by A G Ashdown

The present interest in this difficult matter should be used to prompt a deeper study.  It is well to recall that in the times of the Reformation there was great human cruelty.  The death penalty, often for quite trivial offences, was common and carried out in the cruellest and vilest ways.  Human life was cheap.  It must ever be admitted that the Reformation, with its great emphasis on the Bible and its teaching, causing the recovery of the Gospel, slowly but surely reformed society into milder measures and a detestation of cruelty.  Society became more Christian, as it renounced popery.  No Protestant body ever, at any time set up such an institution as the Inquisition with its violation of justice and refined cruelty.  It was a case of "The dark places of the earth are full of the habitations of cruelty." Psalm 74 v20.  Yet it was true that as the countries of the west emerged from the Papal domination there was great persecution and cruelty.

The Roman Church claimed the right to persecute and has never renounced it.  If it has, it would have disowned and disbanded the Holy Office of the Inquisition.  In England, as the 15th Century was beginning, a wicked act of Parliament, known as the Act for the Burning of Heretics, was placed on the statute book.  It was Rome's answer to the rise of Wicliffe and the Lollards, his followers.  It was under this that many, often quite humble folk, were burnt alive.  They were tried by Church courts and there examined for what they believed with regard to the doctrine of the Roman Church, that the wafer used in the Mass was changed in substance at its consecration into Christ Himself bodily.  If they denied this unscriptural doctrine they were burnt.  If they abjured they were put to penance and quite often branded physically on the cheek with a letter 'H' with a hot iron.  If they relapsed later, they could be burnt without further trial.

The exact number of those who suffered from 1400, from the death at the stake of the first - William Sawtree - to the end of the reign of Henry VIII, is most difficult to know.  The main source of information is in the Bishop's registers which are not always accurate and often incomplete.  John Foxe found this when gathering material for his "Acts and Monuments".  Some matter has come to light in local records since his time.  There must have been some that he knew nothing about.  In the reign of Henry VIII about fifty persons were burnt, several also died in prison.  These were Protestant Martyrs.

During the reign of Edward VI 1547 - 1553 there was no persecution of Roman Catholics.  The Bishops who refused to destroy high altars, rood-lofts, and images, were quietly retired.  Only one was imprisoned - Stephen Gardiner of Winchester - in the Tower of London.  It was not a very severe imprisonment.  None was charged with treason or executed.  Bishop George Day of Chichester is a good example.  He was given honourable retirement and returned to Chichester in the reign of Mary I.  He also preached the sermon at her Coronation.  Later he presided at the trials and burning of some of the Sussex Protestant Martyrs.  During Edward's reign the Reformation of doctrine and practice took place.

Mary I (Tudor) was more Spanish than English, her Mother was Catherine of Aragon.  The cruel treatment of the victims of the Spanish Inquisition was well known and she tried to do the same here in England.  Her brother's Church legislation was repealed and England received back in the Roman Church by the Papal Legate and Archbishop of Canterbury, Cardinal Pole.  The trials on the charge of heresy, by Bishops, Deans and Church dignitaries, began to fill the prisons with people who refused to go to Mass.  They were, when convicted, handed over to the secular arm, the Sheriffs of the Counties or Cities, and burnt alive as HERETICS.  John Rogers, Minister of St Sepulchre's Church, Holborn, was first to suffer.  A godly man who had edited an English Bible which was issued in 1539.  A personal friend of Tyndale and a mighty preacher.  This was on the 3rd February 1555.  The persecutions were continued until 15th November 1558 when five were burnt at Canterbury.

From Foxe's Acts and Monuments it would seem certain that 289 (including the new born babe in Guernsey) died by fire and about 112 were so foully treated in prison they also died in the same cause.  They included four Bishops, an Archbishop, several other Church dignitaries, and a few gentlefolk and well-to-do tradesmen.  However, the greater number were humble lay folk; husbandmen, artisans, craftsmen, weavers, housewives and even apprentices and children and two blind girls.  They were not accused of treason, but heresy.  The executions were by burning, not hanging, drawing and quartering as for treason.  The story of their sufferings is pathetic indeed.  The prayers, discourses, letters and writings published by Foxe in the Acts and Monuments give evidence that they were Bible-believing Evangelical Christians dying for the cause of Christ and the Gospel.

