20 May 2020

Searching for the missing
gaps in the stories of
the Lichfield Martyrs

Lady Eleanor Davies was sent to Bedlam after she poured tar over the altar in Lichfield Cathedral, occupying the bishop’s throne and declaring herself the primate (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

The Market Square in Lichfield, with its statues of Samuel Johnson and James Boswell, has been the home for markets since King Stephen granted the first markets charter in 1153. It has also been the scene of many events in Lichfield’s history.

In the 1550s, during the reign of Queen Mary, Thomas Hayward, John Goreway and Joyce Lewis were burnt at the stake on the Square, and when Edward Wightman was burnt at the stake here in 1612 he was the last person to be executed in England in this way. George Fox, the founding Quaker, famously stood barefoot in the snow in the Market Square in 1651 and denounced the city: ‘Woe to the Bloody City of Lichfield.’

The plaques on the north side of Saint Mary’s Church, facing the square, commemorate Thomas Hayward and John Goreway, who were executed here in September 1555; Joyce Lewis of Mancetter, executed on 18 December 1557; Edmund Gennings, who was born Lichfield 1567, who disembowelled alive and executed in London 1591 for his Catholic beliefs and canonised in 1970; and Edward Wightman was burnt at the stake here in 1612.

It is surprising, given the form of execution of Hayward and Goreway, that we know so little about their biographical details, the beliefs that led to their executions, or even the precise date of their death.

John Foxe, who was consistently over-indulgent in his details of the lives and deaths of Puritan martyrs, offers little detail about Hayward and Goreway, except to say they were ‘two ignorant artificers’ who were condemned to death for ‘the confession of a good faith.’ He provides no specifics about their beliefs or the charges against them, but merely assures his readers that these two faced death with ‘great courage and constancy’ and that they ‘sealed their testimony with blood, praying and singing praises to God in the flames till they expired.’

But Foxe does not say where and when they were tried or who sentenced them. Nor, indeed, does he tell us on what day they were executed – or even if they died on the same day in September 1555.

A plaque at Saint Mary’s Church, Lichfield, recalls the martyrdom of Joyce Lewis of Mancetter, Thomas Hayward and John Goreway (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

On the other hand, we know much more about three other martyrs commemorated in Lichfield: Joyce Glover, Edmund Gennings and Edward Wightman.

Joyce Lewis, also known as Jocasta Lewis, who was executed in Lichfield in 1557, was the only daughter of Thomas and Anne Curzon of Croxall in Staffordshire, and a granddaughter of Sir John Aston of Tixall. Her first husband was Sir George Appleby of Appleby, Leicestershire, and they were the parents of two sons.

Her husband died in 1547 at the Battle of Pinkie, and Joyce then married Thomas Lewis of Mancetter on 10 September 1547. Thomas Lewis had acquired part of the manor of Mancetter during the reign of Edward VI, and the family lived at the Manor Farm, south of the Manor House.

At the time, it is said, Joyce Lewis was a pious Catholic. However, according to John Foxe’s partisan accounts, she began to question her faith after Lawrence Saunders was burnt at the stake in Coventry on 8 February 1555.

Her decision to become a Protestant was also influenced by her neighbour, John Glover of Mancetter, a brother of Robert Glover who was executed in Coventry the same year. Her previously devout Catholicism was replaced by ‘irreverent behaviour in church.’

Her ‘irreverent behaviour’ was reported to the Bishop of Lichfield, Ralph Baines, who sent a citation which, it is said, Lewis forced the official to eat. The bishop then bound her husband to a sum of £100 to bring his wife to trial within a month, which he did in spite of pleading from her friends.

Joyce Lewis spent a year in jail in Lichfield before she was taken to be burnt at the stake in the Market Place, beside Saint Mary’s Church, Lichfield, on 18 December 1557.

The plaque in Lichfield commemorating Edmund Gennings, born in Lichfield and executed in London (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Edmund Gennings (1567-1591) was born in Lichfield, possibly the son of John Gennings or Jennings, an innkeeper and bailiff, and was brought up a Protestant. At the age of 16, he became a page in the household of Richard Sherwood, a Catholic, and when Sherwood left England to become a priest, Edmund followed. He studied at the English College at Reims, and was ordained priest at the age of 23 in 1590.

Gennings returned to England after his ordination, under the assumed name of Ironmonger. He landed at Whitby and headed for Lichfield to seek out his family. There he found all his relatives were dead except one brother, John, who was born in Lichfield about 1570 but had left for London.

Edmund searched for his brother in London for a whole month, and found him just as he was about to give up his search. Far from winning over his brother to Catholicism, John pleaded with Edmund to leave, worried that he too would become suspect.

Gennings returned to France, but was back in London by 1591. However, his missionary career was brief. He and Polydore Plasden were seized by Richard Topcliffe and his officers while he was saying Mass in the house of Saint Swithun Wells at Gray’s Inn in London on 7 November 1591.

