Today in London’s religious history, 1575: twenty Dutch Anabaptists arrested near Aldgate

On 3rd April 1575, twenty Dutch Anabaptists were arrested near Aldgate on the eastern edge of the City of London, at a meeting for Easter. Of these, fourteen were banished, two escaped from prison, and two, Jan Pieters and Hendrick Terwoort, were burned at Smithfield on 22 July.

Anabaptism can best be broadly described as a radical offshoot of the Protestant Reformation, spiritual ancestors of the modern Baptists, Mennonites and Quakers. (Though historians argue about how much influence and connection anabaptists had on later movements like the Baptist churches). However, it’s unlikely anyone called them self an anabaptist in the 1530s; it was a derogatory name given to them by their detractors. The movement’s most distinctive tenet was adult baptism: converts underwent a second baptism, (a ‘crime’ punishable by death under the legal codes of the time.) Members rejected the label Anabaptist (meaning Rebaptizer) – they repudiated their own baptism as infants as a blasphemous formality. They considered the public confession of sin and faith, sealed by adult baptism, to be the only proper baptism. Following the Swiss Reformer Huldrych Zwingli, they held that infants are not punishable for sin until they become aware of good and evil and can exercise their own free will, repent, and accept baptism.

The Anabaptists also believed that the church, the community of those who have made a public commitment of faith, should be separated from the state, which they believed existed only for the punishment of sinners. Most Anabaptists were pacifists who opposed war and the use of coercive measures to maintain the social order; they also refused to swear oaths, including those to civil authorities. For their teachings regarding baptism and for the apparent danger they posed to the political order, they were persecuted pretty much everywhere they emerged, by Protestant and Catholic states alike.

The Anabaptists, like most Protestant Reformers, were determined to restore the institutions and spirit of the primitive church and often identified their suffering with that of the martyrs of the first three Christian centuries. Quite confident that they were living at the end of time, they expected the imminent return of Jesus Christ.

The biblical validity of infant baptism began to be debated in the early years of the Reformation, and the first adult baptism, which took place at Zollikon, outside Zürich, probably on January 21, 1525, was the result of the dissatisfaction of a group of Zwingli’s followers, led by the patrician humanist Konrad Grebel, over Zwingli’s unwillingness to undertake what they considered necessary reforms. Soon thereafter an extensive movement was in progress. Some of the more distinctive convictions of the Swiss movement were set forth in the seven articles of the Schleitheim Confession (1527), prepared under the leadership of Michael Sattler.

The revolutionary implications of their teachings got the early anabaptists expelled from one city after another: however this also served to spread their ideas around Europe. Soon civil magistrates took sterner measures, and most of the early Anabaptist leaders died in prison or were executed.

Despite increasing persecution, new Anabaptist communities and teachings emerged. A unique type of Anabaptism, developed later in Moravia under the leadership of Jakob Hutter, stressed the common ownership of goods modeled on the primitive church in Jerusalem. The Hutterite colonies first established in Moravia survived the Reformation and are now located primarily in the western United States and Canada.  Melchior Hofmann, established a large following in the Netherlands and inspired a number of disciples. He taught that the world would soon end and that the new age would begin in Strasbourg. He was imprisoned in that city in 1533 and died about 10 years later.

Some of Hofmann’s followers, such as the Dutchman Jan Mathijs (died 1534) and John of Leiden (Jan Beuckelson; died 1536), and many persecuted Anabaptists settled in Münster, Westphalia. Hofmann’s disciples were attracted to the city by dramatic changes that occurred there in the early 1530s. Under the influence of the Reformer Bernhard Rothman, Anabaptist sentiment was strong enough there to elect an Anabaptist majority to the city council in 1533. This was followed, under the direction of Mathijs and John of Leiden, by the expulsion and persecution of all non-Anabaptists and the creation of a messianic kingdom under John of Leiden. The city was surrounded in 1534 by an army of Catholics and Protestants, which perhaps encouraged further reforms, including the common ownership of goods (and allegedly polygamy) – justified by biblical scripture. The city was captured in 1535, and the Anabaptist leaders were tortured and killed and their bodies hung in steel cages from the steeple of St. Lambert’s church.

While most so-called Anabaptists were horrified at the episode in Münster, it brought down fiercer repression on all of them. The massive upsurge of Class violence during the German Peasants’ War and the anabaptists’ ideas were clearly linked to the authorities way of thinking: rejection of state and church and refusal to obey the law could only lead to revolution and disorder.

However, the pacifist Anabaptists in the Netherlands and northern Germany rallied under the leadership of the former priest Menno Simons, becoming the Mennonite church.

A number of anabaptists settled in England from the early 1530s, lulled by Henry VIII’s dispute with the pope and flirtations with reform into seeing it as a safer haven than other European countries. But repression awaited them here too, especially after the Münster revolution, which scared the authorities everywhere into cracking down on any whiff of the sect or sympathy for it. Henry imprisoned & burned some; and this treatment continued under Elizabeth I, despite her much-quoted decree that she would not look into men’s souls and persecute them for their beliefs…

Here’s an account of the arrests of the anabaptists in London in 1575, from a chronicle of English Baptism:

“During the persecution which raged in the Netherlands under the Duke of Alva, butcher-general of the Inquisition in that country, numbers fled to other parts of the Continent, or to England, for refuge and safety. In England, at any rate, they ought to have been safe. But the demon of persecution ruled here. In London, on the 3rd of April, 1575, a small congregation of Dutch Baptists convened in a private house, outside the City gates (“without Aldgate”), was interrupted by a constable while at worship, and twenty-five persons were taken before a magistrate, who committed them to prison, but released them after two days’ confinement, on their giving bail for their appearance whenever summoned.

Information being given to the Queen, a Royal Commission was issued to Sandys, Bishop of London, and some others, to examine the parties and proceed accordingly. They appeared before the Commissioners in pursuance of the summons. Their confession of faith was rejected, and they were required to subscribe to four articles, condemnatory of their own principles.

“They proposed to us four questions,” says one of the prisoners, “telling us to say yea or nay—”

“1. Whether Christ had not taken His flesh and blood of the Virgin Mary?

