275 The Time of Trial

Burning of John Rogers

Once Pole had returned and parliament had re-enacted the heresy legislation after the brief Edwardian holiday, the Marian church could at last exercise the full force of the law against protestants. John Rogers was  the first to go.

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Let us start with a picture of Smithfield in London on 4th February 1555. Smithfield was rammed with people, and we might imagine an atmosphere of both apprehension and excitement, a right old mixture of rowdiness and piety, contempt and concern. There was a right old mix of people, from the great and the good to the more than a little rough around the edges. Alongside traders and clerics, protestants and Catholics, there were anxious eyes, watchers, waiting to see what would happen next, how the event that had drawn people here would unfold; eyes on behalf of Reginald Pole and the Queen were there, the Lord Chancellor Stephen Gardiner was probably there in person. The imperial Ambassador Renard was there, hopeful and fearful, and the opposition too – Antoine de Noaille, Ambassador of France.

In the square was a stake, and a raised platform around the stake, and then faggots of wood close by all ready for the event to follow. Near to the stake were the two adjudicating magistrates, carefully chosen, trusted by the Queen. Robert Rochester was the comptroller of the Queen’s household, part of the Queen’s inner circle at Kenninghall during her coup. The other was Richard Southwell. Richard Southwell was a Member of the Royal Council, and Richard Southwell was a cynical man. Here is one kind of person produced by the vicious nature of Tudor court politics; a reasonably able administrator but nothing more than that, who had managed to keep his place through the reigns of Henry, Edward and now Mary. He kept his place largely through his abilities with that most noble component of the sailing Dinghy, the gib. At the slightest sign of a luff, Richard Southwell’s hand was there to tighten the sheet and adjust the tiller. Richard Southwell knew how to trim his gib, and he knew how to trim his religious and political opinions to suit the times. He was the man who had given credence to Richard Rich’s testimony against Thomas More, who had switched allegiances to desert Jane Grey’s side when the tide looked as though it might be turning. Southwell’s task this February day was to manage the execution of one John Rogers, a man that Southwell, in his cynicism, had never expected to come to the stake.

Not that it was anything other than clear that Rogers was a heretic; he had been an editor of the English bible for one thing, he’d translated 4 of the Lutheran Philip Melancthon’s works. He knew Melancthon personally, since Rogers had worked, lived and married in Germany. Melancthon had a high opinion of John Rogers, describing him as

a learned man … gifted with great ability, which he sets off with a noble character … he will be careful to live in concord with his colleagues … his integrity, trustworthiness and constancy in every duty make him worthy of the love and support of all good men.

Well, that’s nice. Roger had married Adriana de Weyden, a woman also of great gifts according to John Foxe who described her as ‘more richly endowed with virtue and soberness of life, than with worldly treasures’ and the two of them had set about producing little Rogers with some enthusiasm or at very least efficiency and quite possibly enthusiasm, and in Edward’s reign he had been appointed Vicar of one of London’s leading churches. He was a man of strong opinions was our Rogers. During Edward’s reign, John Foxe had gone to him to ask him to intercede with Cranmer to stop the burning of Joan Boucher the Anabaptist; Rogers had refused, saying that it seemed like a mild punishment for an anabaptist like Joan, earning him an angry outburst from Foxe. So just to leaven the story, the point I am making is that Rogers himself had approved the burning of heretics. On the more positive side, he had courageously and angrily preached about what he saw as the misuse of Abbey lands. As soon as Mary had gained the throne, he’d been a marked man. In this, he had not helped himself it has to be said, he had made no attempt to duck or indeed to weave, preaching loudly at St Paul’s Cross to tell everyone to adhere to the true religion, as defined by Edward. On 16th August he was told to keep to his house. In response Rogers did that footballers thing. You might imagine Norman ‘Bites yer legs’ Hunter, cynically hacking down some striker showing irritating signs of getting too big for his boots, and then turning to the ref to protest his innocence. What me? Come on Ref, I’m just preaching the state religion said Rogers.

Actually, unlike Norman Hunter, Rogers was right, but as with most persecutions, the rule of law is the first thing to go. Rogers was confined to house arrest and deprived of his living without being charged or convicted of any offence, since he was not guilty of any offence at the time since the laws had not yet been changed. This was a problem; referring back to that procreative efficiency, by the time February 1555 came around, there were 11 little Rogers, which is a lot of mouths to feed, and much hardship had been the result. By January 1554 Rogers had been formally incarcerated in Newgate Prison in London, and was being thoroughly and lengthily interrogated.