Gennings was hanged, drawn and quartered at Gray’s Inn Fields. His execution was particularly bloody. Topcliffe ordered the rope to be cut down when he was barely stunned from the hanging. It is said that as he was being disembowelled he said, Sancte Gregori ora pro me (‘Saint Gregory, pray for me’). Hearing this, the hangman swore, ‘Zounds! See, his heart is in my hand, and yet Gregory is in his mouth. O egregious Papist.’ Swithun Wells was hanged immediately afterwards.

Edmund Gennings was canonised as one of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales by Pope Paul VI on 25 October 1970. His feast day, along with that of the other 39 martyrs, is on 25 October. A Roman Catholic in the New Invention area of Willenhall is dedicated to him as Saint Edmund Gennings.

Ten years after the martyrdom of Edmund Gennings, his brother John became a Roman Catholic. He entered Douai College was ordained priest in 1607. He was sent back to England as priest in 1608, and began to work for the restoration of the English province of Franciscans. He sought out Father William Staney, the Commissary of the English friars, and became a Franciscan in either 1610 or 1614 – the date is uncertain.

John Gennings also wrote a biography of Edmund Gennings, published in Saint-Omer in 1614. At the Franciscan convent Ypres in Flanders, he was joined by several English Franciscans, marking the beginning of a new English Franciscan province, of which he was ‘Vicar of England.’ He died at Douai on 12 November 1660.

The plaque in Lichfield recalling the execution of Edmund Wightman (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Edward Wightman (1566-1612) of Burton-on-Trent who was burnt to death in the Market Square, Lichfield, on 11 April 1612, was the last person in England to be burnt at the stake for heresy. But we know little about Edward Wightman, for little of his own words and none of his writings survive. What we do know paints a sorry story of religious conflict and intolerance.

This self-proclaimed prophet was born at Wykin Hall, Burbage, near Hinckley, Leicestershire, on 20 December 1566. His parents later moved to nearby Burton-upon-Trent, where his father was probably master of Burton Grammar School and later the first headmaster of Repton Grammar School.

By the mid-1590s, Edward was an important figure in Puritan circles in Burton, and played a leading role in some remarkable events in the town in 1596, when Thomas Darling, a 13-year-old schoolboy, alleged that he been possessed by a devil sent by a witch, Alice Goodridge. Wightman’s involvement in the case became a turning point in his life.

The death of Sir Humphrey Ferrers of Tamworth Castle in 1608 brought Wightman’s views to public attention (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

After the death of Sir Humphrey Ferrers of Tamworth Castle in 1608, Wightman was heard expressing the ‘damnable heresy’ that ‘the soul of man dies with the body and does not participate in either of the joys of Heaven or the pains of Hell, until the general day of Judgment, but rests with the body until then.’

He began publishing books, stopped attending the parish church and became more radical and more heretical. During a visit to Burton by the Bishop of Lichfield, Richard Neile, in February 1611, Wightman was presented by the vicar and churchwardens. Wightman was arrested and questioned by the bishop at the house of the Chancellor of Lichfield, Dr Zachary Babington, in Curborough, outside Lichfield.

Within days he was taken to Westminster. In jail, he condemned the baptism of infants, rejected the doctrine of the Trinity, the Nicene Creed and the Athanasian Creed, and claimed Christ was only a man ‘and a mere Creature and not both God and man in one person.’

He was discharged in mid-June, but was summoned by Neile 4 September, and his trial began in the Consistory Court in Lichfield Cathedral on 19 November. On the second day of the trial, 26 November, the crowd was so big – perhaps as many as 500 – that the trial was moved to the larger space in the Lady Chapel.

Bishop Neile’s Chaplain, who assisted in prosecuting Wightman, was William Laud, the future Archbishop of Canterbury, who was later executed in 1645.

Throughout the trial, it seems, Wightman made no attempt to defend himself. On 5 December, he was brought before the court for the last time, and was condemned for holding ‘wicked heresies … and unheard opinions, by the instinct of Satan.’

He was brought to the Market Square in Lichfield on 20 March 1612 to be burned at the stake. But, as the fires were lit, his courage failed him. He quickly cried out that he would recant. By then he was ‘well scorched,’ and the crowd ran forward to put out the flames, some of them suffering burns in the process.

A form of recantation was hastily prepared, and he was unchained and brought back to gaol. But back in the consistory court a few weeks later, he refused to recant again and ‘blasphemed more audaciously than before.’ On 11 April 1612, Wightman was led to the stake once again. This time, he was not given a second chance. A contemporary account says he ‘was carried again to the stake where feeling the heat of the fire again would have recanted, but for all his crying the sheriff told him he should cost him no more and commanded faggots to be set to him where roaring, he was burned to ashes.’

For some, Wightman symbolises the cruelty of a past age. Others have seen him as an early martyr for the English Baptists or Unitarians. But most historians dismiss him as being mentally unstable, a mad enthusiast, deranged, a spectacular curiosity or a deranged fantasist.

His execution may have inspired the founding Quaker, George Fox, in 1651, when he stood barefoot in the Market Square and denounced the city: ‘Woe to the Bloody City of Lichfield.’ Fox may also have been thinking of Thomas Hayward, John Goreway and Joyce Lewis. Frances Wightman moved with her children to London, and their descendants emigrated to Rhode Island. Finally, and after the restoration of Charles II an act was passed in 1677 ‘forbidding the burning of heretics.’