“We answered: ‘He is the Son of the living God.’”

“2. Ought not little children to be baptized ?

“We answered: ‘Not so; we find it not written in Holy Scripture.

“3. May a Christian serve the office of a magistrate?

“We answered: ‘That it did not oblige our consciences; but, as we read, we esteemed it an ordinance of God.

“4. Whether a Christian, if needs be, may not swear?

“We answered: That it also obliged not our consciences; for Christ has said, in Matthew, Let your words be yea, yea; nay, nay. Then we were silent.

“But the Bishop said, that our misdeeds therein were so great that we could not enjoy the favour of God. O, Lord, avenge it not! He then said to us all, that we should be imprisoned in the Marshalsea.”

In the Marshalsea Prison (now called the “Queen’s Bench”), to which they were then conveyed, many efforts were made, by the ministers of the Dutch Church and others, to persuade them to submit and recant. “Master Joris came to us and said, If we would join the Church, that is, the Dutch Church, our chains should be struck off and our bonds loosed. The Bishop, he said, had given him command so to do. But we remained steadfast to the truth of Jesus Christ. He is, indeed, our Captain, and no other; yea, in Him is all our trust. My dear brethren, and sweet sisters, let us persevere until we conquer. The Lord will then give us to drink of the new wine. O Lord, strengthen our faith. As we have received the Lord Jesus Christ, let us go forward courageously, trusting in Him.” Five of them were overpowered, and consented to join the Dutch Church. They made a public recantation in St. Paul’s churchyard, on the 25th of May, standing there before thousands of people, with faggots bound to, their shoulders, as in Popish times. A few days after the remainder appeared again before the Commissioners. “We remembered the Word of the Lord,” says Gerrit van Byler, “‘When they shall lead you before lords and princes, fear not what you shall say, for in that hour it shall be given you.’ So we trusted in the Lord. The questions were again proposed, and subscription demanded; but we said, ‘That we would cleave to the Word of the Lord.”’ Upon this they were declared to be incorrigible heretics, sentenced to death, and given over to the secular arm to be punished.

Bishop Sandys was the spokesman on the occasion. The sentence accorded with his theology. In a sermon preached by him before the Parliament this passage occurs: “Such as teach, but teach not the good and right way; such as are open and public maintainers of errors and heresy; such, in the judgment of God, are thought unworthy to live. Let the false prophet die (Deut. xiii.5). Elias and Jehu did not think themselves imbrued, but rather sanctified, with such blood. I have no cruel heart; blood be far from me. I mind [desire] nothing less. Yet needs must it be granted that the maintainers and teachers of errors and heresy are to be repressed in every Christian commonwealth.”1

Fourteen women and a youth were put on board a vessel and sent out of the country. The youth was whipped from the prison to the wharf. The remaining five were consigned to Newgate, where they were put in heavy irons, thrust into a damp and filthy dungeon swarming with vermin, and not allowed to associate with other prisoners lest the thieves and murderers in the jail should be corrupted by Anabaptist contamination. One of their number, Christian Kernels, sank under the inhuman treatment. He died in the dungeon, after eight days’ confinement. He was “released by death, trusting in God; his dying testimony filled us with joy.”

The Queen was entreated to spare them. But she resented such interference with her prerogative, and would only consent to a month’s reprieve, and that in compliance with the intercession of John Foxe, the Martyrologist, whose truly pathetic and eloquent letter to her Majesty on the subject has been often printed and generally admired. Admirable it was in some respects. It was a gushing forth of Christianized humanity, quite peculiar in that age of steel-clad religion. But good old John was still in the dark. He did not understand soul-freedom. According to him, Baptists had no right to hold and profess their opinions. They were ranked with those “fanatical sects” which “are by no means to be countenanced in a commonwealth,” but ought to be “suppressed by proper correction.” He did not ask, therefore, for their release. All he complained of was “the sharpness of their punishment.” He would have it changed. “There are excommunications, and close imprisonment; there are bonds; there is perpetual banishment, burning of the hand, and whipping, or even slavery itself.” But “to roast alive the bodies of poor wretches, that offend rather through blindness of judgment than perverseness of will, in fire and flames, raging with pitch and brimstone,” he denounced as “a hard-hearted thing, and more agreeable to the practice of the Romanists than the custom of the Gospellers.” If, however, the Queen would not consent to recall the sentence, he implored her to grant “a month or two, in which we may try whether the Lord will give them grace to turn from their dangerous errors, lest, with the destruction of their bodies, their souls be in danger of eternal ruin.”

Foxe wrote also to the prisoners, urging them to acknowledge their errors, to give up their “frantic conceptions,” and telling them that they had “disturbed the Church by their great scandal and offence.” He sent them a copy of his letter to the Queen. In their reply to him, they say: “We are sorry, that you do not understand our matter, and that you have another opinion of us than we wish, since you think that by our curiosity and obstinacy we have not only given offence to the Church of God, but also provoked God himself, and frustrated our salvation. What reason you have thus to think of us we know not; nevertheless, we can assure you that we seek with our whole hearts to serve the one God and Christ in a good conscience, and to edify our neighbour, as far as in us lies. Therefore we gladly receive what the Holy Scripture testifies, and wish to be permitted to adhere to the plainness and simplicity of the Word of God, and not to be urged farther with subtle questions, which our feeble understandings are not able to comprehend, nor by Scripture to justify.”

The prisoners transmitted to the Queen a confession of their faith, accompanied by a “ supplication,” from which we take the following extract:—

“We testify before God and your Majesty, that were we in our consciences able by any means to think or understand the contrary, we would with all our hearts receive and confess it; since it were a great folly in us, not to live rather in the exercise of a right faith than to die, perhaps, in a false one. May it also please your Majesty in your wisdom and innate goodness to consider that it were not right, but hypocrisy in us to speak otherwise than with our hearts we believe, in order to escape the peril of temporal death; that it is impossible to believe otherwise than we in our consciences think; and also that it is not in our power to believe this or that, as evil-doers who do right or wrong as they please. But the true faith must be implanted in the heart of man by God; and to Him we daily pray that He would give us His Spirit, to understand His Word and Gospel.”