At which point I can return to Richard Southwell sitting there in the Smithfield Square waiting for the object of all this fuss to arrive. At one stage Southwell had been part of the team of men interrogating Rogers to both establish the extent of his heresy, and to try to get him to recant and save his life. Rogers would not change his views, but in 1554 Southwell had not been worried. Rogers had written in his diary

…the Lord Chancellor bad to prison with me again: and away, away, said he, we have no more to talk withal, if I would not be reformed (so he termed it), away away! Up I stood, for I had kneeled all the while.

Then Sir Richard Southwell, who stood in a window by, said to me: ‘thou wilt not burn in this gear when it commeth to the purpose. I know well that’.

Southwell’s sneer, was that Rogers would suddenly discover a fresh set of beliefs when confronted with the fire. All that Rogers would reply was

Sir I cannot tell, but I trust to my Lorde God yes, lifting up mine eyes unto heaven

Back to 4th February 1555 then, and the rowdy Smithfield Square London. At this point, Southwell might have heard further tumult in the distance, because the sheriffs were bringing Rogers from Newgate to face the music. Not that Rogers had much time to prepare; he’d gone to sleep the previous night expecting the following day to be much like the last, i.e. cold, miserable and hungry, but he had been woken that morning by the insistent shakings of the Gaoler’s Wife, since she’d found it almost impossible to wake him. And she’d given him the disappointing news that this would be a busy day in the diary. Get up, have a spot of food. Go see Bishop Bonner have the clerical robes ripped off and be downgraded to a mere civilian. Go and get burned. Then no more social engagements.

During stage two, Rogers had made one request of Bonner, to have a chance to see and speak to his wife before the burning which seems no more than reasonable; but for Bonner, Rogers was now something less than human, just a recalcitrant heretic to be processed as a warning to the world, and so he was brusquely refused even that.

Looking at my Interactive Aga’s map of London through in the Inter Tubes, I might guess that when it came time for Rogers to be so processed, he would have come from Newgate and passed out through the City Walls onto what I thought would have been Giltspur Street, formerly known as Knightriders Street from the jousts that used to go on in happier days at Smithfield. On the Agas map it looks like Gifford Street, but ho hum. Up past Cock Lane, which you might think would be named for the sellers of chicken, given London’s trading history, but if you do think that – then you need to think again of a different type of trade, which was legalised in the lane in the medieval period. Just before coming into Smithfield they would have reached Pie Corner, which in just over 100 years’ time would become famous not for its pies, but for being the furthest extent reached by the great Fire of London 1666. Past Hosiers Lane, and not the open space and roar of Smithfield, with the bulk of the church of St Bartholomew the Great away to the right. And there he would have seen amongst the crowd his wife and 11 children – the youngest of whom was just a baby, who he would have seen for the first time. I can’t imagine what that was like for any of them but both Adriana Rogers and all her children were there to encourage their husband and father and help him onto the life eternal with courage, and so they smiled and waved in such a way that made the French Ambassador Noaille marvel that

even his children assisted at it, comforting him in such a manner that it seemed as if he had been led to a wedding.

There was no time allowed for any last tender words, Rogers was taken to the stake and tied to it; we’ve been through the process of these executions with Cranmer, Latimer and Ridley so let’s not over do it, but suffice to say that as normal Rogers was exhorted by the Sheriffs to take this last opportunity to save himself and recant. To their horror but surely not surprise by this stage, Rogers would not hear of it. Normally, the condemned was allowed to speak, but not Rogers – no one in authority wanted to allow Rogers any more opportunities to pull any more souls to damnation. And then let us turn to John Foxe to do the honours:

After these few wordes, the fyre was put vnto hym, and when it had taken holde bothe vpon his legges and shoulders, he as one feling no smart, washed his handes in the flame, as though it had beene in colde water. And after lyftynge vp his handes vnto heauen, not remouing the same, vntyll suche tyme as the deuouring fyre had consumed them, most myldlye this happy Martyr yelded vp his spirite into the handes of his heauenly father.

History does not record what happened to Adriana Rogers, though the lives of the children are well enough catalogued, with a couple of them at least going on to literary and diplomatic careers. Nor does it record the cut of Southwell’s gib as the people left Smithfields, but it does record the worried reports of the Ambassadors. Renard thought the whole thing was a really, really bad idea. He told Philip about the people in the crowd who rushed to the fire and

‘gathered the ashes and bones and wrapped them up in paper to preserve them’

I am assuming this is some time later, otherwise there’d have been rather more medical problems going on, but it’s interesting that the instinct for relics died hard even among the Protestants of the time.

