Press Gleanings

Amersham Martyrs

Report compiled by Valerie Offord

In the last issue of the Tyndale Journal we featured a lyric drama about the life and death of William Tyndale. Scanning through the Church Times this spring a short report on the Amersham martyrs of 1521 and the play written about them caught my eye.

Amersham saw a dozen or more people from or connected with the Lollard movement executed between 1414 and 1532. Foxe relates one such burning in the early 16th century:- ‘In 1506, one William Tylesley, a pious man, was burned alive at Amersham, in a close called Stoneyprat, and at the same time, his daughter, Joan Clarke, a married woman, was obliged to light the faggots that were to burn her father’.

Bishop Smith of Lincoln had made a determined stance to stamp out Lollardy and the trial and the persecution of many in the neighhourhood gave rise to much ill feeling in Amersham. In 1521, a Benedictine, John Longland, was appointed Bishop of Lincoln and Confessor to King Henry VIII. A new round of trials was embarked upon and there was an earnest seeking out of those persons who had adjured in 1506. In all some 200 hundred people were implicated.

‘The burning of the seven martyrs of Amersham still resonates in the town’, says the Rector of St Mary’s Old Church, the Revd Timothy Harper. ‘People have retained their stubborn independence. They were brutally persecuted by my predecessors for their beliefs in the liberty of conscience and the freedom to read the Bible in English. They stood trial in St Mary’s, which has changed very little since that terrible time, and were taken to the hill above the town and publicly burned together.’

At that time Amersham was part of the enormous Lincoln diocese (now it is in Oxford diocese). The Bishop of Lincoln sent an archdeacon, and might even have been there himself, to watch the blaze. Now the martyrs are commemorated by a community play, first performed four years ago, and now intended to be repeated every four years in St Mary’s, where the trial took place. The play reproduces the turbulence of 16th-century life in Amersham, and the trial of the martyrs, finishing with the burning dramatically done with lights. All is set off by the music of the time: works by William Byrd and Thomas Tallis, and plainsong, sung by the specially established Martyrs’ Choir.

We print below the article Garry Marshall has written on the play and its performances.

‘After the Flames’ Church Times 26 March 2004.
Andrews-Reading, Michael The Amersham Martyrs: The origins and history of Lollardy in 16th century Amersham The Amersham Museum 2nd edition March 2004.

The Amersham Martyrs Community Play

by Garry Marshall

Early in the sixteenth century, seven Lollards were burnt in Amersham. They were all residents of the town, and the only such to be burnt, although others were burnt nearby at much the same time in places that included Chesham and Aylesbury.

Amersham sits in a Chiltern fold, in fact, in the valley of the Misbourne. The site is typical of the Chilterns in its geology and also in its seclusion, something that has long made the area attractive to dissidents, as it was to the Lollards. On a ledge in the hillside above the town, near the spot where they were burnt, there is a monument, erected in 1931, to the Amersham Martyrs which has this inscription:-

The noble army of martyrs praise Thee
William Tylsworth Burned 1505
Thomas Barnard Burned 1521
James Morden Burned 1521
John Scrivenor Burned 1521
Robert Rave Burned 1521
Thomas Holmes Burned 1521
Joan Norman Burned 1521

As a contribution to the celebration of the Millennium, the town museum floated the idea of putting on a play about the Amersham Martyrs. The play was actually performed in March 2001. (Amersham runs on its own time.) It was intended to repeat the production in 2006 to mark the five hundredth anniversary of the death of the first of the Amersham Martyrs but, overcompensating, the second production took place in March 2004.

Preparations for the initial production began with the large number of local people interested in taking part carrying out research into the lives and deaths of the Martyrs as well as into conditions in the town at the time. It soon became apparent that reliable information about the Martyrs was hard to come by. After reading Foxe’s ‘Book of Martyrs’, ‘Lollards of the Chilterns’ by W H Summers and a few other references, it became clear that later texts were not above a measure of recycling. Information about sixteenth century Amersham was, if anything, more scarce, but general histories of sixteenth century England abound, and were duly adapted. In any event, it was clear from an early stage that the play would not be a recounting a known story but would have to weave the few certainties into an imaginative, but hopefully plausible, reconstruction.

The production took place in the parish church, St Mary’s. The pews were removed from the church’s interior to create a dauntingly large performance space and, in due course, four stages, one for each of the scenes, were erected. The play was conceived as a promenade performance in which the audience would walk from one scene to the next. But, before the first scene, and between the others, the audience would mix with the people of sixteenth century Amersham as they went to the market, enjoyed the Charter Fair or went about their everyday life.

Rehearsals began some six months before the first performance. The early enthusiasts, already doing their research, soon found that they had to go back five hundred years, that they had to incorporate the fruits of their research into their performance, and that they had to interact with each other sufficiently to create the bubble of activity necessary to convince an audience that it was market day in Amersham in September 1506. It took about three months for all concerned to overcome their embarrassment, get to know each other, as sixteenth century characters, that is, and to acquire a suitable costume that, more or less, fitted. (To jump ahead, and be immodest, in the end all this work was worth while because many of the audience said that one of the best things about the play was walking into the church and dropping back 500 years as they were almost physically struck by the impression of mediaeval Amersham that this group created.)

After three months, a script emerged. Its four scenes proceed as follows:

Scene 1, set in 1506, deals with William Tylsworth and his family and fellow Lollards. In the course of portraying the life of the family, it gently explains the ideas of Lollardy. The scene finishes with Tylsworth’s arrest, and the crowd has to pick up this news and its consequences as the action moves on to the next scene.