“Above all, it is evident to your Majesty that we have not sought to stir up any rebellions or seditions against your Majesty; but, much more, have daily besought the Lord for your happy reign, and the welfare both of your soul and body. Lastly, we have not endeavoured to spread our faith in the land. This we could not do, for we are only unlearned trades-people, unskilled in divinity.”

All was in vain. The Baptists remained firm. The Queen would not relent. On the 15th of July she signed the warrant for the execution of two of them, commanding the Sheriffs of London to burn them alive in Smithfield.

A copy of the warrant is now before us. There is also before us a copy of the warrant for the burning of Archbishop Cranmer, in Queen Mary’s days. These warrants are substantially alike. In fact, they are almost couched in the same language, word for word. Mary, the Papist, dooming to death the Protestant, and Elizabeth, the Protestant, ordering the execution of the Baptist, advance the same pretensions and adopt the same forms of speech. Both of them call their victims “heretics.” Both assume to be “zealous for justice.” Both are “defenders of the Catholic faith.” Both declare their determination to “maintain and defend the Holy Church, her rights and liberties.” Both avow their resolve to “root out and extirpate heresies and errors.” Both assert that the heretics named in the warrants had been convicted and condemned “according to the laws and customs of the realm.” Both charge the Sheriffs to take their prisoners to a “public and open place,” and there to “commit them to the fire,” in the presence of the people, and to cause them to be “really consumed” in the said fire. Both warn the Sheriffs that they fail therein at their peril. Herod and Pontius Pilate forgot their differences when they united in crucifying the Saviour. Papists and Protestants agree in murdering His followers.

Hendrick Terwoort and Jan Pieters were the two whom the Queen appointed to death. Terwoort was a young man, about twenty-five years of age. He was a goldsmith, and in good circumstances. He was married some eight or ten weeks before his imprisonment. Pieters was aged, poor, and had nine children dependent on his daily toil. His first wife had been martyred at Ghent, in Flanders: his second wife was the widow of a martyr. A statement of his circumstances was laid before Sandys, in order to induce him to get permission for Pieters to leave the country, with his wife and children. But the Bishop was inaccessible to pity.

On Lord’s Day, the 17th of July, they were informed that the warrant for their execution had arrived. “Upon Tuesday,” says Gerrit Van Byler, “a stake was set up in Smithfield, but the execution was not that day. On Wednesday, many people were gathered together to witness the death of our two friends, but it was again deferred. This was done to terrify, and draw our friends and us from the faith. But on Friday our two friends, Hendrick Terwoort and Jan Pieters, being brought out from their prison, were led to the sacrifice. As they went forth, Jan Pieters said, ‘The holy prophets, and also Christ, our Saviour, have gone this way before us, even from the beginning, from Abel until now.’” A vast multitude had collected together on the occasion, but few of whom, probably, sympathized with the sufferers. Some preachers were sent to the place of execution to prevent the expression of sympathy by maligning them. One of them exclaimed, “These men believe not on God.” “We believe,” replied Pieters, “in one God, our Heavenly Father Almighty, and in Jesus Christ His Son.” When they were bound to the stake, the articles were again offered to them, and life and pardon promised if they would subscribe. Pieters answered for them both, “You have laboured hard to drive us to you, but now, when placed at the stake, it is labor in vain.” One of the preachers said in excuse, “That all such matters were determined by the Council, and that it was the Queen’s intention they should die.” “But,” rejoined Pieters, “you are the teachers of the Queen, whom it behooves you to instruct better; therefore shall our blood be required at your hands.” No answer could be given to this. Fire was applied, and the souls of the martyrs ascended to God. “How utterly absurd,” says the Dutch Martyrologist, “do all such cruel proceedings and sentences as are here seen appear, when contrasted with the Christian faith! The Christian host is described as sheep and lambs, sent forth among cruel and devouring wolves. Who will be able, with a good conscience, to believe that these English preachers were the true sheep of Christ, since in this matter they brought forth so notably the fruit of wolves ?”

This was a black affair. It was essentially unjust and cruel, and admitted of no palliation. These Baptists owed no allegiance to Elizabeth. They were not her subjects. They were refugees, and claimed her protection as exiles for religion’s sake from their native land. They were living peaceably, doing harm to none. No rioting or disturbance was laid to their charge. All that could be alleged against them was that they did not go to the parish churches, but exercised Christian freedom, and worshipped God as they understood the Scriptures to teach them. For this they were burnt to death by a Protestant Queen.

We are willing to believe that Elizabeth was influenced by her bishops. Sandys and Whitgift were furious against the Baptists. They misrepresented and calumniated them continually. They held them up to public scorn and indignation, as professing sentiments incompatible with the well-being of society. The Queen was instructed by these men to regard the Baptists as hostile to her royal authority. That was touching her in a tender part. The womanly heart was strangely hardened, and she refused to show mercy.

Elizabeth could not plead ignorance respecting the sentiments of the Baptists. In the confession of faith which Terwoort and Pieters sent to her, a revised copy of which was signed by them the day before their martyrdom, they thus plainly stated their views:—

“We believe and confess that magistrates are set and ordained of God, to punish the evil and protect the good; which magistracy we desire from our hearts to obey, as it is written in 1 Peter 2:13, ‘Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake.’ ‘For he beareth not the sword in vain’ (Romans 8:4). And Paul teaches us that we should offer up for all ‘prayers, and intercessions, and giving of thanks; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty. For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour, who desires that all men should be saved’ (1 Tim. 2:1-4)He further teaches us ‘to be subject to principalities and powers, to obey magistrates, and to be ready to every good work’ (Titus 3:1). Therefore we pray your Majesty kindly to understand aright our meaning; which is, that we do not despise the eminent, noble, and gracious Queen, and her wise councils, but esteem them as worthy of all honour, to whom we desire to be obedient in all things that we may. For we confess with Paul, as above, that she is God’s servant, and that if we resist this power we resist the ordinance of God; for ‘rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil.’ Therefore we confess to be due unto her, and are ready to give, tribute, custom, honour, and fear, as Christ Himself has taught us, saying, I Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s’ (Matthew 22:21). Since, therefore, she is a servant of God, we will kindly pray her Majesty that it would please her to show pity to us poor prisoners, even as our Father in heaven is pitiful (Luke 6:36). We likewise do not approve of those who resist the magistrates; but confess and declare, with our whole heart, that we must be obedient and subject unto them, as we have here set down.”

