Today in London’s multi-faith history: Cuthbert Simpson burned at Smithfield, 1558

Centuries of corruption, accumulation of wealth, extortion of rent, tithes and vicious punishment of dissenters provoked many rebellions and heresies against the Catholic Church. All were generally crushed or accommodated until the Protestant Reformation in the early 16th century, which split the church across Europe.

After a slow start, protestantism took root in England, helped by the marriage difficulties and dynastic obsession of the obviously psychotic king Henry VIII. Never a protestant himself, the syphilitic nutter seized the chance to exploit the atmosphere of questioning of Catholic orthodoxy to divest parts of the Church of a great deal of their land and wealth, much of which was subsequently redistributed one way or another, sparking an upheaval in property ownership, and giving a huge boost to the agricultural revolution then being tentatively born.

But it was during the reigns of his children that serious religious division opened up in England. Successive protestant (under Edward VI) and Catholic (under Mary) regimes first instituted, then tried to reverse, reforms in religious practice, belief and creeds. While the religious divide in this country never took anything like the ravaging forms of the open warfare seen in France in the late 16th century or Germany in the 17th, Catholic repression in the 1550s and protestant intolerance in the succeeding decades saw hundreds of arrests and imprisonments for ‘heresy’, and tens executed.

The heaviest period for religious executions was under Catholic Queen Mary in the 1550s, and most of those met their deaths at Smithfield, just north of the City of London (as we have already discussed on this blog).

Since protestants could expect to be burned if they were caught and refused to repent, they went underground. Congregations organised themselves in secret, and met to worship in each other’s houses, or in woods, fields, away from the eyes of authorities or anyone who might grass them up. Despite this, a number were raided, and participants ended up on the Smithfield pyres.

Cuthbert Simpson had been arrested at a clandestine meeting in the Saracen’s Head inn in Islington. Simpson was (according to historian of protestant martyrs John Foxe) a married deacon of an underground protestant congregation, who was responsible for keeping a list of names of the group, collected moneys etc… He was arrested with two assistants, Hugh Fox and John Devenish; all three were charged with conspiracy and treason.

Simpson was held in the Tower of London, and is reported as having withstood harrowing torture there, as the authorities attempted to prise further names of secret ‘heretics’ from him.

John Foxe recorded an alleged last letter that Simpson sent to his friends from captivity, describing what happened after he refused interrogators’ demand that he begin naming names (paraphrased into modern English).

I was set in an engine of iron, for the space of three hours as I judged. After that, they asked me if I would tell them. I answered as before. Then I was loosed, and carried to my lodging again. On the Sunday after, I was brought into the same place again before the lieutenant, being also constable, and the recorder of London, and they examined me. As before I had said I answered. Then the lieutenant sware by God, I should tell. Then did they bind my two forefingers together, and put a small arrow betwixt them, and drew it through so fast that the blood followed, and the arrow brake.

Then they racked me twice. After that was I carried to my lodging again; and ten days after, the lieutenant asked me if I would not confess that which before they had asked me. I said I had said as much as I would. Then five weeks after, he sent me unto the high priest, where I was greatly assaulted; and at whose hand I received the pope’s curse, for bearing witness of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

And thus I commend you unto God, and to the word of His grace with all them that unfeignedly call upon the name of Jesus; desiring God, or His endless mercy, through the merits of His dear Son Jesus Christ, to bring us all to His everylasting kingdom. Amen. I praise God for His great mercy shewed upon us. Sing Hosanna unto the Highest, with me Cuthbert Simson. God forgive me my sins. I ask all the world forgiveness, and I do forgive all the world; and thus I leave this world, in hope of a joyful resurrection.

On March 28th 1558, Simpson and his assistants Fox and Devenish were burned or heresy at Smithfield.

Raids and executions of protestants continued… In April 1558, a few days after Simpson, Fox and Devenish’s deaths, forty men and women were seized at a nighttime protestant meeting in an Islington field. Half of them were sent to Newgate Prison, of whom thirteen, refusing to attend catholic mass, seven of these were burned at Smithfield in June. Despite a proclamation read by the Sheriff of London, threatening arrest and punishment for anyone showing support, a large and sympathetic crowd assembled, shouting and protesting at the executions.

Although we might think all religious belief is basically medieval, and view killing people for minor differences in doctrine to be alien, even laughable (if it wasn’t so tragic), obviously the desire to impose faith on others by force is hardly a dead issue in modern times… Some of the people execeuted at Smithfield were trying to work out some control over their own lives through the language and framework they knew, ie faith, and in many cases religious dissent either contained within it or masked social and political rebelliousness, or was itself directly challenging to the state. Many others were just (usually poor) people who were either wrong-footed by the rapid turnover of regimes and official religions under the Tudors, who simply continued to believe in what they had always been told to think (on penalty of everlasting fire), or merely expressed their own mind to the wrong person/made an unwise joke. Either way really Smithfield represents a site of abomination. The Christian whingers and tabloid godblatherers who today bleat about ‘aggressive secularism’ might want to reflect that there is a huge deficit on the account, which remains unpaid. Though there’s never a wrong time to burn a church or two.

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An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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