When Mary I came to the throne in England it was not long until she began to act against the more radical reformers. Many of high and low birth were burnt as heretics whilst others fled the country for the Rhineland. The evangelical historian and martyrologist John Foxe, famed for writing his Book of Martyrs during the subsequent reign of Elizabeth I provides us with our most vivid descriptions of these events.
John Bradford and John Leafe, for instance, ‘ended theyr mortall liues, moste likest two Lambes, without any alteration of their countenaunce, being voyde of all feare’. John Philpot on ‘the xviii. Day of December, in the middest of the fiery flames, yelded his soule into the hands of the almighty God, and full like a lambe gaue vp his breath his body being consumed into ashes’. Rowland Taylor, who had a lit fagot thrown at his head at the beginning of his burning held up:
‘both hys handes, called vpon God, and sayd: Mercifull father of heaven, for Iesus Christ my Saviours sake, receiue my soule into thy hands. So stood he still without either crying or moving, with his handes folded together, till Soice with an Halberd stroke him on the head that the braynes fell out, and the dead corpes fell downe into the fire.’
Then there was the burning of John Hooper, former Bishop of Worcester and Gloucester which did not go as planned. The first fire did not catch and when ‘a few dry fagottes were brought, and a new fire kindeled’ only his ‘neather partes’ were singed. Eventually, after a third fire was lit:
‘he prayed with somewhat a loude voice: Lorde Iesu haue mercy vppon me: Lorde Iesu haue mercy vppon mee: Lorde Iesus receiue my spirite […] when he was blacke in the mouth, and his tongue swolne, that he coulde no speake, yet hys lippes went till they were shronke to the gummes: and he knocked his breast with his hands, vntill one of his armes fell off, and then knocked still with the other, what time the fat, water, and bloud dropped out at his fingers ends, vntill by renuing of the fire, his strength was gone’
These were all clergymen but many ordinary people also suffered such as Elizabeth Cooper, a Pewters wife in Norwich, who was:
‘…at the stake with Simon Miller to be burnt, when the fire came vnto her, she a little shronke thereat, with a voice crying once, ha. When the sayd Simon Miller hearde the same, he put his hand behind him towarde her, and willed her to bee strong, and of good cheare: For good sister (said he) we shall haue a ioyfull and a sweete supper. Whereat she being, as it seemed thereby strengthened, stoode as still and as quiet as one moste glad to finish that good worke whiche before most happily shee had begonne. So in fine she ended her life with her companion ioyfully, committing her soule into the hands of almighty God’.
In many cases multiple burnings took place at the same time. At Stratford-le-Bow thirteen were burnt at the stake in one fire. At Smithfield in London Thomas Loseby, Henry Ramsey, Thomas Thyrtell, Margaret Hyde, and Agnes Stanley ended their lives in one fire, whilst at Canterbury ten martyrs were put to the flame by Thornton, Bishop of Dover and Nicholas Harpsfield, Archdeacon of Canterbury.
One particularly abhorrent burning occurred (as Foxe tells it) at Guernsey involving a woman and her two daughters:
‘At the middle post was the mother, the eldest daughter on the right hande, the youngest on the other. They were first strangled, but the Rope brake before they were dead, and so the poore women fell in the fire. Perrotine, who was then great with childe, did fall on her side, where happened a ruefull sight, not onely to the eyes of all that there stood, but also to the eares of all true harted Christians, that shall read this historye: For as the belly of the woman brast a sonder by vehemency of the flame, the infant being a fayre man childe, fel into the fire’.
Foxe focused on those who had stayed in England to face the wrath of Mary’s government. It was important for him and for those who supported his work that the martyrs were memorialised whilst Roman Catholics (for they blamed the burnings not just on Mary’s government but upon the whole Roman church) were vilified and revealed as a foreign enemy to Elizabeth’s England. That picture of English reformation survives to this day and its effects continue to ebb below the surface of British society. But it is not the whole picture and indeed historians and the public at large still grapple with the legacy of propaganda left by Elizabethan scholars, playwrights, politicians and clergymen.
There are numerous more examples many of which were graphic in both their portrayal of the burning itself and in the process leading to the burning. Historians have, in ever greater detail, examined many of these accounts and formed arguments around them. In particular, there is a current interest in comparing Foxe’s narrative to other sources – such as official documents – to check his authenticity. However, few have looked at alternative contemporary accounts in works of history such as Holinshed and Stow. It is therefore interesting to compare Foxe’s account of such events to that given in other near contemporary chronicles.