But it availed them nothing. They were Baptists. The Queen was told that the Baptists were incorrigible heretics, and that she would be doing God service if she put them to death. So she lighted again the flames of Smithfield.

We have referred to Sandys and Whitgift. Their writings teem with invectives against the Baptists. In his controversy with Thomas Cartwright, the Puritan, Whitgift endeavoured to show that the arguments employed by Cartwright in defense of separation from the Church of England were similar to those used by the “Anabaptists,” a sect which was “hated” by “all estates and orders of the realm.” He collected a number of extracts from the writings of Zuingli, Calvin, Bullinger, and others, and adopted them as containing true descriptions of the opinions and practices of the “hated” party, adding observations of his own to the same effect. He says that they make contentions wheresoever they come; that the churches are disquieted by them, and magistrates contemned and despised; that “they do with as spiteful words and bitter speeches condemn the Church of England as they do the Papistical Church;” that they count all them as wicked and reprobate which are not of their sect; that they are “great hypocrites;” that they constantly “invent new opinions, and run from error to error;” that they are “stubborn and willful, wayward and froward, without all humanity;” that they seek to “overthrow commonweals, and states of government;” that they “reject all authority of superiors;” that they seek “to be free from all laws, and to do what they list;” and, finally, that all this is “most true, and therefore no slander.” No comment on these monstrosities is required. They are fair specimens of the controversial style of the age.

Doubtless, it was an unpardonable sin in the Baptists that they condemned the interference of the civil power with religion. They were remarkably clear on that subject. Whitgift unwittingly does them justice. He observes that they taught that “the civil magistrate hath no authority in ecclesiastical matters, and that he ought not to meddle in causes of religion and faith”—that “no man ought to be compelled to faith and religion” —and that “Christians ought to punish faults, not with imprisonment, not with the sword, or corporal punishment, but only with excommunication.” These are scriptural truths, which the bishops aforesaid laboured to suppress, because their own nefarious proceedings were inconsistent with them.

When Terwoort and Pieters were led out to die, Gerrit van Byler and Hans van Straten were left in Newgate, uncertain as to their fate. How long they remained there is not known. It is said that they were heavily ironed because they had endeavoured to escape by filing asunder the bars of their dungeon. At length they were discharged, probably because the Government were unwilling to incur the odium of another burning.”




Today in London’s festive history: the eve of St, Bartholomew, traditional date for the opening of Bartholomew Fair

Bartholomew Fair, was the most prominent and infamous London fair for centuries; and one of the most important in the country. Over the centuries it became a teeming, riotous, outpouring of popular culture, feared and despised like no other regular event by those in power… “a dangerous sink for all the vices of London”.In terms of its place in the culture of its time, and how it was viewed by authority and dealt with as a public order and moral ‘problem’, think Notting Hill Carnival, maybe more in the 1980s than today, but today’s Carnival still gets close.The Fair, held in Smithfield, was rooted in the Charter granted to the monastery of St Bartholomew in Clerkenwell, in 1133 (though it may have been held before that): the canons of St Bartholomew’s originally had the right to a portion of all the income generated there, a substantial wodge.Bartholomew Fair was originally held in mid-late August, the traditional time for rowdy fairs, a time which for centuries marked end of the working year, when labourers could leave one employer and hire on with another.At first the Fair opened on the 24 August – the eve of St Bartholomew’s Day, the 25th, a date generally celebrated with carnivalesque riotousness throughout Europe in the middle ages. For three days, ‘within the precincts of the Priory at West Smithfield, outside Aldersgate of the City of London’. Later it was gradually extended, both in time and space, until it spanned two weeks; by 1377, the fair had increased so much in size that it overflowed the monastic precincts into neighbouring Smithfield.The fair continued, after the Dissolution of the Monasteries, within the Liberty of the parish of St Bartholomew-the-Great. Its main economic function for centuries was for the trading of cloth – it became the leading venue for the cloth trade; however as London drapers found wider markets and transport improved, this gradually declined in importance.Later on leather and pewter were also sold here; and the seventeenth-century name ‘Rugman’s Row’ for what is now the south side of Newbury Street, suggests that rugs also were sold at the fair. As England’s woollen trade was one of the staples of the wealth of the country in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the kings safeguarded the position and privileges of Bartholomew Fair as an important market of the industry. Thus, in the year 1292, when the privileges of the city were forfeited into the king’s hands, the corporation held that one half of the profit of the takings from St Bartholomew’s eve, and the whole of those of the 26th August, belonged to the king; but the king, allowed the prior of the monastery to take the profits as before.Increasingly from the sixteenth century, the Fair was known for pleasure and entertainment. Like the medieval carnivals, ritual became an important element: for instance, it was customary for the Lord Mayor of London to open the fair on St Bartholomew’s Eve, after he had called at Newgate Prison, where the prison governor would supply him with a ritual cup of sack (fortified white wine): “a cool tankard of wine, nutmeg, and sugar;” (the flap of the tankard lid caused the death of the mayor, Sir John Shorter, in 1688, his horse starting, throwing him violently).“Every year it is usual for the Lord Mayor of London to ride into Smithfield, attended by 12 principal aldermen, dressed in their scarlet gowns and robes, and whenever he goes abroad a sceptre, that is to say, a mace and cap, are borne before him. When the yearly fair is proclaimed a tent is pitched, and after the ceremony is over the mob begin to wrestle before them, two at a time, and the conquerors are rewarded by money thrown from the tent. After this a parcel of wild rabbits are turned loose in the crowd, and hunted by boys with great noise, at which the mayor and aldermen do much besport themselves. Before this time there was an old custom for the scholars of London to meet at this festival, at the priory of St. Bartholomew, to dispute in logic and grammar, upon a bank under a tree: the best of them were rewarded with silver bows and arrows.” (Paul Hentzner, Journey to England)

But the Fair’s size and fame made it a public order headache for the authorities; trouble was a regular occurrence.
In 1363 there was “a riot and tumult in the fair’; the following year several merchants and others who used to frequent the fair, fearing violence, had intimated that they would stay away the next year. “The king therefore issued the writ, referred to already, informing the mayor and sheriffs that he had taken the prior and canons, and all merchants desiring to come to the fair, under his special protection, because ‘the non-coming of the said merchants—which God forbid—would bring the fair to nought’, and he further ‘forbade that any goods brought to the fair should be taken for his use’. Similar letters of protection were issued by the king in the years 1373 and 1376, and by Richard II in 1377.