When we look at the Roman Catholic Martyrs, we are dealing with another situation altogether.  In the abortive effort to put Lady Jane Grey on the throne, there was considerable suffering.  Sir Thomas Wyatt, who led the revolt, was executed when the attempt failed.  One hundred of his men of Kent were executed; altogether in the attempt to place a Protestant Monarch on the throne some 400 persons were executed.  If Protestants counted those who acted as traitors to a lawful sovereign as martyrs, all of these would be classed as such.  Yet even Lady Jane Grey, her Father and her Husband are not so counted or regarded, yet Mary Queen of Scots is regarded as a martyr by Romanists.

When Elizabeth came to the throne she did all she could, very wisely, to placate the Romanists.  The clause, "From the Bishop of Rome and all his detestable enormities, good Lord deliver us", was expunged from the Prayer Book.  Some Church of England Priests consecrated wafers for communion by the old Roman rite and administered them to the Roman Catholics who came to communion in the Parish Churches.  Elizabeth insisted on the wearing of the surplice by the clergy, which the Puritan Clergy regarded as Popish.  Some of the secular Priests (i.e. not Jesuits) wanted to go along quietly like this but the policy of the Vatican and the influence of the Jesuits, prevented it.

During the early years of the reign of Elizabeth her policy of conciliation of her Roman Catholic subjects was successful to a large extent.  In 1563 a considerable body of refugees returned from the Continent.  Some of them were scholars and divines who had fled from the persecution under Mary I, and in the City of Geneva, with the assistance of the Swiss scholars, had made a new translation of the Bible.  During the reign of Mary many Bibles and New Testaments had been destroyed; some had been burned with their owners.  George Marsh of Chester, Derek Carver of Brighton (burnt at Lewes), William Wolsey and Robert Piggott of Wisbech (burnt at Ely) are examples.  The Bibles were generally removed from the lecterns in the Churches where they were ordered to be placed in 1538 (over 450 years ago) in the reign of Henry VIII for the people to read.  England needed the Bible and the Geneva version supplied the need; it quickly became popular.  It was the one book freely available and was used in the schools and widely read.  One of the reasons for the flowering of literature in that age was that every educated English man was acquainted with the Bible.  The Geneva Bible had a commentary printed in its margins and at the head of the books and chapters.  It was a strong Evangelical Protestant commentary which was borrowed from the French Bible and translated into English, which was the work of John Calvin and Theodore Beza.  It influenced so many to accept the Evangelical Protestant Biblical faith, thus England had become a bastion of the Reformed Faith.

The Jesuit Movement, founded by Ignatius Loyola, from its inception in 1534 contrived to effect the overthrow of Protestantism.  English Jesuit Colleges were established at Reims, Douay, Vallodid and Rome.  Young English men, often of noble birth or sons of landed gentry, went to these colleges to train for the priesthood.  Queen Mary I had married in 1554 Philip of Spain.  He had been regarded by some as King of England.  Spain later made claim to the throne.  This claim was greatly strengthened by the fact that the Pope, Pius V, had issued a Bull against Elizabeth, declared her to be illegitimate being the daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn and denounced her right to the throne.  The claim of Mary Queen of Scots was supported by Spain and following her execution in 1587, that of Philip was advanced.  These claims were fostered and encouraged by the Pope and his support was expressed by the coming into this country of Jesuit Missionary Priests.  Their purpose was not just missionary effort; they were engaged in the plots to put the Papal Bull of excommunication and assassination of the Queen into effect.  This resistance to the lawful government was to continue right into the Stuart period of our history and be sanctioned and approved by several Pontiffs.  The idea that Spain should rule England and enforce the Papal Authority was not new.  In the reign of Henry VIII the Bishop of Rochester, John Fisher, had sought for a Spanish army to invade England and assert the Papal rights.  He died on the block for his crime, not as a martyr as reported by many Roman Catholic historians.  Spain was the great leading Roman Catholic power until the defeat of the Armada.  Before 1588 and that ill-fated expedition there were constant efforts to destroy the Protestant government and the Reformed Church by intrigue and polical cunning.  It was in the practice of this that the Society of Jesus - the Jesuits - earned such repute, and brought upon themselves the wrath of the government.

