At Stratford le Bow, June 27th 1556
This story contributed by Kate Cole inspired me to go to Stratford yesterday – amidst all the shopping malls and Olympic razzmatazz – to take a picture of the memorial to the thirteen martyrs burnt alive there for their beliefs on this day in 1556.
Today is the anniversary of the burning of thirteen people at Stratford le Bow in 1556, executed in the most horrible manner because of their faith. It was the largest burning of a group of people in Tudor times and the grim spectacle was watched by a crowd of over twenty thousand.
For ordinary citizens, the reign of the Tudor monarchs was one of the bloodiest and dangerous of times to live in English history. The country had been in religious turmoil since Henry VIII’s break with Rome in the 1530s, caused by his marriage to Anne Boleyn. And when Henry died on 28th January 1547,the boy-king, Edward VI, imposed even greater religious changes, designed to eradicate Catholicism and embrace Protestantism fully. But then, after Edward’s premature death in July 1553 and, after she had dispelled Lady Jane Grey’s Protestant henchmen’s attempts to seize the throne, Mary, the eldest child of Henry VIII, became queen. She was a devout woman who was determined to restore the English people to the Catholic faith led by the Pope in Rome.
This period of volatile religious policies was a troubled time for members of parishes across the country, in which disobedience to a monarch’s religious edict could quickly lead to a violent death. Burnings such as the 1555 execution of the bishops Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley, followed by the 1556 burning of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, are remembered to this day. However, many that burnt in the fires of Mary’s reign were ordinary people – artisans, craftsman, labourers, and their wives – who are largely forgotten.
Those that died on 27th June 1556 at Stratford le Bow were just such men and women. John Foxe, writing seven years later in 1563 during the Protestant Queen Elizabeth I’s reign, listed those that died that day. From his book The Acts and Monuments (more commonly known as Foxe’s Book of Martyrs), we find they were -
These thirteen were all working men and women with such strong religious convictions that, despite being given the opportunity to renounce their faith in return for their lives, they chose a painful death instead. After they were condemned, John Feckenham, the Dean of St Paul’s, preached against them at Paul’s Cross. He criticised them for all having different Protestant views and the group responded by producing a joint declaration of faith. Originally, the group comprised of sixteen but Feckenham continued to visit them whilst they were in gaol, and three recanted and were released but the rest did not and accepted their fate.
According to a woodcut in the 1570 edition of John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, the eleven men were tied to wooden stakes but the two women were loose within the pyre. Although no other contemporary account of the burning survives, one can only hope that the authorities permitted the families and friends’ requests to tie bags of gunpowder around the victims’ necks, in an attempt to dispatch them with the least amount of suffering possible.
Three hundred years later, in 1878, a memorial to these thirteen, and other victims of Mary’s burnings, was unveiled in St John’s churchyard, Stratford. There has been much debate amongst historians as to whether this particular appalling event took place in Stratford on Stratford Green or in Bow near Bow Church – and because of the number of spectators, it is more likely to be Bow. So this Victorian Gothic memorial might be in the wrong location. But wherever the burnings actually took place, the memorial rightly commemorates those thirteen unfortunate men and women from Essex, Hertfordshire, Sussex and London who died for their beliefs on 27th June 1556.
Memorial at Stratford of 1878 to those martyrs who died for their faith in the reign of Mary.
Read Kate Cole’s story of Thomas Bowyer, the martyr from Great Dunmow.
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