In the year 1549 the Lord Mayor and aldermen rode as usual to Bartholomew Fair in their scarlet, but the ritual wrestling that year was not allowed by the Court of Aldermen because of the commotions in Norfolk and elsewhere that year over the rate of enclosures in the country. Just two days before the fair the sheriffs had had to witness the hanging, beheading, and quartering of three men in connexion with Kett’s Rebellion. As large gatherings of people and feast days could so easily erupt into rioting or even rebellion, its not surprising the authorities feared that trouble could be set off, at this most turbulent event at a time of great resentment of the wealthy by the poor.

In 1589, 100s of sailors and soldiers came back from Francis Drake’s expedition to Spain without the loot they had been promised: angry hungry and disillusioned.  Large numbers of them headed for Bartholomew Fair, gathering other ‘masterless men’, and threatening to sack the fair & hold their own alternative ‘Durrest Fair’ to sell stolen goods. A frightened government posted 2000 militiamen to protect the Fair.

However, being held on Smithfield, a place of both disorder and punishment, the authorities also used the Fair for their own political purposes at times. It was on one of the great days of the fair, (August 24th) in 1315, that the Sir William Wallace, the Scottish fighter for independence, was executed in sight of the jostling crowd at the Elms in Smithfield, where he was hanged, drawn, and quartered.

By 1641, the fair had overflowed its former location along Cloth Fair, and around the Priory graveyard, and now spread over four parishes: Christ Church, Great and Little St Bartholomew’s and St Sepulchre’s. The fair featured sideshows, prize-fighters, musicians, wire-walkers, acrobats, puppets, freaks and wild animals.

During the time of the Commonwealth all plays and interludes at the fair were stopped by the Act of 1647, but only to break out again with greater licence at the Restoration. The centre of the vice and immorality was apparently usually focussed on the Long Walk and cloister of the hospital.

In 1691, to curb the disorder for which it had become famous, Bartholomew Fair was shortened, back to the original three days (petitions against this reduction were denied); and after the change in the calendar from 1753, the fair commenced on the new date of 3rd September.

In the 18th century, the fair was the venue for subversive plays, puppetry, anti-government satire & attacks on the Lord Mayor & all established authorities: in 1697 William Philips was whipped for his anti-government satires at the fair.

In the year 1698, a Frenchman, Monsieur Sorbière, visiting London, says, “I was at Bartholomew Fair. It consists mostly of toy-shops, also finery and pictures, ribbon-shops-no books; many shops of confectioners, where any woman may commodiously be treated. Knavery is here in perfection, dextrous cutpurses and pickpockets. I went to see the dancing on the ropes, which was admirable. Coming out, I met a man that would have took off my hat, but I secured it, and was going to draw my sword, crying, ‘Begar! You rogue! Morbleu!’ &c., when on a sudden I had a hundred people about me crying, ‘Here, monsieur, see Jephthah’s Rash Vow.’ ‘Here, monsieur, see the Tall Dutchwoman.’ ‘See The Tiger,’ says another. ‘See the Horse and no Horse,’ whose tail stands where his head should do.’ ‘See the German Artist, monsieur.’ ‘See The Siege of Namur.’ So that betwixt rudeness and civility I was forced to get into a fiacre, and with an air of haste and a full trot, got home to my lodgings.”

In 1702, the following advertisement appeared relative to the fair:-

“At the Great Booth over against the Hospital Gate, in Bartholomew Fair, will be seen the famous company of ropedancers, they being the greatest performers of men, women, and children that can be found beyond the seas, so that the world cannot parallel them for dancing on the low rope, vaulting on the high rope, and for walking on the slack and sloaping ropes, outdoing all others to that degree, that it has highly recommended them, both in Bartholomew Fair and May Fair last, to all the best persons of quality in England. And by all are owned to be the only amazing wonders of the world in everything they do. It is there you will see the Italian Scaramouch dancing on the rope, with a wheelbarrow before him with two children and a dog in it, and with a duck on his head, who sings to the company, and causes much laughter. The whole entertainment will be so extremely fine and diverting, as never was done by any but this company alone.”

Ned Ward, the “London Spy,” visited the fair, but in a coach, to avoid the dirt and the crowd. In his account of his visit he relates how he was “saluted with Belphegor’s concert, the rumbling of drums, mixed with the intolerable squeaking of catcalls and penny trumpets, made still more terrible with the shrill belches of lottery pickpockets through instruments of the same metal with their faces.”

In the eighteenth century the City of London Corporation made a great effort to put an end to the scandals of the two fairs which fell under its jurisdiction – Bartholomew Fair and the Lady Fair of Southwark. In 1735 the Court of Common Council decided that the fair should be restricted to the eve, the day, and the day after (which suggests that a similar decision made in 1691 had been largely unsuccessful). and to the sale of goods; also that no acting at all should be permitted. “Great resistance was offered to the enforcement of these regulations, so much so that in 1736 theatrical booths were again allowed,” – later on the fair was extended again to four days.

The Fair was long a nightmare for the authorities in whose lap policing and licensing it fell. The crowds, spilling out into surrounding streets; the drunkenness, rowdiness, crime (from anti-social – attacks, rapes, murders – through collectively social – eg riots – or individually ‘immoral’ – the selling of sex – to economic – eg fencing of stolen goods…); the potential for protest and propaganda, which usually targeted religious or political hierarchies… For nearly two centuries from the late 17th century complaints about the Fair and demands to reduce or ban it outright grew gradually more strident. The local Justices deplored the London fairs’ “corruption of good Manners and Detriment of Trade and Lawful Business’. However, they generally lacked the manpower and finances needed to police the events – both in terms or public order or morals – even where their regulations gave them the power to do so.

