The Exeter Martyrs

Agnes Prest and Thomas Benet

["Faithful unto death"]

Why do Christians gather every year for a service of thanksgiving conducted in the open air at the corner of Denmark Road and Barnfield Road? And who were Agnes Prest and Thomas Benet, in whose memory the monument upon that site was erected?

During the reign of Henry VIII, many Cambridge scholars had made a serious study of the Bible and as a consequence had turned away from Roman Catholicism. A deep reverence for the teaching of the Bible and an earnest spirit of inquiry had taken hold of these men. They looked to the Bible alone for the words of God, and trusted in Christ alone for their salvation, casting aside all other claims for the worthless blasphemy the Bible revealed them to be. As the Holy Spirit renewed their hearts and minds, zeal for the faithful service of Jesus Christ burned ever more strongly within them. They could not keep silent in the midst of all the idolatry and spiritual bondage that surrounded them. Among these Christian men was Thomas Benet, a close friend of Thomas Bilney, Professor of Civil Law and a leading Reformer.

Thomas Benet

It soon became dangerous for Bible-believers to stay in Cambridge, so Benet moved in 1524 to Torrington and then Exeter, living in Butcher's Row and teaching a small school to support his wife and family.

When he was not at work teaching, Benet would be either studying the Scriptures or listening to sermons, learning more of Christ and the simplicity of the Gospel. Daily seeing an idolatrous religion embraced and maintained, and the false claims of the Roman Pope upheld all around, Benet became so grieved in conscience and troubled in spirit that he knew he would have no peace of soul until he had stood out against these enemies of the Gospel, at the same time knowing that the moment he did this the religious system would seek to destroy him.

After informing his friends, and asking them to pray for him, Benet settled his affairs and then made his stand. In October 1530 he fixed to the door of Exeter Cathedral a number of scrolls containing such statements as "The Pope is Anti-Christ, and we ought to worship God only, and no saints." Needless to say the authorities were livid; the Bishop published an Order setting up daily sermons against this "heresy" and the Mayor set about rooting out the "heretic".

In the meantime Benet kept quiet, but continued to attend the services at the Cathedral. On one occasion he sat all the way through a service flanked by his two keenest pursuers; they did not notice him there! Eventually, all attempts to catch him having failed, the religious authorities held a service of Excommunication in the Cathedral in which they publicly cursed the "heretic" by bell, book and candle.

Benet was watching while all this superstitious nonsense was going on, and in the end he couldn't stop himself laughing. This gave him away, and finally he was caught. He was imprisoned in stocks and irons and ordered to submit to the Pope as the greatest power on earth, and to confess that prayers to dead people were the will of God, but Benet confounded all his adversaries by showing them from the Bible that both of these things were wrong and should not be done by Christians.

Nevertheless he was found guilty of heresy and condemned to death by burning. On January 10th 1531 he was taken to Livery Dole where after praying to God, he exhorted all those present to leave superstition, seek after true knowledge of God and to rightly worship Him alone. An angry John Barnehouse held a flame to his face and said, "here, heretic, pray to Our Lady, or I will make thee do it" whereupon Benet, after first asking God to forgive him and his other tormenters, said "Father, receive my spirit". He died in the flames soon after.

An illiterate young woman called Agnes was deeply moved by Benet's death. She appears to have been working in Exeter as a domestic servant around that time, and some say she actually saw him die.

Agnes Prest

Returning home to Cornwall, Agnes married a man by the name of Prest and settled near Launceston. She bore him a number of children, but was grieved to find him constantly indoctrinating them with the teachings of the Roman Pope. This simple Bible-believing Christian woman was married to an ardent Papist; it was not a good match.

Prest tried to force his wife to go to Mass and Confession and follow the Cross in processions, but she would not do it. She pleaded with him to give up idolatry and worship the true God of Heaven, but he would not listen. She told friends she could never forget the Gospel sermons she had heard in Exeter, nor the godly books she had heard read out so, when the continual persecution against her grew more than she could stand, she left. However she could not bear to be away from her children for very long and eventually came home, only to be taken by her husband and some neighbours to the Parish Priest, where she was accused of "heresy".

Agnes was arrested and thrown in Launceston Gaol for some three months and then taken to Exeter. There she was charged with "heresy chiefly against the Sacrament of the Altar and for speaking against idols". Bishop Turberville told her she ought to be burned for this, to which she said that she would "rather die than do any worship to that foul idol which with your Mass you make a god." Then she told him that calling a piece of bread God, and then worshipping it, was both absurd and blasphemous. As a devout follower of the Pope, Turberville would have none of it.

Denying that a priest could turn a piece of bread into the actual body of Christ, insisting that His body was in Heaven until He came again, and refusing to worship the bread, Agnes was ordered to give up her religion. She refused, saying that the Spirit of God had opened up His truth to her, whereupon the priests all fell about laughing. Agnes was sentenced to death, but before her execution she was offered one more chance to recant. Again she refused. On 15th August 1557, this 54-year old woman was led outside the old city walls to Southernhay where she was burned to death for refusing to worship a piece of bread as God.

In October every year Christians in Exeter gather around the Memorial on the corner of Denmark Road and Barnfield Road, and give thanks to God for His goodness. They also give Him thanks for the faithful witness of countless men and women who in all ages have "loved not their lives unto the death" and who chose to die rather than deny the Lord Jesus Christ. In particular they thank Him for the faithful testimony of Thomas Benet and Agnes Prest, and pray that they too may be kept faithful unto death as were those two martyrs. Why do they pray thus? It is because in this early 21st Century the Roman Catholic Church is growing ever more influential and powerful once again. Who knows if modern Christians too, might not someday be called upon to lay down their lives - even in this land of England - for the sake of the glorious Gospel of salvation?

"Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints."

Copyright 2002, 2006 - Ottery St. Mary Reformed Church