10 Famous Martyrs and Why They Died (Updated 2020)

In history, hundreds of early Christians have faced persecution for their faith. Some historians even believed that the Roman Catholic Church was born out of the martyrdom of its members. A Christian martyr is someone willing to face death rather than deny Jesus Christ or his Gospel. Beheading, stoning, crucifixion, and burning at stake were some of the horrific ways they were punished for their beliefs.

But why did the members of the church undergo such sacrifices? It was because the Romans were polytheistic ever since the beginning. From an initial array of gods and spirits, Romans included Greek gods as well as several foreign cults. The earliest forms of Roman religion were animistic in nature, in which people believed that spirits inhabit everything around them.

Due to this pagan belief, Romans developed animosity towards people with a different view on religion from them. The refusal of Jews and Christians from practicing the Roman belief and offering sacrifices in their temples was seen as a threat to the empire. As Christianity continued to spread across the empire, persecution towards the Church and its followers became rampant.

The Roman empire began conducting public execution of the members of the Catholic Church at least before the middle of the third century. Below is the list of famous martyrs and why they died, including a peek into their early life and the legacy they have left behind.

1. St. Stephen, Stoned to Death

Stoning is among the traditional forms of punishment for grave sin. St. Stephen died in 36 AD in Jerusalem, and was the first to suffer that gruesome fate making him the first Catholic martyr. He was a Hellenistic Jew and he was among the first ordained deacons of the Catholic Church. Given the title archdeacon, St. Stephen was recognized for his exemplary gift as an evangelist. However, his popularity caused animosity among Jews, particularly from the members of the Synagogue of Roman Freedmen.

Members of the Synagogue of Roman Freedmen challenged St. Stephen’s teaching through debates, but none of them could withstand the wisdom and the spirit with which he spoke. This only fueled further hostility among his enemies and they began making false testimonies against him. St. Stephen was later accused of committing blasphemy against Moses and God. This accusation sparked public outcry, and the public demanded him to be sentenced to death.

St. Stephen was taken to the Sanhedrin, the supreme rabbinic court in Jerusalem. Instead of defending his innocence, he gave a speech about the history of Israel and the blessings that God has given upon his chosen people which was recorded in Acts Chapter 7 of the Bible. The crowds watching the trial were furious after being rebuked. They dragged him out to the city and started stoning him to death. This scene was depicted in Dutch artist Rembrandt’s “The Stoning of Saint Stephen.”

St. Stephen was buried by Christians but the exact location of his tomb was unknown. However, in 415 AD, a priest named Lucian had a dream that revealed the gravesite where St. Stephen’s remains were located. His name was found inside, confirming it belonged to the martyred saint. His relics were later brought to the church of Hagia Sion on December 26, 415 AD. Today, the Catholic Church hailed him as the patron saint of stoneworkers and Western Christians celebrate “St. Stephen’s Day” every December 26. He also has his own cult of believers spread widely from Jerusalem to Constantinople, North Africa, Rome, and Prague.

2. St. Lawrence, Grilled to Death

The Roman Emperor Valerian persecuted St. Lawrence in 258 AD. It was a difficult beginning for the First Christian Millennium because hostility against the early followers of God was growing. Roman authorities charged Christians of that era with “hatred of the human race.”

St. Lawrence was among the seven deacons tasked with helping the less privileged under Pope Sixtus II who was also persecuted by Valerian. The soldiers of the emperor arrested Sixtus and beheaded him along with his deacons. Following the death of the pope, Lawrence started distributing the money and possessions of the Church to the poorest people in the city. Valerian heard the news about this, so he offered St. Lawrence clemency in exchange for bringing him the fortune hidden away by the church in three days. 

However, the saint went through the city, and instead of money or gold, he gathered all the poor and sick people the Catholic Church was supporting and presented them to Valerian. The emperor was furious and condemned St. Lawrence to a slow and brutal death by grilling him on a gridiron. Despite being at death’s door, he was still able to find a way to get on the nerves of his persecutors by asking them to turn him over the other side of his body that was not yet burned. And when it was done, he proceeded to cry again saying, “At last I am finished; you may now take from me and eat.”