It wasn’t just Bartholomew Fair. In the county of Middlesex (which covered almost all of modern London north of the river Thames, from Bow to Chertsey), there were also the May Fair (in Mayfair!), Paddington Fair, Hampstead Fair, Highgate Fair, Tottenham Court Fair, Bow Fair, Mile End Fair, Pinner Fair and Welsh Fair and many smaller ones… between late Spring and early Autumn there was always a fair going on, attracting thousands, with all the attendant disruption and troubles. All this, clear-sighted moralists, churchmen and businessmen noted, was getting in the way of disciplining the poor to accept hard work. They held out temptation to apprentices and contributed to the impoverishment of poor families… (which led to an increased burden on the rates).

The City of London Council investigated ways of completely suppressing the fair in 1760-1. In December 1760, the committee responsible for letting the city lands were ordered to inquire by what grants and authority Bartholomew and Southwark Fairs were held, who were interested in the fairs, and what “perquisites or emoluments’ belonged to any of the city officers on account of those fairs. In the following August (1761) the committee reported, noting that the demands for compensation for those who legally owned ‘the benefits of the fair’, amounted to a very considerable sum; the legal opinion of the Recorder and of the Common Serjeant, was that it would be difficult to suppress the fairs legally without am act of Parliament, but that the magistrates had powers to stop nuisances.  The City Council resolved to use these powers to the limit, and the following year the ‘plays and drolls’ were again prohibited.

Though this attempt to put an end to the Fair came to nothing, it was the opening salvo of a concerted campaign against London fairs & popular gatherings. Such an important part of London’s economic and cultural life was not easily repressed, though it was reduced in size thereafter, it did continue for several decades.

The popular theatre of Bartholomew Fair and the other London fairs was one of the elements of the annual shindig that the authorities wanted most to see the back of. Plays and theatres generally had been the target of moral repression, legislation and bans for two centuries; this was due to a combination of factors, including immoral content, the behaviour of rowdy audiences, riots that seemed to start around theatres and the crime and prostitution that seemed to cluster around playhouses.

In the mid-late eighteenth century the satirical aspects of a number of plays was added to this list – a rise in anti-government satire in many arenas was a constant thorn in the side of the powers that be.

Plays put on at the fairs were equally, if not more, disturbing. The authorities were furious that theatrical entertainments often spilled out of fairgrounds and established themselves in surrounding streets, spreading “vice and immorality and to the debauching and ruining of Servants Apprentices and others as well as to the disturbance of the Publique Peace.’

Temporary playhouses and booths were able to dodge the many regulations that restricted what the more established theatres could put on; on top of this they drew all the ‘lowlife’ that the theatres were accused of attracting.

Many of the plays and entertainments put on at fairs ‘offended and challenged London authorities notions of what entailed a properly ordered commercial city’. They worried mostly about the moral corruption of the largest group of people who attended fairs – young men of the lower orders. City officials worried that the pleasures available at fairs were especially dangerous to them, distracting them from becoming industrious and productive in the context of a regulated social order. The fantastic, immoral or downright politically suspect theatrical shows staged at fairs being the most likely to undermine the development of hardworking, forelock tugging workers… “affecting morals, lessening… industry, and losing the time of those persons employed…”
The 1737 Licensing Act had severely restricted any theatrical performances outside of Drury Lane, Covent Garden and the Kings theatre – with clauses including the threat of arresting players for vagrancy. In response there was a rise in other form of dramatic entertainment, including puppet shows and ‘pantomimes’.

In 1762 the Lord Mayor prohibited plays at the fair – the City Marshal and his officers made several players who were setting up their booths take them down. This led to a riot from enraged theatre-lovers, who ‘broke the windows of almost every inhabitant of Smithfield’ in protest.

According to William Hone’s Every-day Book, in his account of his visit to Bartholomew Fair on Monday, the 5th September, 1825, there were uncovered stalls on both sides of Giltspur Street, as far as Newgate Street. The covered stalls extended from Giltspur Street to Cock Lane, then to Hosier Lane, and from thence all along the west side of Smithfield to the Cow Lane corner. They then extended from the corner leading to John Street, Clerkenwell, to Smithfield Bars, and there ended. On the west side from the Bars these covered stalls went to Long Lane, and thence on the east side of Smithfield to the great gate of Cloth Fair. Crossing Duke Street (now Little Britain) they went to the great front gate of St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, and so on till they joined the uncovered stalls in Giltspur Street. These covered stalls had their fronts facing the houses with the pavement between; and here were sold gingerbread, oysters, hardwear, trinkets, and such-like. The shows of all kinds had their fronts towards the area of Smithfield, and their backs close against the backs of the covered stalls; thus leaving the area of Smithfield entirely open. They completely surrounded Smithfield, except on the north side, where no stalls were allowed to be erected. The sheep-pens occupied the centre of the area, and yet, although no vehicle of any kind was permitted to pass, this large unobstructed carriage way was so thronged as to be wholly impassable.

In 1816 the Court of Common Council resolved: “That it be referred to the committee for letting the city’s lands to take into consideration the expediency and practicability of immediately abolishing Bartholomew Fair.” The committee reported that it was expedient to abolish the fair, but, as stated in 1761, it could not be abolished without an act of Parliament… The problem of compensation was still an impediment however…

In September 1817, according to Sherwin’s Political Register, on 13th September, the authorities panicked at the rumour that a radical insurrection was planned to coincide with Bartholomew Fair. Four regiments of horse were called out, and the Lord Mayor searched for weapons among the ‘oyster-tubs, sausage-stalls, and gingerbread baskets’.

The annual disorder generated at this carnival, “a dangerous sink for all the vices of London”, gradually became intolerable, as its economic functions declined, and pressures for reform of the morals and rebelliousness of London’s poor increased. In 1801 a crowd of thieves rampaged through the Fair, and  “surrounded any respectable woman, and tore her clothes from her back”. In 1802 visitors were robbed, beaten with bludgeons, and persons who came to their windows with lights, alarmed at the disturbance, had their houses stoned. In 1807 the Fair was even more lawless; “a virago of an actress, who was performing Belvidera in Venice Preserved, knocked down the august king’s deputy-trumpeter, who applied for his fees”. In one morning of September, 1815, there were heard at Guildhall forty-five cases of felony, misdemeanour, and assault, committed at Bartholomew Fair.

