Martyrs in Metroland
OLD AMERSHAM from Rectory Hill
MEMORIAL TO "MERRY ENGLAND"
WHEN BISHOPS HAD THEIR WAY WITH DISSENT
THIS Spring Bank Holiday weekend's not looking very bright, but if you're in London, and fancy getting out without going far afield, let me recommend a trip to Amersham, in Buckinghamshire. You can get there on the Metropolitan Line (and if you're like me a Golden Oldie, get your money's worth on your Freedom Pass), and beside some countryside and olde world pubs, there's a bit of history to be had.
Now in cōparyng the Turke with the Pope, if a question bee asked whether of them is the truer or greater Antichrist, it were easye to see and iudge, that the Turke is the more open and manifest enemie agaynst Christ and his Churche. But if it be asked, whether of them two hath bene the more bloudy and pernitious aduersary to Christe and his mēbers, or whether of them hath consumed and spilt more Christian bloud, he with sword, or this with fire and sword together, neither is it a light matter to discerne, neither is it my part here to discusse, whiche do but onely write the hystorie, and the Actes of them both.
John Foxe, Book of Martyrs
But it's not for the squeamish, or those wishing only for rosy-tinted views. The only rosy glow in our picture of the past is from blood and the smouldering fires on which they burned the Amersham martyrs. It was 500 years ago. when Henry VII reigned, and England was still a Catholic country. The Bishops held great sway. Amersham came under the diocese of Lincoln, whose Bishop was William Smith.
But something had been stirring in the minds of Englishmen and come to that, English women. Already in the 14th century a man called John Wycliffe had started criticising the Church, and he had translated the Bible into English. His followers, dubbed Lollards, possibly from a word referring to them mumbling their prayers, were driven underground, and seen as a threat to Church and State alike.
If people could read the Holy Word, and pray, in their own language, where was the authority of the priest? Who would act if these but common folk formed erroneous opinions about right and wrong? The Lollards had begun to question the Church's authority, saying that what counted was true belief, and even that Christians should be helping the poor rather than amassing great wealth and building sumptuous churches, cathedrals and palaces.
Despite sermons and suppression, this subversive clandestine tendency continued to grow. Among several adherants in Amersham was William Tylseley. John Foxe, in the introductory passage to his account of what happened to Tylseley, quoted above, asked whether the "Turks", i.e. Muslims, or the Church of Rome was the greater or crueller enemy of Christ, saying that he will only write the history.
Foxe was writing while the bitter events were still in living memory.
in the towne of Amersham, be yet alyue both men and wemen, whiche can and do beare wytnes of this that I shall declare. Also there is of the sayd companye one named William Page, an aged father and yet alyue, witnes to the
same. Also an other named Agnes Wetherley wydowe, beyng about the age of an hundreth yeares, yet lyuing and wytnes hereof: That in the dayes of kyng Henry vij. an. 1506. in the dioces of Lyncolne in Bukynghams shyre (William Smith beyng Byshop of the same dioces) one William Tylseley was burned in Amersham, in a close called Standley, about 60. yeares agoe. The daughter cōpelled to set fyre to her
At which time one Ioane Clerke, being a maryed womā, which was þe onely daughter of þe said W. Tylseley and a faithfull woman, was compelled with her own hādes to set fire to her deare father.
THOSE who were not burned themselves were sent about to do penance, or tortured to recant. The persecution continued for some years, with more burnings in 1521. Here's a historian's account:
BETWEEN 1414 and 1532, more than a dozen people from, or connected with, Amersham were executed as Lollards dissenters in one way or another from the Catholic church.
John Wycliffe, a priest and academic at Oxford, was the man who created this movement. Despite initial renown for his work, in about 1379, he undertook a translation of the Bible into the English language, which brought the wrath of the church hierarchy upon him.
Wycliffe died peacefully in 1384, but his followers were to be subject to much persecution which would eventually result in the Reformation of the church.
The word Lollard' was a contemptuous term for a follower of Wycliffe's teachings. The Lollards referred to themselves as the Justfast Men' or Known Men', because of their steadfast allegiance to God. They had many opinions on the way the church should be run but the main objection was that it was forbidden to read or possess the Bible in an English translation.
When Henry IV usurped the throne in 1399 he passed a statute which gave authority to the Bishops. If people were found guilty of heresy, they would be condemned to be burned at the stake.
Amongst those subsequently sentenced we find four men from Amersham. William Turnour, Walter Yonge and John Hazelwoode were all executed. Richard Spotford, a carpenter, was pardoned.
John Fynche of Missenden was also put to death.
After these executions, things became quiet. Although there were some milder sentences passed, much of Wycliffe support was underground.
However, in 1506, Bishop Smith of Lincoln initiated an inquiry into religious dissent in Amersham. Among those charged and tried was William Tylsworth. He refused to recant, and was sentenced to be burned to death. His daughter Joan was sentenced to light the fire herself. The persecution of the Amersham Lollards continued with their surviving leader, Thomas Chase. He was tortured in an attempt to force him to recant but it eventually killed him.
The last local man to suffer martyrdom for the Lollard cause was Thomas Harding. He was executed after his third trial of heresy at Botley Dell, North Chesham.
(From Michael Andrews-Reading's book, ' The Amersham Martyrs').
In 1931, a monument to the martyrs was erected on the hillside above old Amersham, by a Protestant organisation, which claimed them as Protestant martyrs . Whatever its particular motives may have been, it has performed a service in providing a reminder that here in "Merry England" too, people were cruelly persecuted in the name of religion; and that the rights we hold today to read and form our own ideas were not gained without courageous defiance of authority and those with power, nor won without martyrs.
There's more on the Amersham martyrs in the town museum, http://www.amersham.org.uk/museum/ and they have been remembered in recent years by a community play, http://www.metroland.nildram.co.uk/amersham/martyrs/ , and walks. You can get to the monument by turning left out of Amersham station, left again and walking down Station Road, then cross the road to enter Parsonage Wood, walking the footpath till you see a view of old Amersham below you, across the sloping field. Taking the path to the left-hand side of this field, you find the memorial behind a hedge.
It can also be reached by taking a path from behind the church diagonally across the same field.
And it's all on the Metropolitan railway.