The period 1555 - 1558 was essentially one in which Spanish policy, particularly towards religion, was enforced. Bishop Gardiner , the Lord Chancellor, had to his credit, tried to keep Spanish advisers and nobles from filling civil appointments, but this did not prevent Cardinal Pole from having supreme authority in ecclesiastical matters. The Southwark Commission, which Pole appointed, consisted of bishops Gardiner, Bonner, Tunstall, Capon, Thirlby and Aldridge who were charged with proceeding against heretics.
A week of Martyrdoms took place 4-9 February 1555. First to face this English Inquisition (in form if not in title) was John Rogers, prebendary of St Paul`s and friend of William Tyndale. Arraigned with him were Bishop Hooper, Laurence Saunders Rector of All Hallows Church; John Bradford a popular preacher; Rowland Taylor Rector of Hadleigh, and six others. Five were deemed to be obstinate heretics to be burnt , and this to be at the places where each had ministered. The object was to strike fear and terror on the widest possible scale. The disposal, for that was what it became, was: Rogers - London; Saunders - Coventry; Hooper - Gloucester; Taylor - Hadleigh. The fifth, John Bradford, was deferred for some months.
Rogers was refused permission to see his German wife and only did see her and their ten children while on the way to the stake. The French ambassador reputedly wrote that "He went to be burnt as if he had been going to a marriage". Of his death it can be said that the first of the Marian martyrs was a triumph for Protestantism , rather than a defeat desired and expected by the Catholics. In Coventry Laurence Saunders similarly went to his death, allegedly embracing the stake with cries of " Welcome, the cross of Christ". Hooper had already been in the Tower for eighteen months and was highly respected such that he was taken in disguise, at night, and under armed guard to Newgate before removal to Gloucester. He was eventually recognised in Cirencester and crowds thronged the roads for the rest of his journey. Before the cathedral there was an enormous crowd gathered to see that three times the faggots had to be rekindled while Hooper was hung in chains partly consumed by fire. On the same day Rowland Taylor had been taken out at night to his fate at Hadleigh. He was more fortunate than others as the sheriff escorting him did allow him a few moments with his wife and children. At Hadleigh his sufferings were less than Hooper’s, as while singing in the flames a bystander struck him with a halberd and mercifully ended his life. This spate of executions did not achieve what the Queen and her advisers hoped for, certainly there was shock and horror, but they only ennobled the cause for which they died.
Many of the deaths are dealt with in Foxe`s Acts and Monuments, and need not be repeated here. The carnage continued more or less unabated through Mary`s thankfully short reign during which (at least) 277 persons were burnt, including - five bishops, twenty one clergymen, eight gentlemen, eighty four tradesmen, one hundred husband-men and servants, fifty five women, and four children. The aged Bishop Gardiner withdrew from the Commission after the condemnation of six martyrs in Essex; thereafter the focus fell in Bonner`s diocese, which included London and much of Essex. In London itself, Smithfield was the popular place for burnings when as many as seven were burnt at one time. At Stratford thirteen were consumed at one time, and a further five nearby. At the ancient Roman town of Colchester they did there best to exceed the excesses of Nero by burning twenty three persons, ten - five men and five women, on one day. At Canterbury, where Cardinal Pole held court eighteen were burnt; in Chichester twenty seven, with ten at one time in Lewes, Sussex. So the sickening persecution went on, hastened by letters from Philip and Mary rebuking the bishops for tardiness in the executions.
Surprisingly the already condemned Cranmer, Ridley and Latimer remained in prison at Oxford. It was 7 September 1555 before Cranmer was brought up for what was probably intended as a show trial. It got off to a bad start with Cranmer declining to acknowledge Cardinal Pole as he had sworn never to admit ` the authority of the Pope of Rome in England.` The usual rigmarole ended with him being required to appear before the Pope in Rome within eighty days, but returned to the Bocardo as Oxford Gaol was known. Latimer and Ridley were tried shortly after, each dissenting on authority of Rome and the matter of transubstantiation. Their time was short as on 15 October they were taken and burnt together at the south front of Balliol College. Latimer died quickly having uttered the historic words
"Be of good comfort Master Ridley, and play the man; we shall this day light such a candle , by God`s grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out."