I do not think it well that your majesty should allow further executions to take place unless the reasons are overwhelmingly strong and the offences committed have been so scandalous as to render the course justifiable in the eyes of the people’

He urged, and as far as Renard was concerned, Phillip must make Mary go much more carefully and slowly; why be so public he argued? If punishment was needed, let’s go for

‘secret executions, banishment and imprisonment’.

Renard was worried that not only would these executions raise resistance to Mary, but that the traditional reluctance to blame the monarch would make the English turn to blame the Spanish. Noailles, gloomily wrote home to say that Roger’s death confirmed the alliance between Pope and England; and he wrote of the support given to Rogers by the greater part of the people, not only his family.

I suspect Richard Southwell would have been much more cynical of course, and therefore hopeful, that with this and a few more burnings, the fires would soon fizzle out, literally, as the protestants of England took a look at the flames and decided that Catholicism suddenly looked like a much more attractive option than they’d previously thought. In this, to be fair, Southwell was not alone; Gardiner, Pole, Mary, all the main architects of the programme were confident that a few show trials were all that would be needed.

It should also be said that the vast majority involved fervently hoped that it would be so. In establishing the programme, Mary herself had given instructions that the heretics should be reconciled if at all possible, rather than killed; that

I believe it would be well to inflict punishment at this beginning without much cruelty and passion, but without however omitting to do such justice on those who will choose by their false doctrines to deceive simple persons, that the people may clearly comprehend that they have not been condemned without just cause, whereby others will be brought to know the truth, and will beware of letting themselves be induced to relapse into such new and false opinions

So yes, there is punishment here for the great damage done to the souls of others by leading them into error; but there is education too, and of course a consciousness of how serious an act this is; this is not a progrom of mindless hate, however deeply Mary detested heresy and heretics, and she did so detest them. But this was to be a solemn, serious and weighty matter. The people attending would hear ‘good sermons’ so that they would understand why this was being done, and have errors corrected. Each event would be taken seriously:

“I would wish none to be burnt without some of the Council’s presence”

She instructed. In this she very much followed the instructions of Cardinal Pole, for whom heretics were the very breath of hell

There is no kind of men so pernicious to the commonwealth as they be

He wrote. But he was determined that as far as possible, the accused should be talked round. There is no sign here of people being hauled off willy nilly and thrown onto the fire without care – each one was the subject of deep interrogation and attempt to persuade – and by interrogation I mean two way conversation, I do not mean it as a euphemism for physical torture. For Pole, the cost was particularly high; for he believed at any who died unrepentant went not to purgatory, but straight to eternal damnation. The most zealous of the Bishops prosecuting the evangelists was Bishop Bonner in London, and of all of the leaders of the persecution, he is most open to the charge of a personal animus in the burnings. But even he was prepared to go to great lengths to persuade; he even offered to set one heretic up in a shop, an apprentice called William Hunter and said to him

“I thinke thou art ashamed to beare a fagot and recant openly, but if thou wilt recante thy sayinges, I will promise thee, that thou shalt not be putte to open shame: but speake the worde here nowe betwene me and thee, and I wil promise thee, it shall go no further, and thou shalt goe home againe without any hurt”

All hoped, therefore that a short, sharp shock, accompanied by a positive promotion of re-education in the true faith would get things sorted.


All of this is not to say that there was no element of vengeance here – punishment and fury there is in abundance, and everything was to be done to make sure that the fear and terror was made clear to all and sundry, in the hope that the leadership of local protestant conventicles would lose their nerve, and collapse. So, one of the next to die was Bishop Hooper, a very outspoken evangelical of course. Mary instructed that Hooper should be burned in Gloucester

“for the example and terror of suche as he hath there seduced and mistaught, and bycause he hath done moste harme there”

The instructions drip with Mary’s contempt for Hooper and others such as him, for Mary, Hooper must die because:

“as heretiques be, a vain-glorious person, and delyteth in his tongue, and having liberty, may use his sayd tongue to perswade such as he hath seduced, to persist in the myserable opinion that he hath sowen among them

Hooper was also not allowed to speak at his execution, and was taken hooded, so as not to excite sympathy or have the opportunity to give or receive encouragement. Hooper himself was well aware of what was to come, and well aware of the challenge that all in his place would need to think about – whether to submit or to die. From Gaol he wrote:

‘Now is the time of trial, to see whether we fear more God or man.’

Bishop Hooper did not shrink from the challenge; and his courage is even more extraordinary when you consider the manner of his death; it took 45 minutes of screaming agony for him to go, since the wood was green and slow to burn. A bystander wrote, a rather horrific description, so horrific that actually I decide not to read it out. It’s all there in Foxe’s book.

