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Losing their heads - St. John the Baptist (and companions)

August 29 marks the Feast of St. John the Baptist. 

Actually, it’s the Feast of the Beheading of St. John the Baptist. Not to be confused with the Nativity of John the Baptist.

John is one of just a few saints who has multiple feast days. And he’s one of only three holy figures who get a liturgical birthday party. (More on the reason for that here.)

But John the Baptist is not alone in being decapitated. Throughout the centuries, the Church has seen many, many martyrs - the blood of the martyrs is, after all, the seed of the Church - and beheadings have been among the more popular methods of creating martyrs. 

If you’re wondering about some of the others, The Pillar has compiled a list of 10 saints who lost their heads but gained a heavenly crown:

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St. John the Baptist - the OG

John was the cousin of Jesus and prepared the way for his ministry. He was a radical figure - he lived in the desert and wore animal skins and ate bugs. 

But his message of repentance attracted large crowds: Scripture tells us that “all the inhabitants of Jerusalem were going out to him” to acknowledge their sins and be baptized in the Jordan River. 

Less popular was John’s message to King Herod, who had married his brother’s wife, Herodias. John told the king that the marriage was unlawful, prompting Herod to have him arrested. 

While John was in prison, Herod was so enchanted by a dance performed by Herodias’ daughter at his birthday party that he promised to grant her whatever she requested. Influenced by her mother, the girl requested the head of John the Baptist on a platter. 

And that’s how John the Baptist came to merit a feast day recognizing his beheading.

Salome with the head of John the Baptist by Caravaggio.


St. John Fisher - the one whose head didn’t decay

More than 1500 years later, another saint was beheaded for his unpopular challenge to a monarch’s marriage.

St. John Fisher was a bishop, theologian and renowned preacher in England when King Henry VIII attempted to divorce his wife. Fisher defended the marriage, drawing the ire of the king, who later broke away from the Catholic Church to establish the Church of England, of which he declared himself head.

When Fisher refused to take an oath recognizing the annulment of Henry VIII’s marriage, he was arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London, where he remained for more than a year in austere conditions.

Found guilty of treason, Fisher was initially sentenced to be hanged. But hanging deaths can be slow, and the king feared he might still be alive on the approaching feast of John the Baptist’s nativity. Fearing parallels being drawn between the two Johns, the king had Fisher beheaded instead.

After his death, Fisher’s head was elevated on a pole on London Bridge. But passersby reported that his head looked so lifelike that it had even more vigor and color than at the time of his death. It was apparently so striking that it attracted large numbers of people, and after two weeks, the executioner threw it into the river and replaced it with the head of another saint and decapitee, Thomas More.

St. John Fisher. By Hans Holbein the Younger

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St. Dymphna - the one who didn’t marry her dad

St. Dymphna lived in Ireland in the 7th century, the daughter of a pagan king and a Christian mother. At age 14, she consecrated herself to Jesus, making a pledge of virginity. 

Soon after, Dymphna’s mother died. Consumed by grief, her father eventually decided to marry Dymphna, because her beauty reminded him of his deceased wife.

When she heard of her father's intentions, Dymphna fled to Geel. But her father caught up with her and demanded that she marry him. When she refused, he struck off her head with a sword. She was just 15 years old at the time.

Quickly after her death, St. Dymphna began to be invoked by people suffering with mental health challenges. Today, she is the patron of those with mental illnesses. 

The beheading of St. Dymphna. By Godfried Maes.

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St. Denis - the one whose dead head kept preaching

A third-century bishop in Paris, Denis was known for his virtue, and for his preaching.

He converted so many people, in fact, that he was viewed as a threat by the local pagan leaders and arrested. 

Eventually, Denis was beheaded. According to tradition, his headless body then picked up his head and walked several miles - with his head continuing to preach the whole way - before eventually collapsing on the spot that today houses the Basilica of St. Denis.

Denis is the most prominent of the cephalophore (head-carrying) saints, but he’s not the only one. There are dozens of other decapitated saints known for standing up and carrying their heads after their deaths, often preaching or praising God as they did so.

Today, St. Denis is recognized as the patron saint of, among other things, relief from headaches.

St. Denis statue in Notre Dame, Paris. Credit: Thesupermat CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia. 

