Tuesday, June 27, 2023

Today on the Christian History Almanac, we remember the Stratford Martyrs who died on this day in 1556.

It is the 27th of June, 2023. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. I'm your guest host, Sam Leanza Ortiz.


Today we fast forward from the early church to the Reformation as we discuss the largest Protestant execution during the English Reformation, in which the thirteen “Stratford” martyrs were killed on this day in 1556.

Our story today really starts with Queen Mary Tudor. You may know her better as “Bloody Mary,” who was born to Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon in 1516 on the eve of the Reformation on the continent.   

Unlike her younger half-sister, the future Queen Elizabeth, Mary’s formative years were spent within the Catholic church, and her mother’s devotion to the traditions of the church, which only increased with her banishment in 1533, undoubtedly stuck with her throughout the years.

A few years before his death in 1547, Henry passed the Act of Succession of 1544 that placed his son, Edward, at the front of the line for the throne but somehow kept Mary and Elizabeth in line even though they were declared illegitimate by virtue of their father’s questionable marriages to their respective mothers.

Upon Henry’s death, the young, sickly Edward VI attempted to secure the Reformation’s continuance against the wishes of his sister as he worked around the Act of Succession of 1544 in his own will, written at the wizened age of 16.

As a passionate Protestant, Edward simply couldn’t bear the thought of his sister Mary taking the throne. This resulted in the nine-day reign of Lady Jane Grey. Mary, decades older than Jane, outmaneuvered her opponents to secure the throne.

From this point forward, her reign has been painted as bloody, backward, and repressive. The familiar tale is that Mary brutally enforced her religion on a progressive, Protestant ascendancy –a fact most tragically supported by the fact that during her short reign, the officers of the Marian church burnt nearly 300 Protestants, including the thirteen martyrs who succumbed to the flames on this day in 1556.

One thing to consider here is that religious persecution of all shapes, sizes, and flavors was not uncommon within Western Europe at this time. Heresy carried a seditious undertone that threatened political stability. What is more, England, rather than being the forgotten prodigal of Rome, was now a source of inspiration for the coming “Counter-Reformation” on the continent.

Historian Eamon Duffy notes that Mary’s directions regarding the rollback of the Reformation were twofold: punish the recalcitrant and instruct the ignorant, of course, disregarding the hundreds of exiles who fled for the Continent.

Leading this program ecclesiastically speaking was Reginald Pole, who succeeded Thomas Cranmer as Archbishop of Canterbury. Pole placed more weight on the instruction than the punishment, but he did not completely escape the modern charge of pursuing persecution. 

Of the 284 executions in this five-year period, most took place between 1555 and 1557 in dioceses with “zealous bishops.” Although no official heresy commission was established until 1557, church officials, nobles, and informants eager for the restoration of Rome found reasons to report wayward believers, ranging from the denial of the bodily presence in the Eucharist to the denial of the divinity of Christ.

One of the more zealous bishops was Edmund Bonner, who oversaw the trials of the Stratford martyrs.

Initially, sixteen were slated to die, but three were recanted. Of the sixteen, the Dean of St. Paul’s John Feckenham noted one could find “sixteen different opinions on religion.”

While the three recanted, 11 men and two women were led to the pyre at St. John’s in Stratford-le-Bow outside of London.

Much of the little that is known of the martyrs themselves comes from John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, though Foxe himself draws from the work of Thomas Brice, a Protestant priest who narrowly escaped persecution himself. Brice’s “A Compendious Register in Meter” poetically memorializes the victims of the Marian persecution.

Of the thirteen, Brice writes:

When Jackson, Holywel, and Wye,
Bowier, Laurence, and Addlington;
When Roth, Searles, Lion, and Hurst, did die,
With whom two women to death were done;
When Dorifall with them was put to death,
We wishte for our, Elizabeth.

Elizabeth would not come to the throne for two more years, and the persecution would continue. By 1558, many who were being executed had experienced previous run-ins with the ecclesiastical law.

Yet, they had not long to fear as Mary died in 1558, and the Protestant regime came roaring back in Elizabeth I. Long since, England has remained a Protestant country (with a dust-up or two in the seventeenth century), such that to this day, one can find a memorial to the Stratford martyrs in St. John’s Church, Stratford, from 1879 that marks this day’s tragic deaths.


The final word for today comes from the daily lectionary, from Psalm 86

O God, insolent men have risen up against me;

    a band of ruthless men seeks my life,

    and they do not set you before them.

15 But you, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious,

    slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.

16 Turn to me and be gracious to me;

    give your strength to your servant,

    and save the son of your maidservant.

17 Show me a sign of your favor,

    that those who hate me may see and be put to shame

    because you, Lord, have helped me and comforted me.


This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 27th of June 2023, brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.

This show was produced by Christopher Gillespie.

This show has been written and read by Sam Leanza Ortiz, a woman who opts for a mimosa over a Bloody Mary at brunch.

You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.

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