St. Lawrence was buried in a cemetery in Via Tiburtina. Constantine would later build a Basilica in that location. Today, St. Lawrence is hailed as the patron saint of the poor due to his legacy of helping the less privileged during his life. Additionally, he is among the most highly venerated saints of the ancient Roman Church. His feast ranks next to the feasts of Saints Peter and Paul in the Roman sanctoral cycle. “From the rising of the sun unto its setting,” says St. Leo, “whenever the glory of Levites beams forth in splendor, Rome is deemed no less illustrious because of Lawrence than Jerusalem because of Stephen.”

3. St. Margaret Clitherow, Pressed to Death

St. Margaret was born in Middleton, England in 1555 from protestant parents. In 1571, she married a well off grazier and butcher named John Clitherow to whom she bore two children. A few years later, St. Margaret joined the Catholic Church converted by the wife of Dr. Thomas Vavasour, a prominent Catholic in York. However, her husband was not only a fresh meat supplier, but he was also responsible for reporting Catholic worshippers to the authorities who were in line with the Elizabethan Settlement, Protestant.

First, St. Margaret’s perceived misbehaviour had been paid off in penalty for 12d according to the 1559 Injunctions which formed part of the Elizabethan Settlement. But her recusancy (non attendance to Church) has caused her first imprisonment in 1577. After that, she was imprisoned again twice at York Castle. But her ultimate downfall was her desire to follow the noble cause of the “upper sort” – harbouring priests secretly in their houses by hiding them or concealing their identities as schoolmasters or teachers of their children. She took in priests in her home, hid their vestments along with the bread and wine for mass, but she was found and arrested and her house was raided. 

At that time, harbouring priests was considered a criminal offence punishable by death. She was taken in the Guildhall for a trial by jury but she refused so saying, “I know of no offense whereof I should confess myself guilty. Having made no offence, I need no trial.” Due to her refusal, she was automatically sentenced to death. 

On March 25, 1586, she was taken to the toll-booth on Ouse Bridge where was stretched out on the ground with a sharp rock on her back and her body was crushed under a door overladen with unbearable weights. Her bones were broken, and she died within 15 minutes.

St. Margaret Clitherow was given the nickname “The Pearl of York.” Queen Elizabeth I seemed to condemn St. Margaret’s killings, writing a letter to the people of York saying that Margaret should have been spared the gruesome fate on account of her gender. In October 1970, Pope Paul IV canonized Margaret as one of the forty English martyrs.

4. St. Sebastian, Clubbed to Death

St. Sebastian came from Southern France and was educated in Milan, Italy. He joined the Roman Army in 283 AD to help other Christians who were being persecuted by the Romans. He was appointed as the captain of the Praetorian Guard under Emperor Diocletian because they did not know he was a Christian.

Two brothers, Marcus and Marcellian, were imprisoned for refusing to make public sacrifices to the Roman gods because they were deacons of the Christian Church. Their parents encouraged them to renounce Christianity while they were imprisoned, however, Sebastian convinced the parents to be converted into Christianity instead. St. Sebastian was also able to convert other prominent individuals, including the Local Prefect, which led to his discovery.

Diocletian accused Sebastian of betrayal and persecuted him to be bound to a stake at a field and be shot with arrows. They left him there to die, however, a woman named Irene found him, and brought him to her house where she nursed him back to health.

Diocletian encountered the emperor once again and harangued him. Diocletian ordered Sebastian to be beaten to death, and his body was thrown in a sewer. Sebastian was said to have appeared in an apparition to a widowed woman named Lucina and told her where his body was buried. They retrieved the remains of the saint and buried it at the catacombs by the apostles. Nearly 80 years after his death, his remains were moved to a basilica in Rome which was built by Pope Damasus I. 

The martyrdom of St. Sebastian is one of the most prominent themes in Western religious art. He is commonly depicted in art and literature as being tied to a post and shot with arrows. The arrows piercing him are used as a symbolic representation of the Black Death during the Middle Ages because Sebastian is the patron saint of plague victims.

5. St. Dymphna, Beheaded

St. Dymphna was born in Ireland in the seventh century to a pagan father and a devout Christian mother. She consecrated herself to Christ when she was fourteen, and took a vow of chastity. Her mother died afterward, and her father, who had loved his wife deeply, began to suffer mental stability. The King’s counselors suggested he remarry, in which he agreed to do even though he was still grieving. Damon, St. Dymphna’s father, sent messengers throughout his town and other lands to find a noblewoman who resembled his wife and would be willing to marry him.

