In 1536 William Tyndale was strangled and then burnt at the stake. The strangulation, before the fire was lit, was a merciful action in recognition of his scholarly learning. It is to put his method of death into some kind of context that the deaths of other reformers will be analysed.
The main source for these accounts is Foxe's Acts and Monuments (Townsend, G (ed) ‘The Acts and Monuments of John Foxe’ (London, 1843). Foxe was principally concerned with the theological arguments between the English martyrs and their persecutors. The contemporary documents often fill many pages, with verbatim reports and closely argued debates. In the case of William Hunter, who was burned in 1555, the supporting documentation about his beliefs stretches to eight pages in the 19th century edition, whereas the account of his death lasts for approximately twenty lines. The trial and examination of John Hooper, the Bishop of Worcester and Gloucester, is told by Foxe in forty-one pages. The treatment of his death is given in some detail but even so covers less than a page. The deaths of the martyrs was a gruesome, but largely incidental, part of Foxe's work.
Burning of heretics was the most common form of death, and had been used throughout the centuries. Other campaigns against heretics included the 12th and 13th century burnings of the Cathars and Waldensians in southern France, the burning of some Lollards in 15th century England and the use of fire by the Spanish Inquisition. In England burning was rarely used in the 15th century, and then usually for heretics or witches, but burnings increased greatly in prominence with the persecutions of the 16th century Reformation. In all there were probably over 600 people burnt for their faith between c. 1500 and 1558. Foxe concentrates on the Protestant martyrs but occasionally gives accounts of Catholic martyrs as well. Some of Foxe's accounts give the simple statement that the heretic was burnt, or that he does not have further information, but where he has obtained additional details he adds them. It is these details that form the basic of this paper.
The reason why heretics were burnt is not that clear. There was probably an element of trying to cleanse the soul (fire was seen as a cleansing agent), but other aspects probably included the value of a deterrent and the disposal of the body. The horror of non-burial was a real one to the Medieval mind. Equally horrific was the exclusion from the physical and spiritual community of the living and the dead. Burning could also, perhaps uniquely, affect all the senses — touch (by heat), taste (by smoke), smell (the burning of flesh), sight and sound. The impact must have been tremendous.
The emotional impact could also be great, especially when a family was involved. Different people had different responses. When Laurence Ghest was burned at Salisbury in 1508 his ‘Mind attempted to be swayed by fatherly affection for wife and seven children’ (Foxe, Vol 4, page 126-7). One can imagine the desperate plight of the widow — herself probably excluded from the community by being the wife of a heretic. Occasionally enormous emotional pressure was applied. In 1553 a merchant called Matthieu Dimonet was burned at Lyons (4/414). Before his martyrdom he suffered ‘Great problems with the temptation of his parents, brethren and kinfolks, and the sorrow of his mother, nevertheless he endured to the end’. Some wives were sympathetic, and John Browne's wife sat all night beside him whilst he was in the stocks before his burning. The tone of the account suggests she was giving him support for his action (4/181-2). When William Hunter was tried and burnt his parents supported him to the end (6/722) and did ‘not follow him with lamentation, neither laboured, by their words, to draw him from his godly purpose’. Foxe says of them that they ‘are no less to be accounted martyrs’ for their own pain and constancy.
The reaction of the crowd could vary too. When Benet was burned in 1528 the ‘devilish rage of the blind people’ meant that they took ‘sticks or furze to cast into the fire’ (5/26). Pardons could also be given for wood collections. Forty days pardon was given in 1530 for the fire of Thomas Harding (4/581), a former priest. This meant that ‘ignorant people caused many of their children to bear billets and faggots’ for the burning. In 1538 a similar pardon was given to local dignitaries who went and cut down boughs and heaped them onto the fire (5/254). Seventeen years later, in 1555, young children danced around the fire saying ‘Lord, strengthen thy servant’ for which Foxe commends them and their parents (6/740). Although only three examples, the change in attitude of the crowd within seventeen years is an interesting one.
Children were also used, sometimes in psychologically horrible ways. When John Scrivener (4/245) and Joan Clerk (4/245) were burned, their children were ordered to light the fire. It was unusual for the children to be so directly involved, but in the case of John Browne, as he was being burnt, the bailey-arrant ‘bade cast in Browne's children also, for they would spring, said he, of the ashes’ (4/182). On the Continent, women could be reprieved, if they bore a child, until after the birth, but were then martyred, as in the case of Gillot Vivere's wife Anna (4/394-5). Only one instance has been found of brothers or sisters being burnt at the same time, and the youngest was burnt first (4/384). This pattern was followed in Lyon when five students were burnt -- the eldest going to the stake last. It seems rare that the extended family was involved, although in one case from Toulousse in 1552 John Joery (4/409) actively encouraged his servant to be martyred with him. When the servant began to weep, his master comforted him and they began to sing. The impression given of the servant torn between love of his master and his weaker spiritual conviction. Sometimes family pressure won. In Scotland in 1528 James V persuaded his aunt, Katherine Hamilton, to recant so that she should be saved. Others in the party refused to recant and were burned.