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Coptic martyrs - the new ones

In February 2015, ISIS militants released a video showing the execution of 21 Egyptian Christians who had been kidnapped in Libya. The video labels the captives as “People of The Cross” and shows them calling out “Lord Jesus” before being decapitated. 

The Coptic Orthodox Church recognizes the 21 individuals as saints and martyrs.

In an ecumenical gesture earlier this year, Pope Francis added these 21 Coptic Orthodox martyrs to the Roman Martyrology as well. The unusual decision, he said, was undertaken “as a sign of the spiritual communion uniting our two Churches.”

“These martyrs were baptized not only in water and the Spirit, but also in blood, with a blood that is a seed of unity for all followers of Christ,” the pope said at the time.

Icon of the 21 Coptic martyrs, by Tony Rezk.

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St. Aphrodisius - the one who helped the Baby Jesus

According to tradition, St. Aphrodisius was an Egyptian high priest who helped shelter the Holy Family during their flight to Egypt. He later became a disciple of Christ and a hermit before being appointed the first bishop of Beziers, France.

An early saint, not much is known about his life and ministry. But he is said to have been killed for his faith during the reign of Nero. His executioners threw his head into a nearby well, but the water inside surged up and brought it to the surface, where the headless corpse picked it up and walked through the city with it.

St. Aphrodisius. Public domain.

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St. Cecilia - the one who was a married virgin

St. Cecilia was a noble Roman woman and devout Christian in the early 200s. 

Tradition holds that when her parents gave her in marriage to a young pagan man, she told her new husband that she had taken a promise of virginity, and that there was an angel watching over her. Her husband asked to see the angel, and she told him that he could if he were to be baptized. He agreed, and after being baptized, was able to see the angel guarding her. 

The couple then dedicated their lives to caring for the poor and burying the martyrs who were being killed in the Christian persecution at that time. 

Eventually St. Cecilia and her husband were both condemned to death. Cecilia was first sentenced to be suffocated in the baths. But after a full day and night, she remained alive and unaffected by the heat and toxic fumes of the burning fire heating the room.

She was then sentenced to execution by beheading. However, after striking her neck three times with a sword, the executioner found that he was unsuccessful at beheading her fully. The saint lived for three more days. She then died and was buried in the Catacomb of Callixtus. 

In 1599, Cecilia’s body was exhumed, and was found to be incorrupt, more than 1,300 years after her death - the first recorded discovery of an incorruptible saint in Church history.

Sculpture of St. Cecilia’s body as it was found in 1599.

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St. Valentine - the one you celebrate with chocolate and flowers

His feast day may be marked by romantic dinners and heart-shaped cards, but in reality, St. Valentine’s life was marked with persecution and suffering.

A Roman priest - and according to many accounts, a bishop - under the persecution of the emperor Claudius II, Valentine had a special marriage ministry at a time when marriage was outlawed in order to encourage an emphasis on military strength.

For secretly marrying Chrsitian couples, Valentine was arrested and sentenced to death. Before he was decapitated, he sent a letter to the daughter of his former prison guard, whom he had miraculously cured of blindness. He signed the letter, “From Your Valentine,” unknowingly becoming an inspiration for love letters each year in February. 

A relic of Saint Valentine in the church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, Rome. Romantic, isn’t it?

St. Paul - the one you probably already knew about

Known for his powerful conversion after persecuting the early Christians, St. Paul went on to endure persecution himself as he traveled extensively, preaching the Gospel to Gentile communities. He was arrested numerous times, but his status as a Roman citizen was enough to keep him safe - at first.

Eventually, however, he was beheaded for being a Christian and was buried outside Rome. His writings to early Christian communities are frequently heard during the Second Reading at Sunday Masses.

The Beheading of Saint Paul by Enrique Simonet.


St. Winifred - the one who survived a beheading

St. Winifred lived in Wales in the 7th century. She grew up in a wealthy family, but decided to renounce her worldly possessions and become a nun. 

This decision enraged a local wealthy man who was seeking her hand in marriage. When she remained firm in her resolution to decline his offers of marriage, he decapitated her.

According to tradition, however, Winifred’s devout uncle Beuno - a saint himself - reattached her head, and she miraculously came back to life. She lived another 15 years, and was able to become a nun, as she had greatly desired to do.

Stained glass window depicting St. Winifred. Credit: Hchc2009, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia.

If you enjoyed this article, we bet you’ll also appreciate this musical survey of ‘saints who got stoned’.

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