The story of Anne Line, at least as it was passed on by the Jesuit John Gerard who knew her well, starts with her marriage to Roger Line of Ringwood. Both husband and wife were from Protestant families of minor landed-gentry, and Roger Line, the eldest son, was heir both to his father and to his uncle. This meant that while they were not vastly wealthy, they were certainly set fair for a secure future on the Line family estates in Hampshire and Sussex. Within three years of their wedding day Roger Line was arrested at a banned Catholic mass together with Anne’s brother William and a Catholic priest evidently employed by the said William as a chaplain. The priest was hanged, drawn and quartered a few weeks later and Roger Line and William Higham were imprisoned, the latter in the Bridewell, notorious among Catholics for particularly hellish conditions and domain of the sadistic bigot Richard Topcliffe.
While in prison, Roger Line learned that he was being cut out of his inheritance by his father and his uncle because of his refusal to conform to the state church. This had been threatened before but the threat was now carried out. At around the same time, Anne Line’s father took similar drastic action and seems to have deprived her of land due to her as her dowry. He also took the extraordinary step of cutting his only son William out of his inheritance. After several months in prison Roger Line was released but banished into exile where he managed to obtain financial support from the Spanish crown in the form of a regular pension, part of which he sent back to support his wife in England who was now estranged from her own family. It appears that Anne Line became pregnant before her husband left the country for Antwerp and subsequently gave birth to a son who was called John. At some point, perhaps when Anne Line was very sick, the baby was taken from her and adopted by her estranged in-laws in Hampshire. A few years later, after fruitless attempts to obtain permission to return to England, Roger Line died in Belgium.
This was the point in her life, rejected by her own family and having lost her only child and her husband, that Anne Line began to work for the Jesuits. It was, of course, a highly dangerous course of action, but given all that had happened, it would not be so surprising if death held few terrors for her. She was put in charge of the Jesuit safe-house in London where newly-minted priests, arriving by diverse clandestine means, would lodge for a while before a more permanent placement was found for them, perhaps in some far-flung manor in the countryside. The Jesuits at this time, though few in number, were organising practically the whole of the English mission, and Anne Line was right at the centre of this operation. They called her ‘Mrs Martha’ after the Martha of the gospels who fussed about preparing food while her more ‘contemplative’ sister sat attentive at the feet of Jesus. Her service no doubt often took the form of mundane tasks such as cooking, cleaning, perhaps sewing on a button or three, but Fr Gerard, who provided the money for renting the property, describes her as having responsibility for ‘managing’ the house. This implies that she was left in charge for extended periods, such as during the three years that Gerard was in prison and, given the dangers and the importance of the house, is testament to her competence, her courage, and to the absolute trust placed in her by the Jesuits. Fr Garnet, the head of the order in England, declared that he had ‘never met a woman of greater prudence’ and compared Anne Line to the ‘Roman Matrons’ – powerful women in charge of households who sheltered fellow Christians at times of persecution and played a vital role in the survival of the Church. There appear to have been three neighbouring properties rented for the use of the mission, and as well as priests, Anne Line would have met young men heading off to the seminaries and young women en route to the newly founded convents for English ladies across the Channel. She also ‘instructed’ a group of children, though we know nothing more of who they were. All in all, Anne Line must have come in contact with a significant number of those people most involved in the underground Catholic mission and would have been know by repute to a great many more.
On Candlemas Day, 2 February, 1601, during the blessing of candles that precedes the mass on that day, there was a raid on the house where Anne Line was then living in Fetter Lane. She was arrested and jailed in Newgate prison on Old Bailey Lane and three weeks later, on Ash Wednesday, 25 February, she was sentenced to death by the Lord Chief Justice at the Sessions House. On Friday 27 February, as snow flurries swept through the London streets, Anne Line was taken on a cart to the execution site at Tyburn and hanged before the crowd that had gathered there. Two priests from the same prison, Mark Barkworth and Roger Filcock, were hanged, drawn and quartered shortly afterwards. Anne Line’s body was retrieved from the grave in the road (where it had been dumped without ceremony) by the servants of the Countess of Arundel, so that it could be buried with ‘full decorum’ after a proper requiem mass held in great secrecy. It is this requiem that is thought to be the setting for Shakespeare’s cryptic poem, ‘The Phoenix and the Turtle’.