However, none was found, and his wicked advisers suggested he marry his daughter instead. St. Dymphna fled her home after she heard her father’s twisted plan. Together with a priest named Gerebran and two trusted servants, they sailed towards Belgium and hid in the town of Geel. Damon found the whereabouts of his daughter and traveled to Geel to capture them. He ordered Father Gerebran to be beheaded and attempted to convince his daughter to return to Ireland and marry him.

Dymphna refused and her father enraged and beheaded her with his own hands. She was only fifteen-years-old at that time. After Damon fled, the residents retrieved the remains of St. Dymphna and the priest and buried them in a cave.

St. Dymphna was given the crown of martyrdom in 620 in defense of her martyrdom, and she was hailed as the “Lily of Eire.” In 1349, a church in honor of her was built in Geel, and it started to house pilgrims seeking treatments for mental illness in 1480. Unfortunately, the original St. Dymphna Church in Geel was burnt down during the 15th century. But it was consecrated in 1532 and it was still standing above the location where her body was originally buried. St. Dymphna is the patroness of the people suffering from mental illnesses as well as the victims of incest.

6. St. Andrew, Crucified to Death

St. Andrew was among the first disciples of Christ. He is the older brother of St. Peter and he was born in the village of Bethsaida on the Sea of Galilee between 5 AD and 10 AD. He worked as a fisherman, along with his brother Simon Peter, before he became a disciple of Jesus.

Andrew traveled to the shores of the Black Sea to preach the gospel and throughout what is now known as Greece and Turkey. When he was in Greece, Governor Aegeas told him to renounce his faith and stop preaching. St. Andrew refused and he was sentenced to be crucified to death in the city of Patras. He was supposed to be crucified on a cross, but he requested an X-shaped one because he felt unworthy of dying on an upright one as Jesus did. He was bound, rather than nailed, on a cross form known as “crux decussata.”

St. Andrew’s remains, relics, and the cross on which he was martyred were originally preserved at Patras. According to St. Jerome records, many of his relics were taken to Constantinople by order of Emperor Constantius II in 357. But before that, some accounts believed that St. Regulus, a monk at Patras, received a vision which told him to hide some of Andrew’s bones. He then later on had a second dream telling him to take the bones “to the ends of the earth” wherein he shall build a shrine wherever he shipwrecked. In September 1964, Pope Paul IV ordered that all of St. Andrew’s relics that ended up in Vatican City to be sent back to Patras. Now, his relics and the cross on which he was martyred are kept in the Church of St. Andrew in Patras. 

He is venerated in Georgia for being the first preacher of Christianity in the country. St. Andrew’s saltire cross is also featured on the flag of Scotland. He is also hailed as the patron saint of fishermen as well as the patron saint of many countries including Romana, Russia, Scotland, and Ukraine. Many Catholics also participate in an Advent devotion known as the St. Andrew Christmas Novena wherein a specific prayer is repeated 15 times from November 30, his feast day, until Christmas.

7. St. Bartholomew, Death by Skinning

St. Bartholomew was among the twelve apostles of Jesus. He was born in Cana, Judea during the first century. He was often referred to as a “True Israelite.” Few accounts of his life were recorded, yet it was known that he and St. Jude Thaddeus went to Armenia, also known as modern-day Turkey, to spread the word of God.

St. Bartholomew converted Polymers, the king of Armenia, to Christianity. Astyages, the kings’ brother, heard about this and he ordered Bartholomew to be sentenced to death. Because according to John Francis Fenion in Saint Bartholomew, Volume 2 of Catholic Encyclopedia, during this time faith was a great crime. 

Though there were slightly different accounts of his death, all described his death as one of the most gruesome in history. This was because he was to die the Persian way which was considered the most barbarous country of the East in the ancient times. In one account by Fr. Paolo O. Pirlo, SHML, in My First Book of Saints, he described that St. Bartholomew was flayed alive with the skin of his body cut into strips, pulled off, and left his body open and bleeding for a long time. After that, his corpse was then beheaded and crucified. 

