A history of Halesworth, Suffolk, UK, through the ages.


Volume 3


The Burning of Heretics

To ensure there would be total acceptance of the Catholic faith, the Act of Parliament for the burning to death of heretics was re-introduced in Mary's reign.

 Its main purpose was to 'strike fear in the minds of others, whereby no such wicked doctrines and heretical opinions, nor the authors or favourers of them, be sustained, or in any way suffered within this realm'.

The idea behind such punishment was the belief that although the body of the heretic was burned, his soul would go to heaven. Of course before such action was taken, the victim would most probably have been forced to give a full confession of his wickedness, and for this, the rack was a widely used instrument of torture. Few could stand out long against the painful action of being stretched inch by inch until the joints of the body were damaged.

Then would come the inevitable martyrdom through the stake. In all, during both Mary's and Elizabeth's reign a large number of Suffolk people were martyred. They included 5 bishops, 21 clergy, 8 landed gentry, 84 craftsmen, 100 agricultural workers and servants, 50 women and 2 infants. In Essex, Thomas Hawkes was burnt at the stake at Coggeshall for leaving his child unbaptised.

Similarly at Laxfield, a stone in the front of the Baptist Church records the burning at the stake of a shoemaker named John Noyes in 1557. He was a 'simple unlearned man' who refused to recant when taken before the Bishop of Norwich. John Foxe, in his description of the event in 1559, tells how, on the day of the execution, all the neighbours dowsed their fires so that no flame could be used to start the faggots. However 'a smoke was espied by Thomas Lovel proceeding out from the top of a chimney, to which house the Sheriff and Grannow his man went, and brake open the door, and thereby got fire, and brought the same to the place of execution'. John came to the place where he should be burnt, he kneeled down and said the 50th Psalm, with other prayers, and then they, making haste, bound him to the stake. And being bound the said John Noyes said 'Fear not them that can kill the body, but fear him that can kill both body and soil, and cast it into everlasting fire ... and so he yielded up his life.'

The Martyrs Memorial Baptist Church at Beccles stands on the site where three men were burned to death for their faith on May 21st 1556.

Even in Queen Elizabeth's reign, when the State once more reverted to Protestantism, the situation was still a problem. In 1563, 172 out of the 510 parishes in Suffolk were without incumbents and the loss of preachers was equally high, for the coast from Blythburgh to Ipswich, an area of over two hundred square miles, was without preachers.

John Lawrence, a yeoman from Fressingfield, led a clandestine congregation during Queen Mary's reign and although not ordained, continued to preach into Elizabeth's reign. This wish to support the popular preacher was the background to the 1589 Will of Thomas Shipham of Halesworth. He left sums ranging from 6s.8d (33p) to 20s (1) to twelve named preachers, whom he requested to continue 'the place and exercite at Halesworthe as yt hathe been used before'. And told his executors to pay them 6d (2p) for their dinner on each occasion they preached a sermon, and it is probable that the sermons were not preached in the church, but in some open space, such as the Marketplace, where anyone may come and hear them. 


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