring the priests, had joyn’d them. They brought with them their wives, children, and neighbours, as also the families of the four martyrs, that were burnt alive some years before. Being then all arriv’d, they enter’d the list in their robes of ceremony, and express’d in their looks the comfort they had of dying with the Fathers.
They ty’d those that were to be burnt to stakes, but so slightly, that if courage fail’d, nothing was easier than to make an escape. All the religious were bound, except one John Chūgoku, of the Society, whom they beheaded for want of a stake. Father Spinola falling on his knees, embrac’d the wood, to the surprise of the heathens, who much admir’d to see a man take pleasure in dying so cruel a death.
They planted twenty five stakes in a line, and set guards both at the water side, and at the foot of the hill, to hinder the people from approaching, and a kind of throne in the middle, cover’d with China tapistry, for Sukedayu the Governour’s Lieutenant to sit on, who presided in the action.
The time of sacrifice now drawing near, Father Spinola, to excite his companions, and the other Christians to praise God for his great mercy, began to entone the Psalm Laudate Dominum omne Gentes ; immediatly the rest answer’d, and made up altogether a most harmonious concert, insomuch, that if we may believe Gonzales Montero, in his informations at Manila (who was present at the action) he had never heard any thing so charming in his whole life.
The Psalm ended, Father Spinola addressing himself to the Lieutenant, and the rest of the company, began this discourse:
You may guess, noble Japonians, by the joy that appears on our countenances, at the sight of these dreadful torments, whether we came from the other world to seize on your estates, or to teach you the way of salvation. The Christian religion inspires her children, with a contempt of all worldly greatness. It’s your souls happiness we aim at, and not your riches. Fortunate Japonians that embrace the law of the true God, for everlasting happiness will be your recompence. On the contrary, the lot of those that still persist in their infidelity, is Hell fire for all eternity, and flames infinitely more active than those we are now to encounter. The torments we are here to suffer, are of a short continuance, but the glory that’s prepar’d for us in Heaven, and the blessed life, which thro’ his mercy we hope to enjoy, will never have an end. For the rest, don’t think to terrify the preachers of the Gospel with these frightful appearances, for the greatest happiness that can attend us in this life, is to suffer and die for the God we adore and worship.
Then turning to the Portuguese merchants, who were not a little concern’d for their death, he made them so moving a discourse, that one of the heads of them resolv’d to leave the World upon it, and enter into the Society of Jesus.
In the mean while, the executioners were preparing to do their office, and march’d up to those that were to be beheaded. With that the thirty glorious champions fell on their knees, and whilst they were fitting themselves for the work, a gentlewoman of the company call’d Isabella Fernandez (Widow to Don Dominick George the Portuguese) took up her child, who was only four years of age, and call’d to Father Spinola to recommend him to God in his prayers. They call’d the child Ignatius as being born on that Saint’s day. Father Spinola baptiz’d him, and his parents consecrated him to God from his infancy. Being amongst the rest of the croud, and clad after a decent manner, the eyes of the whole multitude were upon him, but Father Spinola not discerning him, cry’d out in a concern to his mother ; Where’s little Ignatius? What’s become of him? With that the devout parent took him up in her arms, and shewing him to the Father, reply’d again : Behold him here in my arms, he is pleas’d to die with me, and I freely sacrifice to God what’s dearest to me in the world, my son, and my life. Then turning to the child, Behold (said she) him that made you a son of God, and gave you a life, better than what you are now going to lose. Recommend your self to his prayers, and beg his blessing.
With that the child fell down on his knees, and joyning his hands, did as the mother had order’d. The people were all strangely mov’d at the passage, insomuch, that the officers were forc’d to hasten the execution for fear of a tumult. The first that suffer’d was Mary, widow to Andrew Tokuan the Martyr. Her head and two more fell down at the child’s feet; and yet he was not in the least surpris’d ; what’s more, when they beheaded his mother who stood next him, he did not so much as change colour ; on the contrary, falling on his knees, and loosening himself the collar of his coat, cheerfully submitted to the sword.
Father Spinola stood all the while and beheld this butchery from his stake. Questionless the sacrifice of so many noble victims, was a most agreeable spectacle, at the same time, he could not but be sensible of the death of little Ignatius. This first scene over, the executioner set fire to the wood, which stood a matter of five and twenty foot from the Martyrs, and this to prolong their torments, and force them to renounce the Faith.
The fire being well kindled, a hideous shout was rais’d round the plain, some wept, others lifted up their eyes to Heaven, others cry’d for mercy, the Martyrs only were silent, and stood immoveable in the flames. The first that carried the Crown was Father Charles Spinola, and that after two hours rosting at the fire. Probably he died first, as being of a more delicate complection, or thro’ weakness by his long sickness in prison, or perchance by favour of the sparks, which happen’d to light on his cloaths before the fire reach’d his stake. All the time of his suffering he stood streight up, with his eyes, fix’d on Heaven and the cords being burnt, his body fell down into the flames, and was consum’d in a holocaust, to the glory of His Divine Majesty.
The other religious follow’d presently after, and honour’d our Faith, with their invincible constancy and patience. Above all, the Novices of the Society were particularly taken notice of, as expressing a celestial kind of sweetness in their looks, which continu’d with them to their last breath. The last that died, was Father Sebastian Kimura of the Society, and if we credit the report of those that were present, he liv’d by their hour-glasses, three full hours in the flames.
