The history of the Augustinian presence in England dates to 1248 when friars of the Augustinian Tuscan Congregation were invited to Clare in Suffolk. A little less than a century later the Augustinian Order numbered 800 friars in England. Though this number decreased considerably in the following two centuries, not a single friary of the Order remained after March of 1539, the year of Saint John Stone’s death.
Nothing whatsoever is known of John’s early life, education, or activities in the Order, though it is conjectured that he joined the Augustinians at Canterbury since this was the place of his death. His story, then, is essentially that of his martyrdom.
On 3 November 1534 the English Parliament issued the Act of Supremacy, declaring Henry VIII supreme head of the Church in England. In December 1538, Richard Ingworth, a former Dominican and the official emissary of Thomas Cromwell, appeared at Canterbury to close the houses of the mendicant friars there and obtain the written assent of each community’s members to the above-mentioned Act. The friaries of the Franciscans and Dominicans were surrendered without difficulty. When, on 14 December, Richard appeared at the monastery Austin Friars, John alone among his brothers refused to sign, and spoke in clear terms of his objections to the king’s claims over the Church. John was immediately separated from his confreres in order to forestall his influence over them and was urged—eventually with threats—to alter his position. When he persisted in his refusal he was brought to London so that Cromwell himself might pressure him to change his view. He was imprisoned for a year in the tower of London where he remained adamant. It was while here that John had a religious experience which was recorded by the Catholic apologist and biographer, Nicholas Harpsfield:
John Stone was invested with the crown of martyrdom at Canterbury. But before that, having poured forth prayers in prison to God and having fasted continuously for three days, he heard a voice, though he saw no one, which addressed him by name and bade him to be of good heart and not to hesitate to suffer death with constancy for the belief which he had professed. From this afterwards he gained such eagerness and strength as never to allow himself by persuasion or terror to be drawn from his purpose. These facts I learned from a sober and trustworthy man who is still living, to whom Stone himself revealed them.
In October 1539, John was sent to be tried at Canterbury. The sentence was handed down on 6 December and within several weeks, probably two days after Christmas, he was hanged, drawn, and quartered at a place called the Dungeon, now known as Dane John. Because he was a traitor to the king, his head and his quartered body were exhibited at the city gates.
John Stone was beatified on 9 December 1886 by Leo XIII and was canonized, along with thirty-nine other English martyrs of the Reformation, by Paul VI on 25 October 1970.
The Augustinian Family celebrates his memory on 25 October.