Over 460 years ago, on 4 February 1555, John Rogers was tied to a post in Smithfield, London, firewood was heaped around him, and he was burned to death — because he was an evangelical Christian.
In the next three and a half years, nearly 300 more martyrs died in the same way. Our generation must not forget the spiritual inheritance these men and women have left us.
On 19 July 1553 Mary Tudor (Mary I) was proclaimed Queen of England in London, ending a chaotic ten or so days since the death of her Protestant half-brother Edward VI. Uncertainty had been caused by an unsuccessful attempt to overturn Henry VIII’s will, which left the throne to Mary if Edward died without surviving children.
The Duke of Northumberland, who effectively ruled England during Edward VI’s minority, hoped to preserve his own power by putting his daughter-in-law, Lady Jane Grey, on the throne. Jane was a junior member of the Tudor dynasty and a fervent Protestant, so Northumberland planned to rally support by posing as the champion of Edward’s Protestant settlement of the Church of England.
His gerrymandering deceived few and collapsed in the face of widespread opposition. Effective support for Mary actually came from areas of the country where Protestantism was strongest.
The new queen was passionately loyal to the memory of Catherine of Aragon, her rejected Roman Catholic Spanish mother. She had resisted every attempt to win her for Protestantism during her brother’s reign. Now, in the summer of 1553, Mary’s opportunity had come.
She was 37 years old, set in her ways and determined to sweep away the Protestantism of her brother and restore the supremacy of the pope, destroyed by her father Henry VIII.
She received a rapturous welcome as she rode into London, but, in the words of Geoffrey Elton, her ‘triumphant success owed everything to her being King Henry’s daughter and very little to her Catholic faith’. The Venetian ambassador wrote that the new queen ‘scorned to be English and boasted of her descent from Spain’.
Supporters have described Mary as one of the most merciful of the Tudor sovereigns. She was certainly reluctant to impose the death sentence for treason on political offenders and could show acts of personal kindness. But to opponents of the Roman Church she was ruthless.
Over 150 years earlier, Parliament had imposed the death penalty for those who rejected the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. Suspected heretics would be tried by a bishop’s court which would determine guilt. Every effort would be made to make the accused recant. If he did, a public penance would be imposed and his sin would be absolved. Otherwise, he would be handed over to the secular authorities for execution by burning.
These laws had all been repealed by Parliament under Edward VI, and initially Mary had to proceed with care. When she came to the throne, it was illegal to say mass or conduct services according to Roman Catholic ritual.
Although Parliament alone could change this order, Mary’s Romanist supporters began to celebrate mass as soon as she arrived in the capital. For several months, Protestant worship remained legal. A new Parliament was elected, but it included a substantial Protestant minority and it was only after ‘a marvellous dispute’ that it agreed to repeal Edward’s legislation and restore the form of worship that had obtained under Henry VIII.
Although in the summer and autumn of 1553 Protestantism was no crime, there was an ominous threat of persecution. Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury and compiler of the Book of Common Prayer, was allowed to conduct a Protestant burial service for Edward VI, but was arrested shortly afterwards for his support of Lady Jane Grey.
With other conspirators, he was tried and sentenced to death on a charge of treason in November 1553. The sentence was not however carried out immediately. Mary hated him. He had presided over the court which had annulled the marriage of Henry VIII to her mother Catherine of Aragon, and as the architect of ‘heresy’ in England he was reserved for special treatment.
The Queen ordered that married clergy should be deposed unless they renounced their wives and children and refused ever to speak to them again. To do this she reluctantly had to exercise her powers as Supreme Head of the Church of England — a bitter pill for so ardent a papist, but there was no other way.
Trumped-up civil charges were preferred against several prominent ministers. In these early months, a number of eminent Protestants fled abroad and found refuge in Reformation centres such as Geneva, Zurich and Frankfurt.
Many left the country illegally, but were helped by staunchly Protestant seamen from such ports as Rye in Sussex. Ministers usually considered it their duty to stay with those who could not flee, though they often urged those who could to leave the country.
It was not until a second Parliament had been elected that Mary was able to secure reconciliation with Rome and bring back the old laws for the burning of heretics, and then only after the owners of former monastic lands were secure.