Prior to the Armada there was a large Roman Catholic section of the population still untouched by the Reformation.  Most of the martyrdoms of Protestants took place in the South Eastern and East Anglian areas of our country.  In Lancashire and the North the Reformation did not have so great a hold on the population and it was from these parts that many of the Roman Catholic Martyrs came.  Most of them were young men who had been educated in the Jesuit English Colleges abroad and were sent back into England for the express purpose of raising a 5th Column, an army who would support the Spanish claims and the authority of the Pope.  When Mary I (Tudor) died the Venetian Ambassador wrote to the Doge expressing the belief that there would be a violent Protestant reaction - in short a blood bath in revenge for what the Protestants had suffered.  This proved to be quite wrong.  Elizabeth reigned eleven years before the Roman Church can claim anyone, in her reign, as a martyr.  The issue of the Papal Bull against Elizabeth changed everything.  The young Jesuit Priests, trained in these foreign colleges, were prohibited from coming to England by laws passed against them.  If they came they were part of the plots for the murder of Elizabeth I and later Stuart monarchs.  They were not martyrs dying for the faith but criminals, guilty of treason and sedition.  It can be argued that they believed that what they were doing was right in the sight of God, that they were supporting the Papacy and its policy, which they equated with the Divine Will.  They were not put to death for this belief, but the action they had taken to support it.  To regard them as dying for the Christian faith is to acknowledge the papacy and Roman Church and its doctrine as Christian, which it is not, because it is totally contrary to Scripture and apostate in both belief and practice.

They came into this country as Missionary Priests, ostensibly to make converts and to minister to the Roman Catholic community.  As they flitted from priest hole to priest hole, often in disguise, their purpose was to report back to their masters the state of the country and the support a foreign invasion would receive from native adherents of the Roman religion.  This was a traitorous and seditious activity which prompted the English Parliament to pass laws against the Mass and conversion to Roman Catholicism and to prohibit the ingress of these priests into the country.  This activity persisted until the passing of the Bill of Rights 1689 and the Acts of Settlement of 1689, 1694 and 1701.  During the period before the coming of the Armada and prior to the death on the block of Mary Queen of Scots they were engaged in the plots to kill the Queen and also to gather intelligence for the Spanish invaders.  The Queen of Scots is regarded by Romanists as a Martyr.  She was very clearly implicated in the plots to kill Elizabeth and place herself on the throne and thereby to reinstate the Roman religion.  This is proved by the state papers of the period.  Many of them died bravely, endured torture and great hardship, often avowing that they died for the faith, but it was faith in a false religion and an impostor posing as the Head of the Church - the Pope; thus denying Christ the only Head of the Church.

The reverse is true of the Protestant Martyrs, they were tried in Church Courts.  When they denied the Roman doctrine of the Mass they were handed over to the secular arm for punishment.  Roman Catholic writers often interpret this by maintaining that the Church did not put them to death but the government did.  This is a wicked denial of the facts.  The secular arm could not proceed against them until the Church Courts had condemned them.  The Roman Bishops had demanded of the government severe measures to deal with Protestantism and had secured the "Act for the Burning of Heretics", either early in 1401 or late in 1400.  This Act was put into force in the reign of Mary I (Tudor).  By this shameful piece of legislation the person who spoke against the fable of transubstantiation was in danger of being burnt alive.

It is well we think carefully of this.  The doctrine was not in any way original to Christianity and the early Church.  It had grown up little by little, first taught by Radbert, Abbot of Corbie, 1015, who developed this idea from the writings of Ambrose of Milan (3rd Century).  There is, however, no official acceptance of this doctrine until the fourth Lateran Council of 1215.  It had gradually been developed, apart from reference to Scripture, from the time of Radbert.  Here and there it was resisted and in Wicliffe's day he regarded it, as it is, a departure from the plain teaching of the Bible.  Its adoption gave great power to the clergy.  They could falsely claim, under this doctrine, that they could bring Christ down from the glory of heaven to their altars; there they could demand He be worshipped at the elevation of the Host (the Mass wafer) then offered on their altars as an unbloody sacrifice for the sins of the living and the dead.  For the Protestant Martyrs this involved the breaking of the Second Commandment in the worship of that made with hands (Exodus 20); The denial of the one offering of Christ once for all on Calvary (Hebrews 9 v28); and the finished nature of the work of Christ in redemption (John 19 v30) - together with the statement that the risen Christ is in heaven until the second advent (Acts 3 v21).  This is entirely a matter of doctrinal belief, in no way does it involve treason, sedition or a civil crime.  A martyr is one who dieds for his or her belief and as such he or she was dying in denial of this unscriptural doctrine.

Here are a few quotations from their trials.  Derek Carver of Brighton - burnt at Lewes on 22nd July 1555.  "Ye think ye can make a God.  Ye make a pudding."  He said this at his trial in St Mary's Church-Over-the- Water (now Southwark Anglican Cathedral, then used as a consistory court).