There is no plaque in Lichfield, nor anywhere nearby, to commemorate James Harrison, who was born in the Diocese of Lichfield and who became one of the York martyrs when he was executed in 1602.

Harrison was born in the Diocese of Lichfield, perhaps in Comberford, although we do not know where exactly or when. He studied at the English College at Reims in the Champagne district of France. He was ordained there in September 1583, and he returned to England a year later, in 1584, to work with the Catholic mission in England.

Harrison worked for about four years without coming to the notice of the authorities, until he was apprehended and arrested in Comberford in 1588 along with Thomas Heath, a tenant of the Comberford family, who was sheltering him.

After his release, Harrison moved to Yorkshire. By early 1602, he was ministering among Catholics in Yorkshire and was living in the house of a man named Anthony Battie or Bates. While he was there, Harrison and Battie were arrested, put on trial in York and sentenced to death for high treason.

The charge against Harrison was that he performed the functions of a Catholic priest, while Battie was charged with harbouring Harrison. They were hanged, drawn and quartered on the morning of 22 March 1602.

For many years, the English Franciscans at Douai, including John Gennings from Lichfield, kept Harrison’s head as a relic. Although he has not been canonised among the English Martyrs, he is counted among the York Martyrs, and he was declared ‘Venerable’ by Pope Leo XIII in 1886.

Lady Eleanor Davies was sent to Bedlam after pouring over the altar in Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

A generation later, Lady Eleanor Davies (1590-1652), a prolific writer and self-styled prophet, who published almost 70 pamphlets during her lifetime. Although she was not burned to death, her religious oddities also found expression in Lichfield.

She was the fifth daughter of George Tuchet (1551-1617), 11th Baron Audley and later 1st Earl of Castlehaven in the Irish peerage. She was learned in Latin, theology and law. She married the poet and lawyer Sir John Davies in 1609, and they were the parents of three children.

In 1625, she published her first pamphlet, A Warning to the Dragon and All his Angels, which related the Book of Daniel to political events of the day. Davies disliked his wife’s actions and burned at least one of her manuscripts. She responded by dressing like a widow and predicted he would die within three years – he died in December 1626.

Eleanor married her second husband, Sir Archibald Douglas, in 1627, but he too destroyed her manuscripts. After smuggling her illegally printed prophecies into England from Amsterdam, she was arrested, fined £3,000 and imprisoned. She had difficulties in trying to recover her portion of the family inheritance after being widowed and after her brother Mervin Audley, 2nd Earl of Castlehaven, was executed in 1631 on charges of rape and sodomy.

After her release, she was arrested again and sent to Bedlam after she poured tar over the altar in Lichfield Cathedral, occupied the bishop’s throne and declared herself the primate in 1637. She was moved to the Tower in 1638, but was released in 1640. She was arrested twice more for debt and infringing publishing laws. In all, she published 69 tracts before she died in 1652 at the age of 62.

Surprisingly, her nephew, George Anselm Tuchet (ca 1618-ca 1689), became a Benedictine monk at Saint Gregory’s in Douai in 1643. He was the Roman Catholic chaplain to Queen Catherine of Braganza, wife of Charles II, from 1671 until he was banished from England in 1678. He was debarred by an Act of Parliament in 1682 from succeeding to his brother’s earldom and estates.

Father Anselm was a contemporary of the Benedictine monk Father Francis Crathorne (ca 1598-1667), who was held in regard as a poet and a scholar, and who spent his last years at Comberford Hall.

He was born in Yorkshire ca 1598 and was professed at Saint Gregory’s in Douai on 29 June 1621. Saint Gregory’s, the oldest of the English Benedictine continental houses, was founded in 1606 in Douai, now in northern France.

Crathorne was at Saint Vaast in 1624, a Benedictine monastery in Arras, then part of the Habsburg-ruled Spanish Netherlands until it was captured by France in 1640. By the 1630s, Crathorne was part of the English Benedictine community at Saint Edmund’s in Paris. Saint Edmund’s Priory was established in Paris in 1616 by a group of English monks from Saint Laurence’s, Dieulouard.

The Benedictines had continued to appoint titular abbot and priors to the cathedrals and abbeys run by the Benedictine before the Reformation, and in 1657 Crathorne was elected the nominal Prior of Rochester Cathedral. These were Cromwellian days and he was still living in exile in France.

Crathorne sat in the Chapter of the English Benedictines in 1657 as the Procurator of the Province of Canterbury. At the Chapter of 1661, he became a Definitor of the Regimen. By then, the Caroline Restoration had created a more tolerant climate for Catholics and Crathorne returned to England as a Benedictine missionary.

Robert and Catherine Comberford seem to have had a private Catholic chapel at Comberford Hall, and Crathorne spent his last days there, living with the Comberford family until he died at Comberford Hall on 19 April 1667, in his 69th year.

The Benedictine monk Francis Crathorne spent his last years at Comberford Hall, where he died in 1667 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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