When the time came to dedicate our new church twenty years ago in 1994 we recognised that Rome would probably decide to find a new holy person for us. Consequently it was with no surprise and indeed much pleasure that we discovered the church was to be dedicated in the name of a man who had been born just six miles from here in Rowington and had almost certainly passed this way while escorting priests to celebrate secret masses in Baddesley Clinton, Balsall, Berkswell and Knowle.
The Grissolds were a well-known Catholic Family in Warwickshire and are remembered today throughout Solihull and the County, an example being ‘The Greswolde Arms’ in Knowle. The name appears frequently in the Recusant Rolls – the list of men and women who refused to attend the services of the Church of England. Robert Grissold in particular was fined £80 in 1593 and £60 in 1594, both enormous sums in those days, for not attending the services of the Protestant Church.
Robert is described in contemporary documents as a ‘husbandman’, that is, of yeoman stock, and he was the servant of a Mr Sheldon of Broadway in Worcestershire.
On 8th July 1603, when a Grissold House was raided by the pursuivants, the officers who pursued the recusants, Robert helped the priest Father John Sugar to escape and with him he was arrested on the highway. In Warwick prison, Robert showed his respect and love for the priest by refusing the opportunity of making his escape unless Father Sugar could escape with him.
Robert Grissold was a simple agricultural worker with little education but he resisted all attempts to persuade him to give up his religion and never wavered in his faith. In Court, during his trial, one of the justices shouted at him in exasperation, ‘Grissold, Grissold, go to church or else thou shalt be hanged’. He was found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging. On the way to the gallows he said to a weeping woman, “Good woman, why do you weep? Here is no place for weeping but for rejoicing, for you must come into the bridegroom’s chamber not with tears but with rejoicing”.
His last words to those who had come to bid him farewell were a supplication to persevere in the exalted ideal for which he had given all, “look that you all continue to the end”. These are the words that appear on the large plaque in the narthex. As he was going on foot to the gallows, one willed him to go a fair way, and not to follow Father Sugar – who was drawn on a sledge before him – through the mire; to whom he made answer, “I have not thus far followed him to leave him now for a little mire”. And so through the mire he went after him.
On the scaffold he said that he died ‘not for theft nor for felony but for my conscience’. Without flinching he watched the cruelties inflicted on Father Sugar, who being regarded as a traitor, was hung, drawn and quartered, and then calmly offered himself to the hangman.
An old manuscript transcribed by Bishop Challoner tells us that Robert Grissold “was single and upright in his actions, unlearned but enlightened with the Holy Ghost. Feared God, hated sin, lead a single life and chaste, was kind to his friends, mild in conversation, devout in prayer, bold and constant in professing the Catholic religion, and heartily loved and reverenced Catholic Priests”. Robert Grissold and John Sugar were two of the eighty seven English and Welsh martyrs beatified by Pope John Paul II on 27th November 1987.
In 1639 Robert’s nephew Edward, who had been born in Wootton Wawen, together with his cousin Matthew sailed to America and settled in Connecticut. Edward took with him his wife Margaret and their four children who had all been born in Kenilworth. Six more children were born in Windsor, Connecticut. Several other members of the family followed them to America.
Today the Griswold Family Association of America has several thousand members from more than 35 states; indeed one of them is a Bishop of the American Episcopalian Church. In 1995 the Association presented us with the Pentecost Window to the left of the altar. The house that Robert Grissold lived in is still a private residence and is located at South Rookery Farm, Poundley End, Rowington.
We regard ourselves as blessed that we have such a person as Robert Grissold as our inspiration and mentor.