All had not the same resolution, for two young men of the troop, who had lately enter’d into a religious order, unhappily verify’d Father Spinola’s prediction. Being overcome with the torments, after a short struggle to break the cords, without regard to the good advice of Brother Lewis of the Society who stood next them, they forc’d their way thro’ the fire, and falling at the Judge’s feet, call’d upon Shaka and Amida. Virtue is charming in the opinion of its very enemies, on the contrary, the lewdest libertines profess a dislike and aversion to vice. Both one and t’other were verifyed on this occasion. Every one applauded the constancy of the Martyrs, at the same time they conceiv’d so strange an aversion to these apostats, that nothing would serve them, but they must commit them again to the flames, and in effect they did.
A secular Japonian also, breaking his cords, attempted an escape, but reflecting upon the constancy of his wife, who had newly suffer’d before his eyes, he was so touch’d, that he flung himself again into the fire, and so repair’d his fault by a voluntary sacrifice of his life. They speak variously of this latter : However this is certain, he never call’d upon Amida, nor is there any proof, that he deny’d his faith, if then he committed any fault, and afterwards return’d back to his stake, without all question, Almighty God had mercy on his soul.
The Martyrs being all expir’d, the Christians forc’d the enclosure to carry off their relicks. Amongst the rest Leo Sukezayemon disguising himself in a soldier’s coat, press’d in with the guards, and stole one of the Martyrs bones, but being taken in the theft, they seiz’d him, and soon after put both him and his wife to death at Omura. The Governour to hinder the Christians from taking away their relicks, order’d the soldiers to pile up all the bones and instruments, as also the very earth that was stain’d with their blood, and burn them to ashes, and these too to be thrown into the sea. All they preserved was the head of Mary, wife to Tokuan, which was given to the Christians in consideration of her near alliance to the Governour.
Their martyrdom fell on the Second [sic] of September, 1622, and is commonly call’d the Great Martyrdom, in regard of the number and quality of the persons that suffer’d. We may add also the vast concourse of heathens and Christians that came from all parts to see the execution. As for this last I appeal to a letter of Father Baza’s, then Rector of the College of Nagasaki.
Nagasaki (says he) is this day thinner of people than before the persecution, and yet by common computation, they reckon in and about the town, a matter of fifty thousand Christians. Probably curiosity, and devotion together, invited them abroad to assist at the great solemnity. Hence also it’s easie to conjecture what trouble the good Fathers were in, to see their flourishing Church cultivated for the space of sixty years with continual labour and fatigue, so suddainly defac’d. Before the persecution, the number of the Christians all together, amounted to upwards of three hundred thousand, besides children. Questionless, there was nothing but the glory which redounded to God by the Martyrs sufferings, that cou’d make them anywise tolerable easie. Behold the names of those that dy’d on this memorable day.
The names of those that were burnt alive.
Of the Order of St. Dominick.
Father Francis Morales.
Father Alphonsus de Mina.
Father Hyacinth Orfanelli.
Father Angelus Ferrie.
Brother Alexius the Japonian.
Of the Order of St. Francis.
Father Peter Avila.
Father Richard of St. Ann.
Of the Society of Jesus.
Father Charles Spinola.
Brother Thomas Akohoshi.
Father Sebastian Kimura.
Brother Michael Shumpu.
Brother Peter Sampo.
Brother Anthony Kiuni.
Brother Consaluus [Gonzalo] Fusai.
Brother Lewis Cavara [Kawaura].
Seculars burnt alive.
Anthony a Coreyan.
Paul a Japonian.
Luke Irtites a Japonian. [Error: the original French reads ‘Luce des Irtites Japonnoise’ i.e. a lady. Perhaps Lucia de Freitas]
Anthony Sanga the catechist.
The names of those that were beheaded.
Brother Thomas of the Order of St. Dominick.
John of the Third Order of St. Dominick.
Brother John Chūgoku of the Society.
Isabella Fernandes, wife to Don Dominick George a Portuguese, who was burnt for the Faith.
Ignatius her son, at the age of four years.
Mary widow to Andrew Tokuan the Martyr.
Marina a widow.
Mary wife to Anthony Corey [Antonio, a Korean] the Martyr.
Apollonia a widow.
Agnes, widow to the late Martyr Cosmas.
John son to Anthony Corey [son of Antonio, a Korean], a youth of 12 years of age.
Peter his brother at the age of three years.
Mary widow to John Shun the Martyr.
Dominica a widow.
Magdalen wife to Anthony Sanga the Martyr.
Dominick Yamanda [Yamada or Hamada].
Mary late wife to Paul who was burnt for his faith.
Thecla wife to Paul of Nangaixi [Nagaishi].
Peter his son, at the age of seven years.
Dominick Nacavo [Domingo Nakano] son to one Matthias that died for the faith.
Peter Motoyama a child of five years of age, and son to John the Martyr.
Damien and his son Michael a child at the age of five years.
Clement and Anthony his son, an infant of three years old.
Rufus, and Clare, the spouse of a Martyr.
Crasset’s list of Martyrs is incomplete. In reality, twenty-five were burned at the stake and thirty beheaded. His account, nevertheless, is priceless.
May all of us who suffer doubt meditate on these Christian stalwarts’ lesson in faith unshakable.
Copyright © 2018 by Luke O'Hara Kirishtan.com and Lukeohara.com