Sue Cook presents the series that examines listeners' historical queries, exploring avenues of research and uncovering mysteries.
The Stratford Martyrs
"For some time now I have been fascinated by the story of the Stratford Martyrs. This is a rather gruesome event in history which took place on 27 June 1556 at Stratford in East London. Exactly where did this mass execution take place?"
Eleven men and two women were burned at the stake in 1556 as part of the persecution of Protestants by Queen Mary I ('Bloody Mary'). The site of the burning, Stratford Green, was once a large green area which has now been whittled down to a small churchyard. In 1879 an 85-foot Gothic-style terracotta memorial was built in the churchyard. It is a six-sided monument with all the names of the people who died on it. It was like a monumental version of John Foxe's Book of Martyrs built 400 years on. Its size and prominence reflected the division in the church in the late 19th century. Such is the hustle and bustle of the traffic past the church - situated on an island surrounded by roads - that many passers-by have never really noticed the memorial, large though it is.
The burnings probably took place on Stratford Green, once called Gallows Green, where the University of East London now stands. It was the widest part of the Green and would have had room for a huge crowd to watch the spectacle. The woodcut from Foxe's Book of Martyrs is reproduced in stone on the memorial and it tells the story graphically. The 13 were arrested from all over, though most came from Essex. Some undoubtedly zealous Protestants were among them but for others the offence they had committed was absurdly mild. They were taken to Newgate Prison and then transported the six miles to the village of Stratford in a cart. They were questioned by Bishop Bonner's men and were divided into two groups, each group being told that the other had recanted. But the Protestants were determined to die bravely, which they did. The 11 men were tied up but the two women - mercifully, supposedly - were allowed to walk freely in the flames. One was pregnant. They died bravely, embracing the stake.
Professor Diarmid MacCulloch says that the executions were meant as a stern warning but they were ultimately counter-productive. Later on, executions were carried out the executions early in the morning in order to avoid crowds gathering. Protestant monarchs, for different theological reasons, also conducted burnings, but these Marian burnings were very bad public relations for Queen Mary. The last burning in Britain was in 1612 in the reign of James I.
Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch
Stephen Pewsey, Stratford (East London): A Pictorial History (Phillimore & Co, 1993)
Diarmaid MacCulloch, The Reformation (Penguin, 2004)
Jasper Ridley, Bloody Mary's Martyrs: The Story of England's Terror (Constable and Robinson, 2002)
Carolly Erickson, Bloody Mary: The Life of Mary Tudor (Robson Books, 2001)
John Foxe, Foxe's Book of Martyrs (Ambassador Productions, 1995)
Vanessa has presented science and current affairs programmes for BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5 and Discovery and has presented for BBC Radio 4 & Five Live and a regular contributor to the Daily Telegraph and the Mail on Sunday, Scotsman and Sunday Herald.
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