I now want to tell the story of the first recorded contact between the Anglican tradition and the Anabaptist movement, and I need to say at the beginning that my account will essentially be a summary of what Alan Kreider has written in his essay ‘When Anabaptists were last in the British Isles’ in the book Coming Home: Stories of Anabaptists in Britain and Ireland.
In April 1575 a small group of refugees from Flanders gathered on Easter morning in a private home to hear the Word of God and to pray. The group comprised fifteen women, ten men, and a young lad. But some of their neighbours had gotten suspicious about them; at nine o’clock there was a knock on the door, and there stood the constable and some beadles, who arrested the group and took them to the Mersey prison.
A few days later they were visited by Edwin Sandys, bishop of London, by two aldermen and four preachers, who confronted them with four articles that they must sign or be burnt at the stake. The articles were:
- That Christ had assumed his flesh and blood from the substance of the flesh and blood of Mary.
- That infants ought to be baptized.
- That a Christian might administer the office of a magistrate, and
- That a Christian might swear an oath.
They replied cautiously at the time, and over the next few weeks increasing pressure was brought to bear on them. They were kept in solitary confinement and were visited by church officials who continued to press them to sign the articles. Five of the men eventually recanted, but the rest held firm.
Five weeks after their arrest a Commission was appointed to examine them, including two bishops, two deans and several civic officials. When the prisoners still refused to recount they were separated; the women and the lad were sent to Newgate, the prison for those confined for capital crimes, where the pressure on them continued. Eventually this group was carted to a ship and deported to Holland; the young lad was tied to the front of the cart and whipped along the way.
Meanwhile attempts were made to forestall the execution of the male prisoners; overtures were made by the Dutch and French congregations in London and by John Foxe, the famous martyrologist, who disagreed with the Anabaptists but felt that it was wrong to persecute them. On June 2nd Bishop Sandys called them before his Episcopal court and threatened them with burning. When they refused to sign the four articles, he proceeded to expel them from his church. Hendrick Terwoort, one of the prisoners, said, ‘How can you expel us from your church, where we have never yet been one of you?’ Sandys replied that ‘in England there is no one who is not a member of God’s church’. He then condemned them all to death and handed them over to the secular arm.
They were taken to Newgate and put in a deep dungeon, where they were placed in cages so that they could not even converse with their neighbours. And in the end it was Queen Elizabeth who pressed the issue of their execution; she ordered Lord Chancellor Bacon to prepare the writ ‘for the execution of justice… and to give example to others lest they should attempt the like hereafter’.
One of the prisoners died of the privations of prison life, but of July 22nd 1575 the oldest two, Jan Pieterss and Hendrick Terwoort, were burned at Smithfield in the slowest way possible, without strangulation or gunpowder. Hendrick Terwoort was 35 and had been married for six months. Jan Pieterss was 50 years old; his first wife had been burned at the stake in Ghent, and together he and she left nine children to the care of his second wife, whose first husband had also previously been burned in Ghent for his Anabaptist faith. The other two prisoners were eventually released; as Alan Kreider says, evidently Elizabeth and her councilors felt that the two executions had made their point.
We know about these events because the Anabaptists left letters and accounts, and other people saved copies of their letters to the Queen and to John Foxe. All of these and other documents were passed down to Dutch Mennonites and were eventually included in the Mennonite equivalent of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, the massive‘Martyrs’ Mirror’ compiled by the Dutch Mennonite preacher Thielemann van Braght in the 17th century.
What were the points of disagreement between these simple Flanders refugees and the established Church of England? And why was the Anglican establishment so afraid of them? Stay tuned…