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.
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.
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