In 983, some skin and bones recovered were brought to Tiber Church of Saint Bartholomew in Rome. The Coptic Church (Oriental Orthodox Christian church based in Egypt, Africa and the Middle East) commemorated his martyrdom every August 29, first day of the Coptic Calendar while Eastern Christianity honors him on June 11 and the Roman Catholic Church on August 24. 

8. Joan of Arc, Burned at Stake

Joan of Arc was born on January 6, 1412, to pious parents of the French peasant class in the obscure village of Domremy, near the province of Lorraine. At such a young age, she led the French army to victory, believing she was acting under divine guidance.

When Joan’s village of Domremy became the frontier between the France of the Anglo-Burgundians and the Dauphins, she traveled to Vaucouleurs where she asked the captain of the garrison, Robert de Baudricaourt, for permission to join the Dauphin. She was refused by the captain, but her firmness and piety gained her respect from the people and the captain, and she was finally allowed to go to the Dauphin at Chinon. This was the beginning of her participation in the French army.

When Joan was captured, she was brought to Marigny where she was accused of rejecting counsel and acting willfully. She was interrogated countless times before her trial officially started. She was charged with multiple offenses with her most serious crime, according to the tribunal, was “rejection of church authority in favor of direct inspiration from God.” After her refusal to submit to church authority, she was sentenced to be executed. Upon hearing the announcement, Joan recanted and she was instead condemned to perpetual imprisonment. 

She was ordered to wear female clothes but after a few days, she was found wearing male attire again saying that she was reproached by St. Catherine and St. Margaret for giving in to the church. She was pronounced a relapse heretic on May 29, 1431 and was turned over to secular authorities a day after. 

On May 30, Joan who was just 19 years old then was burned at the stake at the Place du Vieux-Marche in Rouen. Before the pyre was lit, she asked a priest to hold a high crucifix for her to see that she could shout out prayers loud enough to be heard above the wild roars of the flames that will soon engulf her.

In 1920, Joan was recognized as a Christian Saint by the Roman Catholic Church and her feast is celebrated every May 30. 

9. Wycliff, Burned Alongside His Writings

John Wycliff may not be a saint, but his contribution to the spread of Christianity is immense. He is known as “The Morning Star of Reformation” and was a 14th-century theologian. Aside from preaching the Bible, he is known for being the first translator of the scriptures into English. Wycliff believed that the Bible should be available to the people in their own language.

Wycliff is known as the “Father of English Prose” because of the clarity and the popularity of his writings and his sermons in the Middle English dialect. However, one pope accused him of heresy due to his stand against papal authority. The Catholic Church in England challenged him thrice, and two Popes summoned him to Rome, but he was never imprisoned. John Wycliff was never excommunicated nor asked to leave the church despite all his questioning of the doctrines of the church and the corruption of the clergy.

Wycliff suffered a fatal stroke during one of his mass. Even though he passed away in peace, the Church exhumed his body 44 years later, burned his bones alongside his writings, and scattered his ashes in the nearby river. The Anti-Wycliff Statute of 1401 led to the persecution of his followers.

10. William Tyndale, Choking to Death

William Tyndale is known as the “Father of the English Bible” who translated 90% of the King James Version of the scriptures. Over a hundred years later after John Wycliff has made the first English translation of the Bible, Tyndale aimed to make the Bible accessible to more people even though translating it in English was prohibited by the church. Tyndale asked Bishop Tunstall to authorize him to write a translation of the Bible, but the bishop denied his request. However, it did not stop Tyndale from his desire.

Tyndale went to Europe to complete his translation after receiving encouragement and support from British merchants. He had the Bible printed in there and smuggled it back to England. Tyndale went to Hamburg, Germany in 1524 where he worked on the New Testament. However, news of Tyndale’s activity reached the opponent of Reformation who had the press raided. But he was able to escape with the pages already printed and went to Germany City where the New Testament was soon published.

Tyndale continued hiding among the merchants in Antwerp while he started translating the Old Testament. The authorities found him after an Englishman who pretended to be his friend turned him over. He was detained in prison for one and a half years and later brought to trial for heresy. He was later condemned and was sentenced to death on October 6, 1536, by strangling, and his body was burned to stake. Three years after his death, Henry VIII required every parish church in England to print English copies of the Bible and have it circulated to the public.

