Burned at the stake for heresy
The Salisbury of years gone by had its fair share of saints and sinners, Lesley Bates discovers.
ON a March day exactly 450 years years, three men were led from the gaol at Fisherton Anger to Bemerton Field, where twin stakes had been set up. The trio farmer’s son John Maundrel, tailor William Coberley and mason John Spicer knelt and prayed, before they were chained to the stakes and burned to death.
As the flames leapt higher, one of them, John Spicer declared that “this is the ioyfullest day that euer I sawe“.
While Britain escaped the worst excesses of the Inquisition, there were times when it didn’t pay to be on the wrong side of the Christian divide.
The brief but bloody reign of Mary Tudor marked a particularly bleak period for Protestants.
She had come to the throne in 1553 and immediately set about returning England to the Roman Catholic faith, from which her father had broken away to facilitate his divorce and remarriage to Anne Boleyn.
Mary reintroduced old English laws enforcing heresy against the church, which were pursued with such fervour by her supporters that some 300 people later named the Marian Martyrs, after their persecutor were burned at the stake during the five short years of her reign.
Among them was Thomas Cranmer, archbishop of Canterbury, who had been responsible for stripping of its rich decorations the magnificent tomb of Salisbury’s very own saint, St Osmund, some years earlier, in 1539.
Salisbury’s bishop, Dr John Capon, and his chancellor, William Geffrey, approached the task of burning the three at the stake with apparent zeal. John Maundrel, a farmer from Bulkington, had been in trouble before for speaking out against holy water and holy bread, for which his punishment had been to walk around the market place at Devizes wearing a white sheet and carrying a lighted candle. But once Mary was in charge, heresy drew considerably harsher penalties.
Maundrel, Spicer and Coberley had disrupted a church service at Keevil, first by calling on parishioners to abandon a procession and then by interrupting the vicar’s reading of the Bede Roll.
The priest had them removed and put in the stocks for the duration of the service, and the following day, they were taken to Salisbury.
The trio were imprisoned in Fisherton gaol (where the clock tower now stands) and questioned about their faith by Capon and Geffrey.
The three denied the pope’s supremacy, calling the pontiff the antichrist and God’s enemy, and said that wooden images were evil and only good for roasting mutton upon.
Sentence was passed on March 23, 1556, and, the following day, the three men were “brought to the place of Martyrdome”, thought to be the junction of Wilton and Devizes Roads, where the gallows also stood. Coberley seems to have met a particularly grisly end, according to John Foxe (inset, below left), who recorded all the details of their demise in his Actes and Monuments, popularly known as the Book of Martyrs. “Being somewhat learned,” Foxe reported, “and being at the stake was somewhat long a burning as the wynde stood.”
It seems his body was scorched and the flesh burnt from his left arm before “he stouped ouer the cheyne, and with the ryghte handeknocked vpon his brest softly, the bloud and matter issuing out of his mouth. Afterward when all they thought he had bene deade, sodenly he rose right up with his body agayne.”
While Fisherton gaol and the gallows field no longer exist, plaques to the three Salisbury martyrs bear evidence to their suffering and can be seen on the side of the Emmanuel Church in Wilton Road and on the wall of Malmesbury House, in the Cathedral Close.
For many years, Maundrel Hall stood on the site of what is now the Hog’s Head pub, in Fisherton Street.
Maundrel, Spicer and Coberley were not the first martyrs to “lede the daunce” in Salisbury for religious reasons.
Foxe records that, about 1541 “a certeine Priest was burned at Salisbury”. Richard Spencer left the priesthood to marry and, with two others, called Ramsey and Hewet, took part in putting on comedies and interludes.The three were all “condemned and burned” (presumably because of Spenser’s views on the sacraments rather than their acting ability).
John Hunt and Richard White, coming up before Chancellor Geffrey in 1558 were somewhat luckier. Both had been imprisoned for years, subject to constant examination, until finally Chancellor Geffrey lost patience and condemned them. Capon was already dead by the time sentence was passed, and the queen’s health was failing.
Geffrey needed a writ signed by the Sheriff of Wiltshire, Sir Anthony Hun-gerford, but quibbling over the paperwork continued long enough for Geffrey to fall sick and die.
With the deadly trio of Capon, Geffrey and Mary dead, White and Hunt escaped the ultimate punishment and were released.