The costs for their executions amounted to one pounds, five shillings and two pence, such was the cost of the transaction. But the real cost was the overthrow of the Romish religion in England.
Cranmer meanwhile was held in the Bocardo gaol to be the subject of humiliating public degradations, and some six phases of recanting until he was left a shattered old man. He learnt only the night before that he was to be executed on 21 March 1556. The intention to show case the burning with a final public recantation was overturned by Cranmer himself making a statement and rejecting the Pope as " Christ`s enemy, and antichrist , with all his false doctrine."
Mary now began to be neurotic about her own safety. Philip had departed to Spain in the August of 1555, fed up with the English people and virtually signalling that his marriage to Mary was at an end; and her principal adviser Cardinal Pole was out of favour with the Pope and himself threatened with a charge of heresy. The people at large were suffering from starvation following bad harvests and resentment easily surfaced while many ( eight hundred or more) persons of rank, learning and piety retreated to the relative safety of the Continent. Worse was to follow for Mary, at least her conscience was sorely troubled, when Philip of Spain went to war against the Pope and sought English help. Meanwhile Calais, in English possession for two hundred years, was lost after an eight day siege. The lame excuse was given that England could not afford a fleet to seek its recovery. And still the burnings went on.
A lapse in burnings whilst Parliament met in early 1558 was followed by a significant capture of twenty (of a total of forty) people at a conventicle in Islington. They were kept in Newgate prison for seven weeks during which time two died of fever, and thirteen were condemned for burning at the stake. Such was the fear of trouble that a Proclamation was issued that the executions should be in silence - not even a God help them` was` permitted. At Smithfield an enormous crowd assembled to hear minister Thomas Brantham who said a few words to the crowd before crying out in determined voice "Almighty God, for Christ`s sake , strengthen them". No soldiers intervened despite the Proclamation against such remarks, and the crowd responded with a solemn `Amen`, `Amen`. The last burnings took place in Canterbury on 10 November 1558, just a week before Mary herself died, followed immediately after by Cardinal Pole, the last Romanist Archbishop of Canterbury.
No accurate figures exist for the martyrdoms, the three hundred or so that burnt were probably only the tip of the iceberg given that hundreds of people were arrested, condemned yet left to fester and rot in the foul infested prisons where cruelty, starvation and fever ruled. A rough count shows that 112 died in Bonner`s London diocese; 32 in Hopton`s Norwich diocese; 52 in Pole`s Canterbury dioces; and 27 in Daye/Christopherson`s Chichester diocese. The other diocese were single figures. Notably none were burnt in Winchester diocese while Gardiner was bishop.
Extract from The English Reformation, W H Beckett (1890).
Not shown Diocese of Chester; 2 executions at Chester; 2 at Bedale,
It is of note that burning at the stake in Scotland was very largely contained to the offence of witchcraft; a mere handful were burnt for religious nonconformity. The executions were also. in most cases. more humane, in that the offender was first strangled or in some cases had bags of gunpowder hung about their waist to kill them, before the body was burnt. The other gruesome execution was hanging, drawing (disembowelling) and quartering. In this the Scots also differed until the late 17 century, in that the quartering was usually contained to removal of the limbs leaving a torso ( and heart intact) for burial - unlike the English quartering that sundered apart the torso. A few special cases, however, had their hearts removed by the executioner to be publicly burnt on the scaffold. We tend to think of these events as evil past practices of a less civilised age; but we might reflect if modern terrorism cloaked with religious fanaticism, immolation by napalm bombs or death by poisons, virus or radio active substances is in fact more indiscriminate and worthy of a far greater condemnation.