A recent trip to the pub took me into a new part of Exeter, and on my way there I stumbled across a fascinating snapshot of its history. At the corner of Barnfield and Denmark roads I came to a memorial in the form of an obelisk of Dartmoor granite, with four bronze panels around its base. I assumed it was a twentieth-century war memorial, and went to have a closer look at the bronze reliefs – hey, I’m a historian, my profession compels me to! On examination, I was surprised to discover not a weary line of soldiers in metal helmets, but instead what appeared to be a monk fixing a notice to a wooden door, and I didn’t need the inscription to tell me the door belonged to Exeter Cathedral – an angel from the first tier of sculptures on the West front is clearly depicted on the right hand side. What’s more, a second bronze showed a women chained to a post, clearly suffering a fiery death at the hands of the authorities. Reading the inscriptions, I realised that I had chanced upon a memorial to two sixteenth-century Protestant martyrs who had met their deaths in Exeter.
Firing up the computer on my return home, I soon disappeared down the rabbit hole of the city’s history and our memories, stories about and uses of our past. My initial idea for a brief post mutated into a series of linked musings on the tangled threads of the regional and national history, in all its venerable and unsavoury glory. I’ll be publishing one each day this week. Today I start with the story of the two martyrs commemorated on the memorial, Thomas Benet and Agnes Prest.
Exeter’s Protestant Martyrs
The monk-like-figure is not a monk, but Thomas Benet, who was executed for heresy in January 1532, during the reign of Henry VIII (just before the Submission of the Clergy and the king’s marriage to Boleyn). Benet has a lengthy entry in John Foxe’s Actes and Monuments – the full text is Book 8, page 1219 (1570 edition).
Benet had an eventful life – he became an evangelical convert whilst at Cambridge in the early 1520s and later visited Martin Luther in Germany, before moving to Devon and becoming a schoolmaster in 1524, latterly in Exeter’s Butcher Row (Smithen Street). According to Foxe, whilst in Exeter Benet was troubled by what he considered to be the blasphemous and idolatrous Catholic Church, so he wrote down his thoughts on ‘certain scrolls of paper, which in secret manner he set up upon the doors of the Cathedral Church of the City’. This is the event depicted on the bronze on the memorial – presumably Benet had been inspired by Luther’s more famous example. Benet’s scrolls denounced the Pope as antichrist and stated that only God should be worshipped, not saints. Horrified, the mayor and local officials in Exeter started hunting for the heretical author of the scrolls. The surviving accounts conflict as to the exact events leading up to Benet’s arrest, but I favour the one where he attended his own excommunication ceremony in the Cathedral, watching as he was denounced as a ‘foul and abominable heretic’, cursed, and cast out from the Christian community. Benet supposedly found the whole ‘bell, book and candle’ ritual so ridiculous that he fell into a fit of uncontrollable laughter, at which point he was espied and promptly taken into custody by the authorities. Following a week long interrogation in which Benet displayed his soundly reformed religious beliefs, he was sentenced to death and burnt at Liverydole in Heavitree in January 1532.
The second victim commemorated on Exeter’s memorial is Agnes Prest, who suffered at Southernhay in 1557, during the reign of Mary I. She is also included in Foxe. A shorter entry in the 1563 first edition appeared in the appendix (page 1822), this was expanded upon in the 1570 second edition – Foxe had evidently uncovered more details about her case in the ensuing years. Agnes Prest was from near Launceston in Cornwall, she was described as honest, ‘very simple, but of good zeal and upright life’. Despite being an illiterate women living under a Catholic regime, in Foxe’s 1563 account, Prest was converted by God’s word, and thereafter framed her life under the rule of scripture only. She was discovered by the authorities, imprisoned and interrogated over a number of months before being sentenced and executed.
The later, updated narrative offers quite a different version of events. In the 1570 account, we learn that Prest had a husband a children in Launceston. She independently came to criticise the practices of the Church, and calling on God for assistance one night, ‘there came to her a certain motion and a feeling of singular comfort’. She promptly left her family, seeking a living by labour and spinning, earning money where she could. However Prest was compelled to return to her husband (the account does not have details on what or who compels her), and subsequently her neighbours reported her to the authorities. Prest was taken to Exeter and presented to the Bishop, who charged her with speaking against transubstantiation and images, denouncing her as a ‘iolly Protestant’. However at this stage the Bishop concluded that she was a ‘mased creature and not in her perfect wit’ and she was given her liberty. Subsequently Prest continued to speak against the mass, and she refused to return to Cornwall with her husband when he came to collect her. Questioned again, Prest declared that the Pope was the Devil, claimed that confession and purgatory were ‘foolish inventions’, and that prayers to the dead, holy water and indulgences were ‘abominations’. At this, the authorities perceived her to be past all remedy, and she was sentenced to death by burning outside the city walls, at Southernhay. There is a woodcut accompanying her entry in Foxe, and the commentary on the online text points out that Prest was considered sufficiently important to warrant a new, small woodcut depicting her ordeal at the stake, with strong individual features.
Over the next few days I hope to show how this deceptively simple narrative conceals some fascinating depth:
- 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 I: Jonathan jumps on the bandwagon with his own example of a similar monument in Norwich.
- Appendix II: further ‘monumental’ discoveries in Oxford and the Wye Valley.