From the articles of faith signed by all the 13 (11 men and two women) burnt at the stake at Stratford le Bow, 27th June 1556.  This was the largest fire ever lit to consume Protestant Martyrs in the reign of Mary I (Tudor):

4th item: The Mass is not only the profanation of the Lord's Supper, but also a blasphemous idol.

5th item: God is neither spiritually or corporally in the sacrament of the altar and there remaineth no substance in the same, but only the substance of bread and wine.

When questioned about the sacrament of the altar (the Mass) the Ely Martyrs, William Wolsey and Robert Piggot, made the following answer: "The sacrament of the altar was an idol and the natural body and blood of Christ were not present in the said sacrament and to this opinion they said they would stick, believing the same to be no heresy, that they had affirmed but the very truth, whereupon they would stand."  They were burnt at Ely, Cambridgeshire on 16th October 1555.

Thomas Watts of Billericay in answering articles brought against him at his trial said, "That he doth believe that Christ's body is in heaven and nowhere else; that he will never believe that Christ's body is in the sacrament."  He was burnt at Chelmsford in 1555.

It is clear from these statements that these people died for what they believed.  These are typical examples of the resistance to the doctrine of transubstantiation expressed by the Protestant Martyrs and upon this their condemnation and burning was based.  There were some, very few, who were illegally burnt for their adherence to other Protestant positions, who were not tried according to the law which required the denial of the doctrine of the Mass.  For example, Thomas Bilney of Norwich was burnt for maintaining the Lutheran doctrine of Justification, and Thomas Allen of Walsingham for refusing to adore the cross.

The Roman Catholic "Martyrs" were very different.  Only one was burnt, he was roasted to death in an iron cage.  He was Father Forest, Father Confessor to Catherine of Aragon.  He refused to acknowledge Henry VIII as head, under God, of the English Church.  When tried in Westminster Hall he said the worst Henry could do to him was to hang, draw and quarter him (punishment for treason).  In spite, Henry revived an old Saxon statute and so he met his painful death.  However, he died before England was Protestant, under a doctrinally Roman Catholic King and Parliament.  We have already stated that both Bishop John Fisher and Mary Queen of Scots were implicated in treason and this is clear from the State Papers.  (See 'Jesuit Plots from Queen Elizabeth I to King George V' by Albert Close, pages 115-151 and 175).

Philip, Earl of Arundel, was held a prisoner in the Tower of London at the time of the Armada.  The Roman plan was for his release and to hold the Tower on behalf of the Spanish invaders.  He paid a Priest to pray for 22 hours unceasingly for the success of the Spanish Armada and invasion.  He died a natural death in the Tower in 1595 but is regarded as a Martyr.

Father Ballard, a Jesuit Priest, forwarded to Mendoza, the Spanish Ambassador, a report on the English Counties.  This estimated the number of Catholics in each, the value of their possessions, availability of supplies, horses and possible recruits for a Papal Army.  (Ibid 109-112 quoted in Spanish State papers IV No. 470.)  It was this kind of thing that led to laws being passed against the Jesuit Priests coming from the Continent.  They were supporting by intrigue the Papal claims to the government of England and doing so under a cloak of religion.  Cluthbert Mayne of Launceston, Cornwall was circulating the English translation of the Bull of the Pope calling on Elizabeth's Roman Catholic subjects to destroy her.  This would be judged as treason in any age.  There were unfortunate people caught up in this.  Margaret Clitherow of York, who in 1586 sheltered one of the Jesuit spies, is a case in point.  She was crushed to death for her crime, not for her religion.  Recently the Archbishop of York joined Cardinal Hume in celebrating her as a Christian Martyr.  In forty years' experience of Protestant Martyr Commemorations, I have never had a Church of England Bishop ever attend a commemoration meeting, in spite of being invited.

Protestants often hesitate to support Martyr Commemorations.  Yet Rome canonised some 40 of their traitors and has now beatified a further 80.  In various parts of our country Roman Catholic Churches have been dedicated to these traitors under the title of the English Catholic Martyrs.  School and other history books for children and young people make scanty mention of the Lollard and Marian Protestant Martyrs and applaud the Roman Catholic Martyrs.  Yet modern Evangelical Churches often ignore the past.  This is so sad because Bible-believing Evangelicals are the successors to those who died for these fundamental beliefs.

(From the January/February, March/April and May/June 1988 editions of "The Reformer", the official organ of the Protestant Alliance. Used with permission.)

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