Today in London religious history: John Rogers burned at Smithfield for heresy, 1555.

John Rogers was accused of being a seditious preacher and the Privy Council ordered his arrest. Rogers stayed a prisoner in his house for five months. Some of his religious friends escaped to Europe but Rogers insisted on staying in London to defend his beliefs. On 27th January 1554 he was sent to Newgate Prison. His biographer, David Daniell, points out: “He (John Rogers) was not permitted to receive any stipend, though by law he was still incumbent of St Sepulchre. His wife and ten children were in desperate need. He remained in Newgate for a year, untried. In November or December 1554 he joined with his fellow prisoners in writing a letter to the queen, protesting against the illegality of their imprisonment and begging to be brought to trial.”

In December 1554 parliament re-enacted legislation permitting the execution of heretics, and on 22nd January 1555 John Rogers was put on trial before Bishop Stephen Gardiner. Rogers was accused of heresy in denying the Papal Supremacy over the Church and the Real Presence of Christ in the consecrated bread and wine of the Sacrament. Rogers was attacked for having a wife and eleven children. He defended his decision to marry by arguing that the Bible did not say that priests should not have a wife. Rogers was also criticised for “misusing the gifts of learning which God had given them by arguing for a wicked cause against God’s truth”.

John Rogers was found guilty of heresy. Rogers told the commissioners that he had only one request to make, and asked that before he was burned he should be permitted to receive one farewell visit from his wife. His request was denied and on 4th February 1555 he was degraded by Bishop Edmund Bonner. This process has been explained by Jasper Ridley, the author of Bloody Mary’s Martyrs (2002): “The hands were scraped with a knife to remove the holy oil with which they had been anointed. The scraping could be done either gently or roughly. The Protestants alleged that Bonner did it roughly whenever he took part in a degradation ceremony; but this may have been Protestant propaganda, for Bonner’s attitude varied between boisterous and aggressive gloating and a patient attempt to persuade heretics to recant so that their lives could be spared.”

On 4th February, 1555, John Rogers was taken to Smithfield. His wife and children met him on the way to the burning, but Rogers still refused to recant. He told Sheriff Woodroofe: “That which I have preached I will seal with my blood.” Woodroofe replied: “Then, you are a heretic. That will be known on the day of judgment.” Just before the burning began a pardon arrived. However, Rogers refused to accept it and became the first martyr to suffer death during the reign of Queen Mary.

It was claimed that when the fire took hold of his body, “he, as one feeling no smart, washed his hands in the flame, as though it had been in cold water” and “lifting up his hands to heaven he did not move them again until they were consumed in the devouring fire”. Protestants rejoiced in his faithfulness and even Catholic opponents noted his heroic fortitude in death.

Ironically, Rogers, when royal chaplain only a few years before, had been happy to see others burn – John Foxe had approached Rogers to intervene to save Anabaptist Joan Bocher from the fire in 1550, but Rogers refused, commenting that burning was “sufficiently mild” for a crime as grave as heresy. Religion, eh?


An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Today in London’s penal history: John Daye has his ears nailed to Cheapside pillory for seditious sermons against the queen, 1553.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries nailing of the ear to a pillory (or cutting off the ears completely) was a favourite punishment for those convicted of speaking ‘seditious words’ – generally meaning attacks on the monarch, authorities, social order, religion of the time… The intention was that the person pilloried couldn’t move or they would tear a rent in the ear or rip it off entirely. Lovely.

On occasions nailing of the ear to the pillory was followed by ‘cropping’ of the ear, cutting most of the ear off. Although rare this was done to some religious and political activists in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. On some occasions people who suffered nailing of ears or cropping died from loss of blood or infections.

In August 1553, the catholic queen Mary had just come to the throne, amidst religious strife between catholics and protestants (mingled with a bit of dynastic tussling). The atmosphere in London was tense: Mary had some popular support, which had allowed to ascend the throne in the face of a rival (protestant) claimant, Jane Grey; however, protestantism had made inroads in recent years, especially in London.

On 21st August 1553, only weeks after Mary’s succession, John Daye, parson of St Ethelburga’s church in Bishopsgate Street, together with another man, a surgeon, had their ears nailed to the pillory in Cheapside, though after three hours ‘the nayles were pulled out with a payre of pinsers and they were had to prison again.”

Daye’s crime had been ‘seditious words speaking of the Queen’s highnes’. It seems he was a radical protestant who opposed Mary’s reign, but little more information exists. The surgeon who suffered with him had uttered seditious words against a preacher at St Paul’s Cross a week before, when a riot had erupted after the preacher had defended the recently released Bishop Bonner. Bonner was highly unpopular amongst protestants, (and would become more so over the next few years as he spearheaded persecution of ‘heretics’, ie anyone not adhering to orthodox catholicism).

Two days later Daye had his ear nailed to the pillory again. He seems to have been deprived of his post at St Ethelburga’s in the following year.

Mind you, it could have been tougher – just 15 years before Thomas Barrie stood a whole day in the pillory with his ear nailed to the wood, after being convicted of spreading a rumour that king Henry VIII had died.


An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online