Scene 2 involves Tylsworth’s wife and daughter. Mrs Tylsworth has to tell her daughter that William is to be burnt and that she must light the pyre. She also tells her she is to be branded and, as the scene ends, she is dragged away to be marked with an ‘H’ by the local drunk. The crowd reacts with a buzz of concern and fear. This is shortly interrupted by an announcement that it is time for the Fair and, in complete contrast, the townspeople erupt into the juggling, Mummer’s play and Morris Dancing of the Charter Fair.

Scene 3 takes place fifteen years after the previous scene, in 1521, and involves Tylsworth’s daughter, her husband, John Scrivenor, and their children. Scrivenor, who recanted in 1506, has been brought before the court again. Despite his wife’s pleading, he refuses to recant again. The scene ends as his wife finally realises that he is determined to become a martyr. The crowd emerges in sombre mood to listen to an announcement that the King will punish anyone attempting to obstruct the forthcoming arrests.

Scene 4 is the trial of Scrivenor and the other five martyrs-to-be. The Bishop makes his way through the crowd to preside and the trial begins. Despite their testimony, the defendants are doomed. One by one they are taken away and, at the end, the flames from their pyres flicker on the church wall.

Not a ball of fun, you may think. And yet it was. Creating and performing the play was great fun. Its lasting legacy is a strengthened and invigorated community. This would seem to be an apt outcome in relation to the intentions of the Lollards, and inapt in relation to the consequences of the actions at that time of the Church. Clearly, the representatives of the Church in present-day Amersham are not to be tarred with the same brush, but then, back in 1521, the curate of St Mary’s was one of those charged with heresy.

The Macclesfield Psalter

Valerie Offord

Almost seven centuries ago, the Norfolk village of Gorleston, now a seaside resort near Great Yarmouth, was the centre of one of the most remarkable periods of artistic creativity in mediaeval England.

A local patron, believed to be John, 8th Earl of Warenne, commissioned three illustrated psalters containing the text of the Book of Psalms. One, the Gorleston Psalter, is now in the British Museum. A second, known as the Douai Psalter after the French town that came to own it, was largely destroyed during the First World War.

No other psalters from Gorleston were known until last year, when a Sotheby’s team arrived at Shirburn Castle in Oxfordshire to catalogue the library of the Earl of Macclesfield. A family dispute had forced the Earl to leave his ancestral home and he decided to auction most of his books and manuscripts, because there was insufficient room for them in his new house.

Paul Quarrie, the Sotheby’s specialist in charge of the sale, reached up to a shelf and pulled down a brightly illustrated mediaeval book. It turned out to be a previously unknown psalter from East Anglia, dating from 1320-30. Further research revealed that the Macclesfield Psalter, as it is now known, had probably been copied by the same scribe as the Gorleston Psalter, who may also have written the one that went to Douai. The text and some of the illumination had been copied directly from the latter, or vice versa.

Furthermore, the newly found psalter was illustrated throughout by one of the two artists who worked on the Douai manuscript. Sotheby’s suggests that the illustrator should now be called the Macclesfield Master rather than the Douai Psalter Assistant. Among the illustrations is one of Saint Andrew, patron saint of the mediaeval parish church in Gorleston.

Sotheby’s describes the Macclesfield Psalter as ‘the most important discovery of any English illuminated manuscript in living memory’ and expects it to fetch between £800,000 and £1.2 million. It is a windfall for Lord Macclesfield, whose forebears probably acquired it in the 18th century and who were unaware of its importance.

Stop Press
The Psalter was sold on 22 June 2004 for more than £1.6 million

An article ‘Object of the Week’ by Will Bennett in the Daily Telegraph 21 June 2004.

A Caxton Treasure from Tenterden

Report by Valerie Offord

The Polychronicon, one of the first books to be printed in England and in mint condition, is being given on permanent loan to the Canterbury Cathedral library by Tenterden council, Kent. It means that the work written in Latin by Ranulph Hugden, a Benedictine monk, in 1360 and translated into Middle English in 1387 by John Trevisa, chaplain to lord Thomas of Berkeley, will he available to historians and put on display at exhibitions for the first time.

The book contains a detailed history from the arrival of man through to the Black Death, and is renowned for its description of the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Caxton updated it with details of world history up to 1482, when the book was printed.

Tenterden council was given this priceless mediaeval book, printed and signed by William Caxton, 83 years ago in 1921 as a farewell gift from an American businessman returning home after making his fortune in Britain. It has been kept in a safe ever since. No one, apart from the odd trusted person, could view it in the small town council building due to lack of adequate display facilities and insurance problems. The loan of the book was partially prompted by fears that a growing damp problem in the offices could damage it.

In any case, as Tenterden’s town clerk remarked, ‘A book like that needs to be preserved rather than just kept on a shelf. The staff at the Cathedral library understand better than us how to look after rare old books, so that its condition will not deteriorate’.

Caxton was born in Tenterden in 1422. About 20 copies of the Polychronicon survive, but the Tenterden edition is believed to be the original and has handwritten annotations in its margins as well as being signed by the printer. Sarah Gray, the Canterbury cathedral’s assistant librarian said ‘We are very excited about having it. We have a tremendous collection of rare books but not having a Caxton has always been a big regret. People always ask us if we have one, so this is a real coup and will fill a major gap in our collection. This is a beautiful example of Caxton’s work and looks almost brand new’.

Article ’Priceless Caxton book goes on show for the first time’ in the Daily Telegraph 21 June, 2004

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