The Marian Burnings: and the Book of Martyrs

On 1 October 1553, Mary Tudor was crowned Queen Mary I of England at Westminster Palace in London. She was the daughter of King Henry VIII and his first wife Catherine of Aragon.

She had been raised by her mother as a devout Catholic, and much like her Protestant half-sister Elizabeth she lived much of her early life in fear.

From the moment she succeeded to the throne she expressed her determination to roll back the Protestant Reformation and restore England to the Catholic faith.

Her half-brother Edward, who had briefly reigned before her was a committed Lutheran who had done much to hasten the transformation of the country into a Protestant State but he had died on 6 July 1553 of a lung infection aged just 15, with his work still incomplete.

However prior to his death, aware of his sister’s intentions, he had altered the line of succession to ensure that he was followed as Monarch by his reliably Protestant cousin the sixteen year old Lady Jane Grey but no provision had been made to take Mary into custody should the need arise.

Following Edward’s death, Mary with an army of her supporters marched on London and as the daughter of King Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon she was greeted with enthusiasm as the rightful heir and became Queen by popular acclaim.

The reluctant “Nine Day Queen” Lady Jane Grey was arrested and later executed despite her young age and Mary’s promise that she would be spared.

marian mary z

Being so nearly deprived of both her inheritance and possibly even her life made Mary more determined than ever to reverse the religious changes before they took hold, and she was to introduce laws that made those who openly and actively continued to practice their Protestant faith liable to prosecution.

It was her destiny she believed to expunge the Protestant Heresy from England and return it to the One True Faith and it was to precipitate what has become known to history as the Marian Burnings.

Mary was encouraged in her actions by the Archbishop of Canterbury Reginald Pole, the Bishop of London Edmund Bonner, and the Lord Chancellor Stephen Gardiner.

They had all suffered and been imprisoned during the reign of Edward VI and were determined that they should never again be so compromised and if Mary ever wavered in her convictions she had them to whisper in her ear to ensure that she stayed the course.

john rodgers burnt

The first of the Marian Martyrs was John Rogers, a preacher at St Paul’s Cathedral who had warned his flock against the return of pestilential popery, idolatry, and superstition, and had openly praised the “true doctrine of King Edward’s day.”

He was arrested and refusing to recant was burned at the stake at Smithfield in London.

Mary had hoped his fate would serve as a warning to others who might otherwise be inclined to continue in their heretical and sinful ways but it was to prove to be nothing of the sort.

Indeed, the fate of John Rogers only seemed to confirm others in the truth of his words.

A number of the victims of the Marian Burnings were eminent men who were to find privilege and status to be no shield against prosecution.

On 16 October 1555, at Balliol College in Oxford Nicholas Ridley, Bonner’s predecessor as Bishop of London, and Hugh Latimer the former Chaplain to Edward VI were cast to the flames.

Before the fires were lit Latimer shouted to the obviously terrified Ridley:

“Play the man Master Ridley, we shall this day light a candle, by God’s Grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out”.

The great prize however, for those proponents of the restoration of Catholicism in England was Thomas Cranmer.

He had been Archbishop of Canterbury under both Henry VIII and Edward VI and along with Thomas Cromwell had been the architect of the English Reformation.

Together they forged ahead with the break from Rome, instigated the dissolution of the monasteries, and ensured the deposition of Mary’s mother Catherine of Aragon and the bastardisation of Mary herself.

As a result she had been placed under many years of house arrest and refused permission to visit her mother even when she was dying or to see her father.

For this Thomas Cranmer would be made to pay in full.

marian cranmer x

From the moment Mary ascended to the throne Cranmer was a wanted man but despite the advice of both his family and his friends he had refused to flee the country. This may have been because he had been assured that should he recant his previous beliefs and condemn the Reformation he would be spared burning at the stake.

He was arrested and brought before the Star Chamber to hear the offences he had been charged with.

Following his interrogation he was imprisoned in the Tower of London.

If Cranmer had believed that his willingness to co-operate would spare him from execution he was soon to be sorely disabused.

The new political and religious Establishment sought his condemnation for all that had been done in the name of the Protestant religion and nothing he could say or do would save him.

Yet he seemed unaware of this and went onto say a great deal.

Indeed, he could not have been more contrite.

This would not be the first time that Cranmer’s previously held convictions had crumbled under pressure.

He had abandoned Anne Boleyn when she fell out of favour with Henry VIII, and had distanced himself from Thomas Cromwell when he had fallen from grace.

After five separate but half-hearted recantations, Cranmer disavowed Protestantism in its totality denying all of the teachings of Martin Luther, recognising the authority of the Pope, and stating that there was no salvation outside the embrace of the Roman Catholic Church.

His contrition and his recantation could not have been more abject.

He was a blasphemer, he said, and a persecutor who was unworthy of any kindness and deserving only of punishment and eternal damnation.

He even admitted to being the instigator of Henry VIII’s divorce from Mary’s mother Catherine that had been the cause of so much woe in the country.

He then took confession and repented of his sins.

Following such a frank and thorough recantation the normal procedure would have been for Cranmer to be absolved of his sins and released from his incarceration but it was not to be.

At Mary’s personal insistence he would be burned regardless but first he would be made to make a full public recantation and confession.