In 1825, the Council again ordered investigations into what measures could be taken for the removal of any nuisances existing in the same fair or to suppress it entirely; once again though the complexities baffled them, and they just ordered that the fair should be held as usual. But four years later they bought out the last interest apart from themselves whose demands for compensation had stood in the way of abolishing the Fair. The centuries-old charter still stood in their way.

But still the fair went on. The Corporation tried increasing the tolls for stalls, which had the effect of increasing the income from the fair, but not of discontinuing the stalls.

Gradually over the next few years, the magistrates restricted the festivities, which killed the Fair off piece by piece. The shows, which were now forced to close at ten, were moved to the New North Road, Islington. In 1839 theatrical shows were banned. Rents were raised, and in 1840 only wild beast shows were allowed.

In 1839 the committee of the London City Mission petitioned the Corporation for the suppression of the fair, on moral grounds.  “The matter was referred to the Market Committee, who, in turn, referred it to Mr. Solicitor (Charles Pearson). Pearson argued by shortening the Fair’s duration to two clear days, and by refusing to let standings for show booths, they would ensure the fair’s slow and natural death, without causing any protests against its suppression or further rioting.

And so it proved. “The great fair at last sank down to a few gilt gingerbread booths” by 1849.

On July 2nd, 1840, the court adopted Mr. Solicitor’s report on the recommendation of the Market Committee, and at once the opening of the fair in state was discontinued and theatrical representations once more excluded. In 1843 shows of any kind were prohibited, though, as a sop to the public, arrangements were made for their continuance in Britannia Fields, Hoxton.

The ceremony of opening the Fair had been much simplified since 1840, and in 1850 Lord Mayor Musgrove, turned up to read the traditional proclamation at the appointed spot, was faced with a shadow of the former revels. The fair was finally suppressed for good in 1855 by the City authorities.

The slow death by a thousand cuts the Bartholomew Fair suffered was part of a widespread campaign, conducted through the first half of the eighteenth century, to put a stop to debauchery and public disorder, and especially gathering places where working class people could behave badly en masse. Not just because their morals needed totally upgrading, but because they might get together, riot, or overthrow the proper order of society. Open space needed to be controlled and orderly, and events that encouraged immorality, riot and expenses on the ratepayers should be done away with!

Quotes from: The Records of St. Bartholomew’s Priory and St. Bartholomew the Great, West Smithfield: Volume 1. (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1921.)

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 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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Today in London’s religious history: Lollard William Sawtrey ordered to be burnt for heresy, 1401.

The Lollards were religious reformers, heretics against the Catholic Church of the 15th century, proto-protestants, in some ways. Lollardy initially derived from the teachings of John Wycliffe, a 14th-century cleric, who had criticised the worldly wealth of the church and disputed many of the leading catholic doctrines; other students and clerics took up these ideas, calling for a simpler, more down to earthy approach to religion, based among the people, and for much of the high church theology and hierarchy to be abolished or revised.

However, fierce repression of these ideas by the church authorities, backed by the state, rooted many of the ideas out of the universities, where they were first mooted, forcing Lollard students to recant their beliefs or go underground.

From this, these ideas spread into the wider population, often through wandering preachers, teaching secret conclaves of believers, and fleeing repression to spread the word in other areas.

Excommunication, arrest, imprisonment, and eventually executions, were used to try to extirpate Lollardy. Numbers persecuted were relatively small; how widespread these underground ideas became will always be unclear, but substantial communities did develop in various parts of England.

The church feared Lollardy could spread destabilising doctrines which could undermine its spiritual power and its material riches (at this point church institutions in one form or another owned between a third and a half of the land in the country). The secular authorities feared Lollards were also rebels, linking grassroots demands for reform of the church with social and economic dissatisfaction. In the wake of the 1381 Peasants Revolt, this was not an idle or unjustified worry (and Lollards would attempt to launch an uprising a few years later).

Alarmed by Wycliffe’s teachings, the English government passed a new law, the Statute of Heresies Act of 1401, which made burning the penalty for “heresy.”

In 1401, William Sawtrey, a priest from St. Margaret’s in Lynn, Norfolk, became the first Lollard martyr to suffer the death penalty under this new law. He had developed doubts about church practices and dogma, and was arrested in Norfolk on charges of heresy in 1399. Sent to prison, he eventually broke down and gave up his beliefs. His recantation got him released. But it did leave him with mixed feelings. Shortly after his release, he moved to London, and found a job. But he got into trouble again for preaching his unorthodox views.

Archbishop Thomas Arundel ordered William to appear at St. Paul’s on February 12, 1401 and give an account of his teachings. Arundel questioned William closely.

This time, William Sawtrey stood firm. He had said, “Instead of adoring the cross on which Christ suffered, I adore Christ who suffered on it.” He stood behind those words now and it became one of the charges against him by persecutors who considered it proper to bow before crucifixes.

However, it was his beliefs about the mass that finally got him condemned. He agreed that the bread of the Eucharist after consecration was indeed the bread of life, but insisted it was just bread all the same. Roman teaching says it really becomes Christ’s flesh, so he was considered a heretic.

Sawtrey also held that it was a better use of time to preach to the lost than to recite certain prayers. He said that money spent on pilgrimages to save one’s soul would be better spent helping the poor. The independent-thinking priest also said men were more worthy of adoration than angels.

Because of his answers, he was indicted. He answered each charge in the indictment with scriptures. Arundel questioned him for three hours on his interpretation of the mass. The archbishop tried to convince Sawtrey to change his mind, or at least to accept the decision of church authorities, but Sawtrey refused.

Sawtrey was condemned for eight counts of heresy. On February 26, 1401, Sawtrey’s sentence was issued. Condemned as a relapsed heretic, under the new law, this meant he would be burnt to death. Through seven steps called “degradation” he was removed from being a priest and handed over to the secular authorities to be put to death.