These followers of Christ were only a few of the thousands who died gruesome deaths because of their faith. Their respective societies saw them as a threat, and oppression towards someone with a different belief was great at that time, so they were all wrongly persecuted. 

Today, persecution against Christians still persists. In the 2019 World Watch List Report which published data on religious persecution in over 150 countries, 245 million in the top 50 World Watch List countries alone experience high levels of persecution for their choice to follow Christ. The narrative has also shifted and religious persecution against Christians have evolved into a wide range of attacks from different religions. 

Here are some notable modern martyrs. 

1. Clement Shahbaz Bhatti, Gunned Down

Clement was an active spokesperson against the laws concerning Pakistan’s blasphemy laws which has been a major issue in the country as it inspired high incidences of vigilante action with more deaths on the streets than those sentenced in court. He was the only Christian to serve on the Cabinet and he was also the first Federal Minister for Minorities Affairs in Pakistan. Because of his faith and Pakistan being a Muslim majority, he was labelled a blasphemer of Muhammad. 

In 2011, Clement’s car was sprayed with a barrage of bullets after leaving his mother’s Islamabad home  and was pronounced dead upon arrival at the hospital. 

A year after his assassination, Bishop Anthony Lobo of the Diocese of Islamabad-Rawalpindi who died in 2013, expressed that Bhatti is a martyr in a statement with Vatican’s missionary news agency Fides. He said, “Although he had little desire to so … decided to play an active part in politics in order to protect the country’s Christians and other minorities. A man of great commitment he decided not to marry. He lived a life of celibacy. He had no possessions and saw his activity as a service. I believe that Clement Shahbaz Bhatti was a dedicated lay Catholic martyred for his faith.”

In 2016, the cause for Bhatti’s canonization formally began. In 2018, Pope Francis paid tribute to him in front of the members of the “Missione Shahbaz Bhatti” association. 

2. Father Jacques Hamel, Slitted Throat

Jacques Hamel was ordained as a priest and served in the Churches of Notre-Dame de Lourdes, St. Antoine, St. Pierre Les Elbeuf, and Saint Etienne du Rouvray. He was known for his loyal service to his congregation. 

Before his death, he had been having recurring nightmares which Nicholas Zion of The America Magazine wrote, “He would leave the little church that he served in St.-Étienne-du-Rouvray and make his way through the town toward his house. The streets were deserted. Suddenly, a group of strangers would ambush him and begin to beat him. He would look around for help, but there was no one there.”

On July 26, 2016, his nightmare came true. He arrived at church for his 9 o’clock mass and with a small but committed congregation composed of three Vincentian sisters, a married couple of 64 years, and another layperson. During the Prayers of Petition, two Islamic state inspired individuals namely Adel Kermiche and Abdel Malik Petitjean lunged at him with a knife. They slit his throat in an attempted beheading. They also seriously injured another parishioner but they were killed in a standoff with the police. 

While most causes for canonization only start five years after death, Pope Francis lifted the restriction and his cause for canonization began in 2017. Pope Francis has recognized Father Hamel’s holiness and has often cited him as an example of a man of courage “who gave his life for others throughout his life as priest until his brutal murder.”

3. Annalena Tonelli, Shot in the Head

Annalena Tonelli was an inspired ally of humanitarian efforts in Somalia and a Roman Catholic missionary. UNICEF Somalia Representative, Jesper Morch, described Anna as “a visionary, a remarkable individual whose whole life represented service to others, healing the sick and helping the vulnerable.” 

She was known for her pioneering works in tuberculosis treatment in Kenya and Somalia and also worked  for HIV/AIDS prevention and control. She also actively campaigned for the eradication of female genital mutilation. 

Her move to bring HIV/AIDS patients to the Borama hospital believing they deserve to be treated like human beings and children of God was not accepted well. In 2002, protesters threw stones into the windows of the hospital while chanting “Death to Annalena”. And on October 5, 2003, she was shot in the head and killed on the grounds of the tuberculosis (TB) hospital she founded in Borama in northwestern Somaliland. 

Millions of believers around the world are suffering for their faith. Religion should not become a basis for oppression. For society to progress, they should be able to allow their people to practice the faith they want to believe in without forcing anyone to conform.

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