Following many years of religious turmoil, instigated in England by the Protestant reformation and aided by Henry VIII’s desire to put aside his wife Katherine of Aragon in favour of new love Anne Boleyn, a period of calm was achieved as religious matters settled down for the most part during the rule of Henry’s son the Protestant King Edward VI.
Sadly, this calm was short-lived as Edward’s rule ended abruptly after just six years with his sudden death in 1553 at the age of 15. There followed a brief struggle for control of the throne, ending with the imprisonment of the named heir Queen Jane Grey, and her husband and father; her supporters quickly switching allegiance to Edward’s eldest sister, the Catholic Queen Mary I.
Mary pledged to put England back under the control of Rome and reintroduced Catholicism as the official religion of the nation. Unfortunately, many of her subjects weren’t overly thrilled at this turn of events. They had lived for several years away from the shadow of the Pope and the prospect of Purgatory, and having to pay tithes and taxes to a Church they no longer believed in, a Church that got rich from the labours of the people it was meant to serve, while they suffered hunger and poverty. The new religion was easier, in a language they could understand, and didn’t require them to hand over most of their hard earned cash.
Mary was disappointed. She expected the nation to fall to its knees and bless the return of the true faith. Some did. Mainly because they feared the results if they didn’t. The older generation remembered the death destruction in the days of her father. How far did the apple fall from the tree? Not far it seems. Earning herself the nickname ‘Bloody Mary’ The new Queen married the King of Spain, Philip, whom the people mistrusted. A Spaniard AND a catholic, the two things they hated most, then set about whipping up a storm of Catholic revival, aided whole-heartedly by her Cardinal, Reginald Pole, and a large stack of firewood. Not for Mary the traditional methods of execution for the neighbourhood heretic, Mary preferred a good old burning at the stake.
One has to wonder if Reginald was still smarting at the treatment his family had received at the hands of Mary’s father and grandfather, including the execution of pretty much most of his closest family. He certainly seemed willing to go with the plan of removing the Protestant blight from the Nation. In June 1556, Reginald ordered the arrest of 16 common folk, on charges of Heresy, from Essex and surrounding areas. The basis of the charges is not recorded in great detail, however whilst imprisoned the sixteen were offered the chance to recant and be pardoned. Three of them chose to do so, Thomas Freeman, William Stannard and William Adams.
Following a sermon preached against the condemned by John Feckenham, the thirteen, each with their own religious views wrote a joint statement reaffirming their faith as Protestants. During their imprisonment, they were kept in two groups, in several rooms, and each group was separately offered a pardon on the condition they recanted. Each group was told the other had already done so. Neither group did.
On June 27th, eleven men and two women, one of whom was pregnant were taken from Newgate in wagons to an area of Stratford in Bow, to the village green, where the men were tied to three stakes, and the women, one of whom was pregnant were left untied to walk freely in the flames of the pyre that was built on which to burn them. Watched by a crowd of 20,000 spectators, the Stratford Martyrs refused their last chance to recant and were burned to death as Heretics.
John Foxe, writing in his Book of Martyrs a few years later, records their names as: Henry Adlington, a sawyer, Laurence Pernam, a Smith, Henry Wye, a Brewer, William Halliwel, a Smith, Thomas Bowyer, a weaver, George Searles, a tailor, Edmund Hurst, a Labourer, Lyon Cawch, a Flemish Merchant, Ralph Jackson, a servant, John Derifall, a labourer, John Routh, a Labourer, Elizabeth Pepper, wife of Thomas, (with unborn child) and Agnes George, wife of Richard. Sadly Agnes was not the only one of Richard’s wives to die in flames at Mary’s hand.
A memorial was raised in the 19thC to commemorate the Stratford martyrs, and five others who were similarly executed on different days, in St John the Baptist Churchyard, which was believed to be one of the possible sites of the execution.