Using the defenses at his disposal, William appealed to the king and Parliament. After his appeal was denied, he was burnt at the stake in Smithfield in March 1401, in front of a crowd of spectators.

His death caused many of the early Lollards to recant their views (at least publicly.)

Smithfield, being then a large open space outside the City walls, proved an ideal open space for dealing in livestock – horses, and especially cattle. As this market, and the accompanying slaughterhouses and butchers’ stalls, grew up, so the surrounding area became famous for dirty, unpleasant work and unruly, drunken behaviour. The open space was also handy for hosting sporting gatherings and fairs – as well as executions; where “cows might be sold for slaughter and men slaughtered for religion”. As well as the inevitable disorder that came with the holding of tournaments, fairs, markets and the like, the constant meeting and intermingling of people helped radical social, religious and political ideas to spread: subversive religious and political ideas bubbled under in the Smithfield area for centuries.

Smithfield’s fame as a gathering space made it ideal for use as a public execution ground, mainly for criminals, rebels, and especially religious heretics and dissenters.

But it may have been chosen not simply because it was a convenient large open space. Those in power often had complex psychological reasons for designating where executions and public punishments should take place. Streets or junctions with great symbolic resonance, centres of public discussion and meeting places, were useful; the memory (and thus the public example, to teach others a lesson) could then have a greater impact. Criminals were also often put to death or punished at, or near, the site of their crime. But an additional incentive to use Smithfield may well have been its proximity to troublesome slums and liberties, areas where many heretics, rebels, and criminals were identified as inhabiting. The authorities long had a definite policy of carrying out executions in such areas, partly to overawe the poor, and deter people from following the bad examples of the executed.

In addition, the streets around Smithfield were known as the haunt of Lollard sympathisers, so executing Sawtrey there also served the practical purpose of scaring them in particular. At least nine more Lollards would be executed at Smithfield in the course of the 15th and early 16th centuries; to be followed by protestants, Anabaptists, and the odd catholic later in the 1500s.


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

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Today in London’s transport history: 100s of drivers in road haulage strike, 1947.

As previously noted in this blog, the (often trumpeted by the left) landslide Labour government of 1945-51 took power claiming ‘the principles of our policy are based on the brotherhood of man.’ In practice, while much of the post-war welfare state, eg the NHS, dates from this time, this government also had no issue using the state apparatus to clamp down on any group of workers seeking to improve their lot through striking. As the leadership of the trade unions were largely integrated into the state apparatus during WW2, many strikes in wartime and in the post-war period were unofficial, wildcat, organised from below.

Less than a week after taking power in 1945 the Labour government has sent troops in to break a London dock dispute. This dynamic was to continue throughout the life of the Labour administration.

For example:

On 6 January 1947, anger over the rejection, after nine months of talks, of a London lorry drivers’ claim for a 44-hour week led to an unofficial strike. In many respects, the dispute bore the hallmarks of the explosion in the docks 15 months earlier: the exasperation with the negotiating machinery and TGWU officialdom, the emergence of a central rank and file strike committee, the rapid spreading of the strike throughout the country, the bitter scenes between Deakin and the strikers, the accusations of trotskyist infiltration and, of course, the use of troops, in this case the Army, Royal Navy and RAF.

Public hostility fanned by the press – the strike threatened food supplies at a time of severe shortages and rationing – encouraged the government to take a hard line. On 11 January, The Times commented:

‘In spite of the fact that the Minister of Labour has intimated his intention to break the strike the men are dissatisfied that he has given no assurance to them that he will take steps to modify or in any way improve the negotiating machinery of the Central Wages Board, which the unions and the men agree is out of date and cumbersome.’

On January 13, the Labour Government sent troops into Smithfield Market, one of the main centres of workplace organising, in an attempt to break the strike.

This was hardly the fist time the army had been ordered into Smithfield – several times since 1945, various disputes there had been face with military interventions. Mostly, as with the numerous dock strikes dealt with in this way, this had intensified the disputes – from relatively small, local, wildcat actions, sending in the army had provoked massive strikes in reply. The January 1947 dispute was no different. Following the pattern of the previous year, all Smithfield meat and provision workers came out in sympathy with the hauliers, followed by sympathy walk-outs in other major London markets and by nearly 10,000 London dockers. By all accounts the uniformed blackleg labour made a right old mess of the market.

By 15 January, some 28,000 workers were out nationally and the possibility of a total stoppage throughout the country loomed.

The Labour Cabinet resolved in public to try to speed up industrial negotiating machinery; behind closed doors it was putting into action its plans for emergency organisation. Ministers, and senior civil servants, had been discussing the question of resuscitating the Supply and Transport Organisation’ (STO), a secret emergency network which had been set up during the mass strikes of 1919, been used as the basis for recruiting scabs in the 1926 General Strike, but was allowed to lapse in 1939. (Since the ideology of unity the war provided was a more powerful motivating force than simple force…)

The Industrial Emergencies Committee (IEC), formed during the autumn 1945 dock strike but never convened, had finally been activated on 15 January. After discussing the thorny question of recruiting volunteer labour, the committee sat again at 3pm the next day to consider a possible declaration of a State of Emergency: while it was in session, news arrived that the strike had been called off.

The dispute had been put before a Joint Industrial Council specially created for the purpose. This done, the strike was called off and most of its major demands were eventually conceded. The Times concluded:

‘If there is one thing which can be more damaging to the orderly conduct of industrial relations than an unofficial strike, it is a successful unofficial strike.’

Troops continued to be used against striking workers, throughout the Labour government’s life. Although a number of the Labour ministers had come up through the trade union movement, many from the left, they shared a vision of how ‘socialism’ would be introduced. Grassroots demands for a bigger share of the pie, from workers hard hit by war austerity and post-war hardship, were at a low level, but potentially could inspire other movements, which could threaten to derail the economic rebuilding the government was relying on.

Who knows what a possible future left Labour government, headed, by, say, Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, would do, in a similar situation…?


Some interesting articles on the 1945-51 labour government and use of troops, Emergency Powers, etc:

Labour and strike-breaking 1945–1951

The Labour Government vs the Docker


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


Today in London’s religious history: Bartholomew Legate burnt for heresy, 1612.

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