On 21 March 1556, the 67 year old Thomas Cranmer was made to stand in the pulpit of Oxford University Church and recant of his sins in front of an especially invited audience.

The speech he had prepared the night before had been submitted for authorisation and thoroughly vetted.

Cranmer began his address nervously and it was remarked upon just how old and frail he looked. But as he progressed he appeared to calm down, his words became more clearly audible, and the address was going as expected.

He was most penitential, he prayed out loud, begged for forgiveness, and demanded of the audience that they obey the Queen in all things; but then he deviated from the prepared text and declaring his own degradation to jeers and howls of derision from the crowd he said in a clear and loud voice:

“I renounce and refuse the things written with my hand, contrary to the truth I thought in my heart, and written for fear of death, and to save my life. And for it be that as much as my hand offended, writing contrary to my heart, my hand shall first be punished. For it shall be first burnt. And as for the Pope I declare him as anti-Christ, and as Christ’s enemy with all his false doctrine”.

There was uproar as those shocked and enraged by his words led him from the pulpit straight to his place of execution.

marian cranmer burnt x

He was bound to the stake and as the flames lapped about him he thrust the hand that had signed the recantation into the fire as he had earlier promised he would do.

Most of the victims of the Marian Burnings were not as exalted as Latimer, Ridley, and Cranmer however but were common folk who had embraced the new religion with the devotional fervour of those who have stumbled across a revealed truth for the first time.

No longer reliant upon a priest for the word of God, no longer oppressed by Church ritual or confused by Latin texts they were able to read the Bible written in English for themselves for the first time.

People like Joan Waste, a blind woman from Derby who had been raised a devout Protestant and had complained that the Church services she now attended were read out in Latin.
She also denied the transubstantiation saying that the bread and wine provided at Mass was no more than what they appeared.

For this she was arrested and charged with heresy.

At her trial she was accused of purchasing an English translation of the New Testament and of paying people a penny a time to read it to her.

Found guilty she was burned at the stake on 1 August 1556.

Mary desired that her people be reconciled back into the Catholic faith and insisted that the heresy trials be conducted according to the law and without vindictiveness.

As such many of the accused were offered a pardon if they recanted in full but most refused the salvation of their soul and the eternal Grace of God more important than transient mortal being.

Despite Mary’s demand that the Authorities behave judiciously the Heresy Trials were soon to become an anti-Protestant witch-hunt that provided some with the opportunity to avenge themselves on others.

On the Island of Guernsey a woman named Katherine Cowchen lived with her daughters Guillemine Gilbert and Perrotine Massey.

When Perrotine informed the Authorities that another woman, Vincent Gosset, had stolen a gold goblet from her Gosset accused the family of being heretics.

All three women were tried, found guilty and condemned to be burned at the stake but Perrotine Massey had not informed anyone that she was pregnant.

As the fires were lit the sheer terror of it induced her to give birth.

Someone rushed forward from the crowd to rescue the baby from the flames but the Sheriff ordered that it be thrown back onto the fire.

Being burned at the stake was no guarantee of a quick death.

Fires could go out and need to be re-lit with only part of the body burned or a change of wind direction could leave the victim badly burned on one side of their body but untouched on the other.

Limbs could fall off and eyes pop out whilst the victim was still conscious and it was not unusual for the accused to still be alive up to an hour after the first flames had been lit.

Sometimes gunpowder would be placed among the faggots to provide for a quicker death.

There were to be many victims of Mary’s religious intolerance and the vengeful fervour of her over-zealous acolytes.

In total 277 people were burned at the stake for remaining true to their faith during the five years of Mary’s reign including nine in a single day at Lewes in Sussex, an event still commemorated every year on 5 November, whilst another 30 died in prison awaiting execution.

marian foxes actes x

In his book Actes and Monuments, better known as his Book of Martyrs, John Foxe was to assiduously record them all, and with the exception of the King James Bible no other book has had such a profound influence upon the growth and spread of Protestantism not just in England but around the world.

marian foxe x

It was published early in the reign of Mary’s half-sister Elizabeth and had been written while Foxe, who had earlier been ordained a priest by Nicholas Ridley, was in exile having fled a warrant for his arrest.

Already well-received in the Protestant countries of Northern Europe it had its first print-run in England in March 1563 and it outlined in great detail the torments and sufferings of the so-called Marian Martyrs.

Published in two large volumes it was lavishly illustrated with prints and woodcuts and ran to over two thousand pages though it was later condensed into a smaller single volume and was to cover the entire period from the earliest Christian martyrs to the present day placing particular emphasis on the iniquities of the Spanish Inquisition.

Its publication was to lend legitimacy to Elizabeth’s reign at a time when she was condemned in Catholic Europe as the bastard child of a King and his whore and cement her reputation as the defender of the Protestant faith and the bulwark against the return of auto-da-fe to the streets of England.

Mary’s attempt to re-establish Catholicism in England had failed and Elizabeth who succeeded her as Queen would return the country to Protestantism with the declaration that she would not make windows into people’s souls.

Nevertheless, she embraced John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs as a useful propaganda tool in the Protestant cause and it along with the behaviour of Mary was a constant reminder to the people of England what a return of Catholicism would mean.

The Book of Martyrs set the tone then for the religious conflict that would blight England for the next two hundred years though the cost of its publication was to prove so prohibitive that despite its popularity and influence its author was to die in relative poverty.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked