This short post is inspired by Laura’s brilliant mini-series on ‘Memorial and History’, which took its own inspiration from her discovery of Exeter’s 1909 memorial to the Marian martyrs Thomas Benet and Agnes Prest.
Hearing Laura talk about Exeter made me curious about the city where I was born and raised, and which bears the somewhat ignominious dual-honour of being the location of the first documented case of medieval blood-libel (a false accusation of ritual murder against the Jewish community), and also of witnessing the execution of one of the first evangelical martyrs of the reformation.
Have you got it yet? Yes, the answer is Norwich! It’s a beautiful place, with more surviving medieval churches than any other city in western-Europe north of the Alps, and the people are much friendlier now, so if you haven’t you should really visit it some time.
Anyway, so on 19 August, 1531, Thomas Bilney was burned to death in Norwich at the traditional site for such judicial executions, the so-called ‘Lollards’ pit’, within the menacing gaze of the ancient Norman cathedral. The audience was ‘sympathetic’ to Bilney, and amongst them stood the future archbishop of Canterbury, Matthew Parker. The only other Henrician martyr to die in Norwich was the Benedictine monk William Leyton, but during the reign of Mary eight more martyrs met their end in the city, including two women, one minister, and five lay men.
Surely then, Norwich had to have an elegant memorial to the memory of these ten true believers, martyred in the city for the Protestant faith? Well, yes and no. The city has nothing to compete with the Henry Hemms monument in Exeter. But there is a memorial, and in its simplicity it is perhaps a fitting testament to ‘Little’ Bilney, a man whose death inspired a wave of iconoclasm across the region.
This striking slab is dedicated ‘to the glory of God and in grateful memory’ of Bilney, ‘for spreading the gospel of free salvation by faith in the atoning blood of Christ once offered on the cross’. Bilney is described as ‘”blessed martyr of God” – spiritual father of the reformation’, and there follows a list of names of other martyrs (interestingly the list is not comprehensive). There is a biblical quote (Revelation 12:11), and the following statement: ‘these all died in the cause of biblical Evangelical Christianity and in denial of the unscriptural doctrines of the Church of Rome’.
Laura’s discussion of other monuments touched upon the Oxford martyrs’ memorial (1843), and monuments in Amersham (1931), Dartford (1850 and 1888) and Smithfield (1870). The Smithfield and Amersham memorials, she noted, were erected by the Protestant Alliance, an anti-Tractarian group founded in 1845 and which describes itself (on its website) as ‘a non-demoninational organisation which exists to educate concerning the history of Biblical Protestantism and to spread the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ’.
What is interesting about the Norwich memorial is not only its very different form and style, and its rousing inscription, but also its date. This was not a Victorian or inter-war construction. See if you can guess from the photograph of the unveiling:
Don’t let the monochrome photography throw you off: this memorial was unveiled on … 29 September 1985! Wreaths were laid; the crowd was addressed by the pastor of a local independent evangelical chapel; and the Alliance was still organising commemorations at the site of the memorials in Norwich and elsewhere as recently as 2012.
In terms of a conclusion, I defer to Laura’s eloquent discussion of history, memory and emotion. All I would add is a note of surprise that the reformation was still being employed so polemically against ‘the unscriptural doctrines of the Church of Rome’ as recently as thirty years ago. This only goes to underscore the powerful hold which early modern history can continue to exert upon our sense of community and identity, and that the ways in which we appropriate the past often say just as much about us as they can ever reveal about the past itself.
Find out more:
- Monday: what we know about the two martyrs on Exeter’s monument.
- Tuesday: considers our main source of information about Tudor martyrs, John Foxe’s Actes and Monuments, and it’s own role as a memorial to the past.
- Wednesday: explores other English examples of Protestant monuments to martyrs and asks when and why they were erected.
- Thursday: introduces the remarkable Harry Hems, designer of Exeter’s monument and an important collector of historical artefacts in his own right.
- Friday: concludes with some thoughts on the ways that objects and places are invested with meaning, and the relationship between space, memory and history.
- Appendix II: further ‘monumental’ discoveries in Oxford and the Wye Valley.
 P. R. N. Carter, ‘Bilney, Thomas (c.1495–1531)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/2400, accessed 19 June 2014]
Fascinating stuff, many thanks Jonathan! It is really surprising to discover the recent date of these examples. Can you tell us anything about where these memorials are placed – I assume near the sites of the original executions?
Great post, Jonathan, thanks! Yes, as a fellow Norwicher/Norwichian (?) I was also wondering where the memorial is. Also, “the people are much friendlier now” – brilliant!
Thanks Laura – and Steph, I didn’t realise that you had Norwichian roots! It is indeed on/near the execution site, the ‘Lollards Pit’, nestled in between the A147 (Riverside Road) and the riverbank, just past the medieval Bishops’ Bridge.
Glad the people are friendly and erect quirky monuments! Hope to be moving there in a couple of months and will look this one up.
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This is a great example Jonathan, but I can go one better. The Sussex Martyrs Commemoration Council is still active, and completed its work of commemorating the 33 martyrs in the county in …. 1997, in the village of Steyning. https://www.sussexmartyrs.co.uk/history-of-the-memorials. As I explore in a recent post ( https://peterwebster.me/2020/06/11/martyrs-memorials-and-meaning-in-protestant-england/ ) the language of Reformation and persecution is still in use, but it is no longer from Catholics that persecution of the godly may come, but from the secular state.
Thank you for posting the link to your blog Peter, that’s absolutely fascinating, and as you say shows that the history of these sorts of memorials is not static, but continues to unfold. It’s also a timely reminder that these objects say much more about the people/groups that built them, than the people/groups they commemorate.