The Exeter Martyrs

Thomas Benet
Thomas Benet lived in Cambridge during the reign of Henry VIII at a time when he and others like him had access to the Bible. He was a close friend of Thomas Bilney. Professor of Civil Law at Cambridge, who also happened to be a leading Reformer. By studying the Bible, Benet discovered that the Roman Church made many claims contrary to the teachings of Jesus Christ found there. Ii, particular he discovered that the Bible said that the Vicar of Christ was the Holy Spirit, not the Pope of Rome. He also found out that the Bible said Christians were to pray to God alone, and not to idols, angels or the souls of dead people.

Benet moved to Exeter in 1524 because by then Cambridge had become far too dangerous a place for Bible-believers to live in, but there he found exactly the same false religion all around him. Benet knew the Bible commanded all Christians to 'earnestly contend for the faith once delivered unto the saints', which meant it was wrong to remain silent in the midst of idolatry and false religion. Having a tender conscience he knew he would have no peace of soul until he had spoken out against lies and false claims of authority.

In October 1530 he, fixing scrolls to the door, declared in them what he had discovered from the Bible, making statements like 'The Pope is Anti-Christ, and we ought to worship God only, and no saints'. An Order for daily sermons against 'the heretic' was immediately enacted by the enraged Bishop and the Mayor set out to capture him.

Benet continued to attend services at the Cathedral, and had some narrow escapes. On one occasion his pursuers actually sat either side of him throughout the service, and didn't realise he was there! Benet was finally captured during a service for an Excommunication that he secretly attended -- his own!

In the midst of all this superstition Benet could contain himself no longer. He burst out laughing, thus giving himself away. Benet was put in stocks and irons and ordered to submit to the Pope as the Vicar of Christ to whom all authority was en, and to confess that Christians should offer prayers to the saints. He refused. Instead he showed them from the Bible that both of these things were wrong and should not be done by Christians.

He was burned to death at Livery Dole on January 10th 1531 because he would not submit to the authority of the Pope or pray to saints. An angry John Barnehouse thrust a flaming faggot into his face and said, 'Here. heretic, pray to Our Lady or I'll make you do it!' Benet asked God to forgive Barnehouse and all his other tormentors, Then he said, 'Father, receive my spirit!', and died in the flames.

Agnes Prest
Agnes was poor and illiterate. She was born in Cornwall and worked in Exeter as a domestic servant for a while. Whilst in Exeter she heard things that changed her life. There is some evidence that she was actually present in the crowd when Benet was martyred for the Faith. 'Upon the Sundays I visited the Sermons, and there have I learned such things as are so fixed in my breast that death should not separate them.'

Leaving Exeter she returned to Cornwall and married a man called Prest, who turned out to be an ardent Papist. They had numerous children, whom Prest brought up to believe the things he did. They 'were much addicted to the superstitious sect of Popery'. She was a simple Bible-believing woman, he was an ardent Papist; it was not a good match. 'When I would have him to leave idolatry and to worship God in Heaven, he would not hear me, but he with his children rebuked and troubled me.' Prest tried to compel his wife to go to Mass, make her Confession and follow the Cross in procession, but Agnes refused to do any of these things. The persecution became so great that finally she fled.

Love of home and family proved so strong that Agnes returned, only to be met with a heartless reception as her husband and some neighbours took her to the Parish Priest and accused her of Heresy. She was arrested and kept in gaol at Launceston for some three months, and then transferred to Exeter. The charge was, 'Heresy chiefly against the Sacrament of the Altar and for speaking against Idols'.

Bishop Turberville said she ought to be burned for this heresy, to which she said that she would 'rather die than worship that foul idol which with your Mass you make a god ... to be worshipped of all men'. Agnes Prest tried to show Turberville that worshipping a piece of bread as God was both absurd and blasphemous, but being a devout follower of the Pope he would have none of it.

She insisted that the Body of Christ remained in Heaven until He came again (as the Apostles' Creed declares) but the Bishop said that any priest could bring down Christ and turn the bread into His Body.

She was ordered to give up her religion, or be burned as a heretic. Sentenced to death, she was offered one last chance to turn from her faith, but again she refused.

On 15th August 1557 this 54-year-old woman was led outside the city walls to Southernhay where she was burned to death. Her crime? She would not bow down and worship a piece of bread.

Ottery St. Mary Reformed Church
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