Bartholomew Legate or Legatt, dealer in cloth, and his two brothers, Walter and Thomas, from Essex, were active in and around London ca. 1590-1612, and were cited as having Anabaptist beliefs, rejecting the Roman Catholic Church, the Church of England and their rituals. The brothers’ views probably influenced the emergence of the sect known as the Seekers. In 1611, Bartholomew and Thomas were imprisoned for heresy: Thomas died in Newgate Prison, Bartholomew was tried in February 1612, was found guilty of heresy, and refusing to retract his opinions, burnt at the stake at Smithfield on 18 March 1612. He was the last person burned in London for his religious opinions, (Edward Wightman, burned at Lichfield a month later, was the last to suffer in this way in England.) After 1612 most ‘heretics’ were simply sent to prison and there left to rot.
Anabaptist is a bit of a catch-all term, applied to describe a broad clutch of religious groups, at least forty independent sects, holding widely varied views, at the beginning of the Radical Reformation (1520-1580). Anabaptism was not a centralized or homogeneous sect; and many dissenters were lumped together and persecuted under the Anabaptist label, accurately or not. Even the name (meaning “rebaptiser”) was generally one used by their enemies as a term of abuse: some groups used the term Brethren to describe themselves. By 1525, Anabaptist congregations had spread across most of German speaking Europe. Rejecting both the corrupt practices of the Roman Church, and the new reformed Protestant Churches, they sought instead to re-establish Christian communities based on their conception of early Christian congregations. They often disregarded both religious ceremonies or complex theological questions, preferring to emphasise ‘the inspired Word of God, and a love for their fellow man’. Some of their core theology was radically opposed to established churches: most rejected the traditional practice of baptizing babies into the church, instead practising adult baptism, as a conscious pledge of faith, or symbolic rebirth. Unlike the new Calvinist churches they believed in free will, but they mainly also saw Christ as not truly deriving from his human mother, but being of ‘celestial flesh’.
Many groups preached the separation of the Church and State, including the abolishment of any State religion, or rejected the State completely and opposed state wars; members were often fined or imprisoned for refusing to pay taxes, take up arms or for acts of civil disobedience. They preached complete religious freedom based on a literal Bible, and the total independent control of their own congregations and the election of their own clergy, often shunning contact with the corrupted ‘worldly society’ outside their own communities.
A few Anabaptist leaders preached that a Millennium of the Saints, a golden time when Jesus would return, was at hand, and more militant congregations started to prepare to overthrow of the current ungodly and corrupted society. Some of these militant Anabaptist groups developed into quasi-communistic communities. Anabaptist uprisings took place in Europe, notably in the German town of Münster in 1532-35. Both Catholic and Protestant Europe raised an army to oust these militant Anabaptists, capturing Münster in 1535. A general persecution followed throughout Europe against all Anabaptists. Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and the Catholic Church soundly denounced the Anabaptism. By 1540, most of the early Anabaptist leaders were imprisoned or executed, but persecutions against Anabaptists continued in various portions of Europe into the 1580s.
In the early years of the Reformation, a number of Anabaptist groups were active in London, notably the followers of Melchior Hoffman, who came to England in the 1530s from the Netherlands. Around 1535, the authorities arrested four Englishmen in London for their part in the distribution of an Anabaptist confession of faith. At the house of one of them, John Raulinges, “many of the sayd faction dyuers tymes assembled,” and their “bishop and reder” was a Fleming by the name of Bastian. The foreign Anabaptists in England were the chief victims of persecution under Henry VIII. On 25th May 1535, twenty-five Dutch Anabaptists were examined at St. Paul’s for ‘heretical’ views regarding the incarnation, the mass, and baptism – fourteen were condemned. Two were burned at Smithfield on 8th June 1535, and the others sent to various English towns for a similar death. The king appointed an ecclesiastical commission “to search for and examine Anabaptists . . . and destroy all books of that detestable sect.” On 24 November four Dutch Anabaptists recanted publicly, but five days later three were burned at Smithfield: Jan Mathijsz van Middelburg, a well-known Anabaptist leader in the Low Countries, and Peter Franke and his wife, a young couple from Bruges in Flanders. (On 3 May 1540, three Anabaptists were executed at Southwark, of whom two were foreigners and one an Englishman).
Under Queen Elizabeth I Anabaptist activity openly revived; as did Church and Crown presecution. The Crown was busy trying to keep control of all religious dissidents, perceived as potential problems to the State and to the Crown. In 1575, twenty-seven German and Flemish Anabaptists were arrested in London. Accused of a series of heresies, eleven of them were convicted and condemned to be burned at the stake. Queen Elizabeth then commuted the sentences of nine of those condemned, banishing them instead of executing them. But the last two, John Wielmacker (also known as Jan Pieters) and Hendrick Ter Woort, were burned at the stake at Smithfield on July 22nd, 1575.
In 1590, Anabaptists were ordered to leave England, or to either join the National Church, or the Strangers Church at Austin Friars which had been reestablished under Elizabeth I, but most continued to meet in secret. Under James I similar policies were continued, but Anabaptist influences continued.
An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online