From February to April 1555, then, in the first flush of the persecution, 16 died. As you might expect, many of them were clergymen – 7 of the first 16; and a couple were those considered local leaders, described as gentlemen. But one of the striking features about those that died under Mary’s reign of terror was that in the main it was ordinary men and women that died. Even in this first tranche, we have a fisherman in Cardiff, a weaver of Shoreditch, a Butcher from Braintree. Among them was our William Hunter, who sadly was not simply ashamed, but genuinely believed that he had no option but to die or suffer eternal torment. And to set against Bonner’s apparent humanity we have the example of Thomas Tomkins, the first of those lay victims. During the interrogation, Bonner held his hand to a candle flame, and had his beard shorn; Catholics were clean shaven, so Bonner sent Tomkins to the barber ‘so he would look like a Catholic’.

The reactions of the crowds were many and varied. At Roger’s execution, the crowd was for the most part willing Rogers on, rooting for him; At Hooper’s execution, the place was packed out again – but part of the reason for that was that it was a market day. So you know, there you are, with your pal, or down there with your wife, you’ve sold your sheep or picked up that widget you were looking for, and before going back you suggest to the other half that you have a mosey on down and see what was going on; even Foxe conceded that as well as Hooper’s supporters,

“many also came to see his behaviour towards death.

At Rawlins White’s death in Cardiff, the conflict was not just within the crowd, but between Rawlins himself and the priest conducting the mass; ‘I bow not before that idol’ roared Rawlins, while his friends held fast to his hands until the fire at last drove them apart.

Mary’s Royal Council established a process of persecution and correction, defined in March 1555. Each county was divided up into eight or twelve smaller units, allocated between the Justices of the Peace as appropriate. The JPs helped preachers, who were sent down “to preach Catholic doctrine to the people”. They were to search out absentees from church, to seek for religious dissidents, paying special attention to

“preachers and teachers of heresy, and procurers of secret meetings for that purpose”.

They were to recruit in every parish “some one or more honest men, secretly instructed,” to act as informers, and they were to charge constables “of the most honest and catholic of every parish” to vigilance against vagabonds, wanderers, “and such as may be probably suspected”.

I guess it’s inevitable that we tend to see the persecuted as passive in this; that this was something done to them, in which they had no role but personal resistance. In fact, this was far from the case. The Royal council searched also for conventicles, meeting secretly to both practice their religion but also plan and organise a response to persecution, with very much the same motivation and need for secrecy as would Catholics under Elizabeth. In Ipswich, the strength of local feeling was so strong, that there was a stream of pleadings from beleaguered Catholics, describing how some protestants had fled, others openly defied the authorities, and yet more appeared to observe Catholic practice, but in fact refused to look at the pax in church or carried out other smaller acts of rebellion. Or worse, they exercised social pressure; as one letter recorded,

The ministers of the Church are hemmed at in the open streets, and called knaves.

From the start, the resistance began to develop strategies; and one of those strategies was to harness anti Spanish feeling. This had two advantages; firstly, as we have seen, the Spanish were unpopular because of worries about trade, war and the role of a foreign king; and so, linking fear of Spanish tyranny and Catholicism was a clever and effective approach to garner popular support. But also, having a hack at Philip and the Spaniards meant you did not have to attack the anointed monarch. So for example, James Tooley’s execution, for the perfectly secular crime of murder of a Spaniard, was dressed up to look like religious resistance

‘From the tyranny of the Bishop of Rome, and all his detestable enormities … good Lord deliver us.’

Read Tooley, from the Edwardian prayer book. In 1555, a book called A Warnyng for Englande was doing the rounds, printed in Emden in Germany but bought and circulated in England. The book bigged up the religious disturbance and Protestant suppressions in the Kingdom of Naples, pushing the red button of terror called the Spanish Inquisition, claiming that burnings were ready to begin, but also stirring the much more practical fear that church lands were being seized. In May 1555, there was a serious outbreak of violence near the court when a crowd of 500 armed Englishmen confronted Spaniards, with five or six killed. Then again when Philip’s Spanish Dominican chaplain, Bartolomé Carranza, tried to revive the traditional Corpus Christi procession in June, a mob assembled outside the church where the Spanish, ‘including the most noble and illustrious of that nation’, were attending mass, and were only with great difficulty persuaded to disperse. Very quickly, then, resistance to the Spanish and Protestantism became linked.