If the martyr was determined upon a course of action then the normal outcome was to be burnt. It was rare for any other method of death to be used, although there is at least one reference to a wife being buried alive in Bergen in Germany in 1549 (4/391) and one or two cases of drowning. The cases of drowning are of particular interest because they fit into a known Medieval pattern. To the Medieval theological and literary mind true Christians and believers could not drown. The Biblical examples made this clear: Noah survived the flood and Jonah survived the whale. In the New Testament Christ walked on water. Peter also walked on the water, but when he doubted, he began to sink. Medieval literature and theological works are full of Christians being saved and non-believers drowning. The bodies of non-believers or pagans were also thrown into rivers to be discarded, but if the Christian bodies were thrown into the river they were discovered and given honourable burial. These are strong Medieval themes and they continue through Foxe's work. What is particularly interesting is that Foxe is probably citing local customs. He described how ‘many godly persons’ were thrown into the River Rhone and other rivers, (disposal of non-believers by Catholics) but then adds that their bodies were found, presumably by Protestants, and buried (4/360). Also in Germany Master Peter Spengler (4/366-8) was cast into the river to die, or in the case of Bertrand le Blas, his ashes were cast into the ware (4/393-4).
One easy way for the authorities to avoid a public ceremony was for the person to die in prison. Sometimes there were sinister implications of murder, especially in the case of Richard Hunne who was found hanged in his cell. (For an in-depth examination of the case see William Cooper's article in Reformation 1). The alternative was for people to die of their injuries. By their very nature these types of deaths were kept secret from the general public, thereby illuminating the need for a public display.
Burning, however, was by far the most common method of death and destruction. Apart from the act of burning there does not seem to have been any hard and fast rules followed throughout Europe, but rather regional differences. The decision as to whether a death would be quick or slow seems to have depended on the persecutors viciousness or whim -- a terrifying thought. The most lenient was to be strangled before the fire was lit. This happened to Tyndale, presumably because he was a learned scholar, although that is not given as a cited reason. This method of death was very uncommon. Two other instances were those of a widow called Wandelmuta in Belgium (4/378) and John Pointet (4/397) in Paris, who was offered the option of being strangled because he had previously cured one of the persecuting friars.
If the person was not to be strangled then they would be burnt or suffocated. Smoke suffocation may have been common, but it is not often given in the accounts. One example was that of William Hunter who ‘cast his head again in the smothering smoke [and] yielded up his life’ (6/729). The speed of death could be controlled by the nature of the fire, which can burn with a quick, great heat, using dry wood, or with a more prolonged effect using green wood. When Laurence Saunders was burned at Coventry in 1555 (5/628) green wood was used, ‘and other smouldering, rather than burning fuel, which put him in much more pain’.
The weather could play a significant part, especially the wind. No reference has been found to rain dampening the fire, but the wind was common hindrance. In the case of John Hooper the wind ‘blew the flame from him, and he was in no manner touched by the fire’. A second fire was lit which was more successful, but only when a third fire was lit did he eventually die. Thomas Bilney in 1531 also had the ‘flame departing and recoursing thrice ere the wood took strength’ (4/654). An extreme example occurred in 1540 when Stephen Brune lasted almost an hour because the wind arose and blew the flames from him.
Whilst the person was being burnt they were normally tied to a stake. To raise the martyr above the fire and into the full view of the on-lookers, he or she might stand on a pitch barrel (as in the case of Bainham), stool (Hopper) or an inbuilt ledge on the stake itself (Bilney, 4/654). The view of the agonies was an attempt to be a deterrent and act as a visible punishment. A particularly interesting example was the burning of Henry Forest at St Andrew's, Scotland. He was ‘burnt at the north church-stile of the Abbey church ... [so that] all the people of Forfar might see the fire’. The fire was deliberately positioned to be seen over large distances. This case is also interesting in that the fire was placed at the ‘north church-stile’ of the Abbey. The church-stile was presumably at the limit of the cemetery and so the fire was on a boundary between the secular and the ecclesiastical worlds, but was part of neither. He was therefore excluded from both worlds. This placing of the fire seems exceptional -- normally it was held in a square or other prominent secular place.
