Twenty-three-year-old Henry Walpole was among bystanders attending the execution of Fr Edmund Campion, a Jesuit martyr when a drop of the latter’s blood fell on his clothes from the quartered body. This so moved Henry and he felt convinced that God was calling him to follow in St Campion’s footsteps.
Henry was born at Docking, near Sandringham, Norfolk. He studied at the Norwich grammar school and later at Peterhouse, Cambridge, before moving to study law at Gray’s Inn, London. He was so inspired by Fr Campion’s martyrdom that he decided to give up law to become a priest. He entered the English College at Rheims, France in July, 1582 before going to the English College in Rome and entered the Society of Jesus on February 4, 1584. He completed his studies at Scots College at Pont-a-Mousson, France and was ordained in Paris on December 17, 1588. He took up his first assignment as chaplain to the English Catholic refugees serving in the Spanish army in the Low Countries.
He was imprisoned for a year in 1589 after he was captured by the Calvinists, and then worked at the English seminary in Valladolid, Spain, until 1593 when his desire to return to England was fulfilled. As England’s southern ports were closed because of plague, Fr Walpole, together with his brother and an English soldier secured passage on a French vessel going to Scotland and arrived in Yorkshire where the group separated. While resting at an inn that night Fr Walpole was unexpectedly arrested on suspicion of being a priest, being betrayed by a Scottish prisoner who wanted to earn money for his arrest. Fr Walpole’s capture was sorely felt by the Jesuits in England for they had hoped he could continue Fr Robert Southwell’s work after the latter had been imprisoned.
During his first interrogation Fr Walpole only admitted that he was a Jesuit priest and that he had come to convert the English. He was transferred to York castle and for three months permitted to leave prison to discuss theology with Protestant visitors before he was transferred to the Tower of London so that the notorious priest-torturer Richard Topcliffe could extract information from him. Fr Walpole remained faithful and did not reveal anything despite being tortured brutally on the rack and was suspended by his wrists for hours over a period of one year to prevent premature death.