It was, in short, something of a bun fight. And in England, there can be no fight so fierce.

The experience of this first period left Stephen Gardiner deeply worried and upset, and his attitude changed quickly against the policy of burning heretics, and he stopped attending the burnings in person. The evidence is, that Phillip also listened to Renard, and shared his view that this strategy was not only creating chaos, but understood that the negative impact would hurt the Spanish disproportionately. So, how to tell Mary then that he thought she was on the wrong path? Not an easy one; this was for her a matter of conscience, and Phillip was well aware what that entailed. So he took the Anne Boleyn approach – let’s get my court chaplain to deliver a sermon, and then if Mary gets grumpy I can take the Norman ‘bite yer legs’ Hunter approach, and give said Chaplain a severe and public dressing down. As a text, Alfonso de Castro, the Chaplain referred to, took a report from Renard which made the point that the protestants

Use as an argument, the cruel punishments which they assert are being applied, with recourse to fire rather than doctrine and good examples

Fair point, teach us don’t burn us. So, Alfonso preached a sermon, attacking the burnings, repeating the desperate protestant claims that

They learned it not in scripture, to burn any for conscience sake but the contrary, that they should live and be converted

It has relatively recently become a thing that Philip was far from being a religious maniac as was once part of the protestant story of Mary’s persecutions, and in fact worked hard to stop the killings. While it’s clear that Philip had little direct role in the persecution, in fact this was pretty much as far as he went to actively stop it; he had worries of his own to think about.

It is true to say also that even at this stage, Pole’s approach was not a one trick pony of suppression and violence. Pole was planning a church conference to gather the talents of the church and launch a catholic reformation, but in the meantime, the new or newly converted Catholic Bishops tended much more to stay within their dioceses and work to ensure the thorough re-establishment of Catholic practice. In this they were often sympathetic to the practical problems. You might imagine that life for Churchwardens had not been easy. Take this down, put this up, take this down and ooh, no no no you need to put that back. So Mary and her Bishops realised that parishes often couldn’t afford to replace the gorgeous rood Screens torn down under Edward with work of the same quality, and they gave latitude. Edmund Bonner completed a mammoth and comprehensive visitation of the churches in his diocese and produced a complete book and collection of homilies to be used with parishioners to instruct them properly, responding to the call of protestants for conversion not coercion; essentially beginning to understand the value of Cranmer’s creation of a common liturgy. So you know, it’s not all stick and no carrot.

But none the less, there’s a lot of stick about. And Alfonso’s intervention had absolutely no impact whatsoever; he might even, unseen by historians sadly, have put his head in his hands and muttered something about an epic fail. Because the intensity of the campaign was racketed up, not down, if ratchetting down is something you can do. Is that something you can do? Anyway, Giovanni Micheli the Venetian Ambassador gloomily remarked soon after Alfonso’s sermon that

Two days ago, to the displeasure as usual of the population here, two Londoners were burned alive, one of them having been a public lecturer in scripture, a person 60 years of age, who was held in great esteem. In a few days the like will be done to four or five more; and thus from time to time too many others who are in prison for this cause and will not recant, although such severity is odious to many people

Between May 1555 and the end of September of the same year, a further 53 people were burned to death for their religion. In one fell swoop then, Mary had outdone her father, executing more people for religion in 5 months than he had managed between the break with Rome in 1535 and the end of his reign. Now it is ordinary people and occupations that predominate, and women are among them – the first woman to be burned in Mary’s reign is probably Margery Polley, in July in Tonbridge, Kent. While some of the persecutions were driven by the Bishops, such as Richard Thornden, a newly converted Edwardian Bishop with all the same fervour of the converted I have noticed in ex-smokers; but in other cases it was members of the Royal Council now taking a lead. The words unscrupulous trimmer springs again to mind when I mention Richard Rich denouncing a draper in Billericay, Thomas Watts, and Thomas Watts did indeed burn, though I hope Rich shivered a little as Thomas cried out

‘beware, beware, for you do against your own conscience herein, and without you repent, the Lord will revenge it’.

The condemned in particular, were rarely passive victims.

However, while the drama of these events seems overwhelmingly the most important aspect of these years as far as most of Mary and her court was concerned, of course, they were not. Most minds were fixated not by Alfonso’s sermon, but by the Queen’s midrift. To which we will return next week.


5 thoughts on “275 The Time of Trial

  1. Wikipedia says Richard Southwell died in 1564. You and Wikipedia need to duke it out.

    1. I agree with Wikipedia – I take ODNB as my bible in these matters, and they also say 1564. Did I say something different?

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