The treatment of the people about to be martyred could vary greatly. Many had been cruelly tortured and imprisoned before being burnt. The martyrs usually walked or were transported by a cart or dung-cart to their place of execution. In mid-sixteenth century England there does not seem to have been any ‘uniform’ that had to be worn, although in 1506 a group of English heretics had pieces of cloth sewn into their clothing to distinguish them. An example of special clothing occurred in Bavaria when Leonard Keyser was ‘clothed in a short gown, and a black cap set upon his head, all cut and jagged’ (4/376-7). Maybe in the same tradition Kerby Clarke was burned in Suffolk in 1545 wearing a nightcap (5/531). The predominant form of attire in England was to be burnt in a shirt. When John Hooper (5/657) wanted to be burned in his doublet and hose, the sheriffs would permit it and he had to take them off and stand in his shirt. Some alternatives are given: when Benet was burned he wore ‘a jerkin of neat's leather’ (5/26). The role of clothing was probably to represent public shame. John Hooper, the once powerful bishop of Worcester and Gloucester, was reduced to wearing only a shirt. The public would have known him in his ecclesiastical robes, but during his last minutes he wore less than some of the poorest in the crowd. The public shaming was an important part of the ceremony.
A potentially important area of study occurs in the last speeches or words of the dying. Sometimes nothing is reported by Foxe, or only the basic minimum -- such as when Laurence Saunders ‘often times fell flat on the ground and prayed’ (5/628). In other cases long speeches or the actual words are given. The method of gleaning these is revealed in the case of John Hooper. During his prayers ‘the mayor ... espied these men who made report of [Hooper's] words, they were commanded away, and could not be suffered to hear any more’. (5/657). This gives the strong impression that there was a band of followers who took down his last words for posterity. If this was true in most cases, then Foxe must be given even more credence for factual reporting of the event.
Sometimes the last words were dismissive -- some comparing the blazing fire to ‘roses under my feet’ (4/350). Some treated their death in a slightly theatrical, or unconcerned way, presumably they were sure that their soul was about to go to Heaven. When the four martyrs, Peerson, Testwood, Filmer and Marbeck, were tied to the stake a drink was passed between them (a rare occurrence) and Anthony Peerson ‘laid a good deal [of straw] upon the top of his head, saying ‘This is God's hat; now am I dressed like a true soldier of Christ, by whose merits only I trust this day to enter into his joy’ (5/494). The most commonly quoted Biblical texts were the Psalms, although there is no uniformity as to which psalm was chosen. John Bertrand, a forester of Blois, sang Psalm 25, Thomas Bilney (4/654) recited Psalm 54 (Domine! exuudi orationem meam — ‘Hear my prayer O Lord’) and Dr Taylor (5/699) sang Psalm 51 ‘Miserere’ in English. A nearby priest, called Sir John Skelton, objected and demanded that he say the psalm in Latin. When William Hunter was burned in 1555 he recited Psalm 84 (6/722), having previously read out Psalm 51 (6/728) and Stephen Knight recited part of Psalm 92 in his last prayers (6/740). Sometimes the psalms or last words of the martyr were offensive to the authorities who tried to stop them. In France competition developed between a group reciting psalms who were being burnt and a group of priests who retaliated by singing ‘O salutaris hostia’ and ‘Salve Regina’ (4/402). At Tournai, Thomas Calbergue (4/419) sang psalms as the warden of the friars stood crying ‘Turn Thomas, Turn! yet it is time...’ A more drastic method was the use of trumpeters. When Arnold Moniere and John de Cazes were burned in Bordeaux (4/425), trumpeters were commanded to sound during the time of their suffering to stop the people hearing the martyrs. In this case it may have been feared that the martyrs had the power to sway a sympathetic crowd, or that the crowd was susceptible to other beliefs.
From Foxe's accounts it appears that there was no standard treatment of martyrs at the stake and the treatment of the English martyrs was less vicious than most. There are many lines of enquiry which can be followed, such as an analysis of the last speeches and the treatment of the martyrs in prison. Yet perhaps the most interesting line of research is the reaction of the crowd to the burnings, for the change from support for the burnings, to support for the martyr might mark the rise of popular and deep rooted support for the Reformation in England. Even so, it is difficult to judge the impact of the burnings upon the spectators and those directly involved. Foxe does not often record the reactions of individuals and no instance has been found of any conversions as a direct result of the burnings.
This analysis was to put Tyndale's martyrdom into context, but it also reveals the terrible suffering of other martyrs. Yet despite their suffering their faith was so strong in Christ and their own beliefs that they were willing to face a painful death. Whatever horrors awaited them at the stake, their fear, pain and agonies were overcome by their faith in Christ.