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A painting depicting Saint Peter being crucified upside-down

7 tortuous saints' deaths from history

Excrutiatingly slow, shockingly gory, and immortalised in art - these are the most brutal saints' deaths in history

Image: The Crucifixion of Saint Peter (1601) | Public Domain

Many of the 10,000-plus men and women officially recognised by the Catholic Church as saints have also been revered for centuries as martyrs – meaning they died because of their faith.

In many cases, the martyrs’ defiance in the face of the authority of officials, kings, and emperors meant that they were seen as the most egregious traitors, and so those in power would demand the most severe punishments. The pages of history are stained with the blood of these martyrs, and the list of the various ways in which they were executed is seemingly endless, from burning at the stake to being fed to lions.

From Peter the Apostle, martyred nearly 2,000 years ago, to Margaret Clitherow, executed in 1586, here are seven of the cruellest saints’ deaths from history.

1. Peter – Crucified upside-down

Probably one of the most famous martyrs is Saint Peter. Born in Judaea in AD 1, Peter was the first pope and was one of the 12 apostles of Jesus.

Peter was sentenced to death by the Roman emperor Nero, famous for his ruthless and brutal treatment of Christians. In the year 64, the Great Fire of Rome started in the Circus Maximus arena. It burned for nearly a week and by the time it was put out, it had torn through 10 of Rome’s 14 districts. Nero blamed Christians for the fire, and Peter was one of the main scapegoats.

Famously, Peter asked to be crucified upside-down, as he didn’t believe anyone was worthy to be killed the same way as Jesus Christ. According to the apocryphal Acts of Peter, Peter said, ‘I beseech you the executioners, crucify me thus, with the head downward and not otherwise.’

Many believe that Peter is buried in the crypt underneath St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, but this has not been conclusively proven.

2. Bartholomew – Flayed alive

Saint Bartholomew, born in Galilee in the 1st century, was another of Jesus Christ’s apostles. He was martyred in Armenia circa 68AD.

The traditional version of events says that Bartholomew had spent time preaching in Western Asia, but he came unstuck when he converted King Polymius, a ruler in ancient Armenia. This conversion greatly angered the king’s brother, who feared that it would sour their relationship with the Romans. The prince ordered Bartholomew to be put to death.

He was skinned alive and then beheaded. Flaying as a means of execution was typically done using a knife, making incisions and then peeling small away strips of skin at a time. Bartholomew is often depicted holding a knife, symbolising his gruesome death as well as his connection to knife-wielding jobs such as butchers and tanners.

3. Laurence – Grilled alive

Saint Lawrence was born in Huesca, modern-day Spain in 225, and was one of seven deacons of Rome who were responsible for helping Rome’s poor.

One day in 258, the greedy prefect of Rome told Lawrence to bring him the riches he believed the church was hiding. Lawrence gathered up the city’s poor and presented them to the prefect, telling him, ‘These people are the church’s treasure’.

The prefect took this as an insult and ordered Lawrence to be executed. But the odious official wanted Lawrence to really suffer, so he specified that Lawrence was to be placed on an iron griddle and a low-burning fire was to be lit underneath him.

As Lawrence was being gradually cooked alive, he prayed that Rome would one day be converted to Christianity and that this faith would extend across the world. Despite the torturous way in which he was being killed, he was said to be in such joyous spirit that he quipped to the executioner, ‘I’m well done on this side. Turn me over!’

4. Marciana – Killed by animals

Saint Marciana was born in modern-day Algeria sometime in the late 3rd century. In 305, Marciana was punished by provincial Roman authorities in her local city of Caesarea, as just one of the large number of victims of the bloody anti-Christian persecutions of the emperor Diocletian.

Marciana was beaten with clubs and then imprisoned in the city’s gladiator school, at which, according to one Victorian writer, ‘God miraculously preserved her’ against danger from the ‘pagan gladiators’.

Marciana was then made to endure the arena, presumably pitted against gladiators or some other test of endurance in front of the crowd. After initially winning over the spectators, the authorities ordered a ‘wild bull’ to be sent into the amphitheatre, which mauled her to death. This was then followed by a leopard, which broke her neck.

5. Cassian – Murdered by schoolkids

Saint Cassian of Imola was born sometime in the 4th century, probably in Italy, but it is not known exactly where. Cassian was a teacher at a school in Imola in northern Italy. He was executed in 363 for refusing to pay homage to the polytheistic Roman religion as commanded by the emperor, Julian the Apostate.

It was stated that Cassian’s own pupils were to kill him. According to the story, the pupils, after having endured years of strict discipline and corporal punishment from their teacher, were only too happy to oblige.

They tied him to a wooden stake and surrounded him. Cassian then endured a torturous death, slowly being stabbed, slashed, and bashed by the group of killer kids. According to an early account, because none of the children were strong enough to inflict a fatal blow, it took many hours for Cassian to die. They were said to have used their sharp writing implements, but a painting of the execution from 1500 also depicts the bloodthirsty youths brandishing stools and birches.

6. John Houghton – Hanged, drawn and quartered

Saint John Houghton, Prior of the London Charterhouse and one of the ‘Forty Martyrs of England Wales’, was born in Essex in about 1487.

John was sentenced to death for refusing to take the oath acknowledging King Henry VIII as the supreme head of the Church of England. Condemned to be hanged, drawn, and quartered, on 4th May 1535, John was strapped to a thin wooden hurdle horizontally and dragged on a horse from the Tower of London to Tyburn.

At Tyburn, he hugged the executioner, who was so moved that he begged the prior’s forgiveness. Before he was hanged, he was given one last chance in front of the crowd to accept the supremacy of the king. He refused, saying that he was ‘ready and willing to suffer every kind of torture rather than deny a doctrine of the Church’.

As was customary in this sentence, John was hanged until half-dead but still conscious, then cut down, stripped naked, and placed on a wooden platform for the crowd to see. John was still awake while the executioner slashed him open, removed his entrails and threw them onto a fire in front of him. The executioner then emasculated him, throwing these parts onto the fire as well.

As the executioner was about to rip out his heart and burn it, John reportedly cried out, ‘What will ye do with my heart?’ His body was then chopped into four pieces, and he was beheaded. These parts were displayed in public places around London, including above the gate of the London Charterhouse.

7. Margaret Clitherow – Crushed to death

Saint Margaret Clitherow was born in York in about 1556 and canonised in 1970. On 10th March 1586, Margaret was arrested for the offence of hiding Catholic priests, a serious crime in Elizabethan England.

Margeret refused to put in a plea, telling the authorities that she had not committed a crime and therefore a trial was unnecessary. A common procedure for forcing prisoners to plea at this time was to be ‘pressed’ with heavy weights. The judge in Margaret’s case ordered her to endure the torture of being pressed for three days and presumably sentenced her to death unless she agreed to plea. Margaret clearly had no intention of relenting, telling the judge in reply to her sentence, ‘God be thanked, I am not worthy of so good a death as this.’

It’s believed that Margaret declined to plea to prevent a trial and save her children from being arrested and tortured as witnesses.

On 25th March 1586, she was taken to a public place in York, stripped naked, and ordered to lie down on a small sharp rock. Margaret’s own large, heavy front door had been removed and brought to her place of execution. It was placed on top of her and a huge load of weights were added to the top of the door. 15 minutes later, Margaret was dead.

Although it is not known for certain where Margaret’s body is buried, her hand was removed after her death and is housed in the Bar Convent in York.