Tuesday, 25 October 2011

First to the Stake

Portrait Rev. John Rogers
John Rogers.

In January 1555, Stephen Gardiner summoned a group of Edwardine diviners to his house for examination, and on February 4 the first Protestant martyr went to the stake. The spectacle of notorious traitors like Sir James Croft (one of the leaders in the Wyatt rebellion) gaining freedom while preachers like John Rogers were wending their way to Smithfield was one which troubled many. Mary's imperial ambassador, Renard, was against this move and did his utmost to stop the religious persecutions. Judging by the demonstrations of popular sympathy at Roger's execution, Renard felt that England would soon be in the throes of rebellion unless the bishops were told that there were more politic ways of dealing with heretics. 
Philip of Spain, Mary's recently wedded husband, agreed that this was not a wise move. Ten of the King's Spanish monks inveighed against the use of force in dealing with heretics in a vigorous sermon at court, and a few weeks after the executions ceased. But within a month the fires were lighted once more, to continue sporadically during the rest of the spring in spite of repeated objections from the Imperial ambassador, Renard. However, Renard's fears were put to rest and no rebellion broke out in the name of the martyrs. Nevertheless, secular members of Mary's council were not in favour of the persecutions, and Philip kept his distance from them. It was the religious wing of Mary's council, under the leadership of Gardiner and his friends who pushed for these measures.

Who was John Rogers?

He was the first leading English Reformer as a martyr in Mary's reign. He was a London Minister, Vicar of St. Sepulchre's, and Prebendary and Reader of Divinity at St. Paul's. He was burned in Smithfield on Monday, the 4th of February 1555. Rogers was born at Deritend, in the parish of Aston, near Birmingham. He was a man who, in one respect, had done more for the cause of Protestantism than any of his fellow-sufferers. In saying this I refer to the fact that he had assisted Tyndale and Coverdale in bringing out a most important version of the English Bible, a version commonly known as Matthew's Bible. Indeed, he was condemned as "Rogers, alias Matthew." This circumstance, in all human probability, made him a marked man, and was one cause why he was the first who was brought to the stake.  
Rogers' examination before Gardiner gives us the idea of his being a thorough Protestant, who had fully made up his mind on all points of the sectarian controversy, and was able to give a reason for his opinions. At any rate, he seems to have silenced and abashed his examiners even more than most of the martyrs did. 
On the morning of his martyrdom he was roused hastily in his cell in Newgate, and hardly allowed time to dress himself. He was then led forth to Smithfield on foot, within sight of the Church of St. Sepulchre, where he had preached, and through the streets of the parish where he had done the work of a pastor. By the wayside stood his wife and ten children (one a baby) whom Bishop Bonner, had flatly refused him leave to see in prison. 
This is an account taken from John Foxe's Book of Martyrs (written during the reign of Elizabeth published in 1563, 8 years later.)

"After Mr. Rogers had been long and straitly imprisoned, and lodged in Newgate among thieves, often examined, and very uncharitably entreated, and at length unjustly and most cruelly condemned by Stephen Gardiner, bishop of Winchester, the fourth day of February, in the year of our Lord 1555, being Monday in the morning, he was suddenly warned by the keeper of Newgate's wife, to prepare himself for the fire; who, being then sound asleep, could scarce be awaked. At length being raised and awaked, and bid to make haste, then said he, "If it be so, I need not tie my points." And so was had down, first to bishop Bonner to be degraded: which being done, he craved of Bonner but one petition; and Bonner asked what that should be. Mr. Rogers replied that he might speak a few words with his wife before his burning, but that could not be obtained of him.
When the time came that he should be brought out of Newgate to Smithfield, the place of his execution, Mr. Woodroofe, one of the sheriffs, first came to Mr. Rogers, and asked him if he would revoke his abominable doctrine, and the evil opinion of the Sacrament of the altar. Mr. Rogers answered, "That which I have preached I will seal with my blood." Then Mr. Woodroofe said, "Thou art an heretic." "That shall be known," quoth Mr. Rogers, "at the Day of Judgment." "Well," said Mr. Woodroofe, "I will never pray for thee." "But I will pray for you," said Mr. Rogers; and so was brought the same day, the fourth of February, by the sheriffs, towards Smithfield, saying the Psalm Miserere by the way, all the people wonderfully rejoicing at his constancy; with great praises and thanks to God for the same. And there in the presence of Mr. Rochester, comptroller of the queen's household, Sir Richard Southwell, both the sheriffs, and a great number of people, he was burnt to ashes, washing his hands in the flame as he was burning. A little before his burning, his pardon was brought, if he would have recanted; but he utterly refused it. He was the first martyr of all the blessed company that suffered in Queen Mary's time that gave the first adventure upon the fire. His wife and children, being eleven in number, ten able to go, and one sucking at her breast, met him by the way, as he went towards Smithfield. This sorrowful sight of his own flesh and blood could nothing move him, but that he constantly and cheerfully took his death with wonderful patience, in the defence and quarrel of the Gospel of Christ."


  1. What a sad and horrific account. Imagine someone having such strong beliefs they are willing to die for them. Great writing and great account of the martyr. I'm really looking forward to catching up with all your posts.

  2. Not unlike the Buddhist monks in Vietnam in the 1960's and more recently in Tibet- where in early March 2012 on the anniversary of the Chinese rout and rape of that small country some years earlier, one immolated himself in protest.