John Rogers, the first Marian martyr, was a lecturer in divinity at St Paul’s Cathedral, London. His experience at this time reflects that of many other faithful believers. Ten days after the arrival of Mary in London, she ordered Dr Bourne (a Roman Catholic apologist) to preach at Paul’s Cross, a site for open-air preaching.
It was an important occasion and the Lord Mayor was present, together with Edmund Bonner, soon to become Bishop of London. Bourne launched into a fierce attack on the Protestants. Followers of the Protestant faith who were in the crowd began to protest and, although the Lord Mayor appealed for calm, their objections became stronger.
The situation turned nasty when someone threw a dagger at Bourne. John Bradford and John Rogers were present, and realised the dangers of a riot breaking out. They also believed that Bourne should be given a hearing, as he had been sent by the Queen.
Mounting the pulpit, they appealed for calm and secured a sullen silence. When Bourne had finished, they escorted him to the safety of a nearby grammar school. Their reward was a summons to appear before the Lord Chancellor, Bishop Gardiner, where they were accused of causing the riot.
Although they pointed out that they had prevented it, it was alleged that they must be the ringleaders because the crowd responded to them and not to the Lord Mayor. Bradford was sent to the Tower and Rogers was confined under house arrest.
John Rogers was a prominent scholar. A Cambridge graduate, like William Tyndale, he showed a flair for languages. Appointed chaplain to the English merchants in Antwerp in 1534, he must have known Tyndale. While in Antwerp he married a Flemish lady and as a married minister of the gospel publicly identified himself with the Protestant Reformation.
At some stage, Rogers acquired Tyndale’s unpublished manuscripts. These made up a substantial part of a new edition of the Bible printed in Antwerp and known as Matthews’ Bible. ‘Thomas Matthews’ was actually John Rogers’ pseudonym.
To produce a study Bible, he translated notes from the French Bible of Jacques Lefèvre. David Daniell has commented ‘John Rogers needs more recognition for his contribution to marginal elucidation’. It was Matthews’ Bible that Henry VIII licensed for use in England with copies in the parish churches.
Rogers’ Bible might be read throughout England, but it was too dangerous a place for him as a married priest. So he moved to Germany to serve a Lutheran church. Philip Melanchthon paid tribute to his integrity, trustworthiness and constancy, writing that he was ‘a learned man … gifted with great ability which he sets off with a noble character’.
In Edward VI’s reign, Rogers returned to England and quickly rose to prominence as a gifted preacher in London, where Bishop Ridley gave him important preaching responsibilities at the cathedral.
Not surprisingly, Rogers was in the first group to be brought before Mary’s commission of bishops and lawyers in 1555. Also included were John Hooper, Rowland Taylor, Lawrence Saunders, William Barlow and Edward Crome.
With the exception of Barlow, all stood firm and paid the price of martyrdom. Those who had married were bitterly denounced, but their most serious offences were rejecting the supremacy of the pope and denying the doctrine of transubstantiation.
After condemnation for heresy, those who had received ordination as priests were formally degraded and handed over to the authorities for execution.
Rogers asked for a final visit from his wife, but this was refused. He had never seen the eleventh child born after his imprisonment. John Foxe recorded that he recited Psalm 51 as he was led from prison to Smithfield, and also that he passed his family on the road and was able to exchange a few words with his wife.
He remained firm to the end, praying as the flames wrapped themselves around him. In the words of Foxe, ‘he constantly and cheerfully took his death, with wonderful patience in the defence and quarrel of Christ’s gospel’. The constancy of John Rogers and his fellow martyrs challenges us. There are still countries where our brothers and sisters face cruel persecution and we pray for them.
John Rogers died because he could not compromise the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper. In the words of the Book of Common Prayer, he believed that the doctrine of the mass is ‘a blasphemous fable and a dangerous deceit’. That surely remains the case.
Robert W. Oliver was, for many years, pastor of the Old Baptist Chapel, Bradford on Avon, Wiltshire, and lecturer in church history and historical theology at the London Seminary. A longer edition of this article first appeared in Evangelical Times, March 2005