The Windsor Martyrs

Published in Windlesora 01 (1982)

Image above: the burning at the stake of Person, Testwood and Filmer outside Windsor Castle; below, the trial of Marbeck, Testwood, Person and Filmer, the punishment of London, Simons and Robert Ockham in the pillory. Woodcut by A.S. Part of the Wellcome Collection, reference 43475i (public domain mark).

The Windsor Martyrs are mentioned in local histories of Windsor and indeed roads have been named after them, and yet how many know the story? It was graphically recorded by John Foxe in his “History of the Acts and Monuments of the Church” more commonly known as Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, which was published in 1563. John Marbeck, one of the men implicated, was still alive and had helped Foxe when he was writing of these sad events at Windsor in 1543.

The story that Foxe sets out in great detail concerns five men: Robert Testwood, Henry Filmer, Anthony Pierson, John Marbeck and Robert Bennett. These relatively humble men were pursued relentlessly and it does seem probable that they were attacked in the hope of implicating highly placed and influential people suspected of sympathising with church reformers.

It must be remembered that Henry VIII lived and died a devout catholic. The Reformation began as a political revolution and the King would not countenance doctrinal changes. In 1539 an act was passed “abolishing diversity in opinions” which enforced belief in six fundamental Catholic doctrines and was known as the Act of Six Articles. It was at this time that the Warden of New College, Oxford, Dr. John London, a man who had been zealous as Thomas Cromwell’s agent in the dissolution of the Monasteries, became Canon of Windsor. Here he was active on behalf of the Bishop of Winchester, Stephen Gardiner, who was most assiduous in the persecution of “heretics”, that is those who were questioning long-accepted theology.

One of Dr. London’s spies was a lawyer, William Simons, who was soon bringing him reports of the priest, Anthony Pierson, who preached in and around Windsor. When Pierson was in the pulpit of Windsor Parish Church Simons made careful notes of his sermons and stored them up for future use.

Pierson’s unorthodox views were sympathetically received by the Church Warden, Henry Filmer, a tailor in the town. The Vicar of the Parish was Sir Thomas Meister whose preaching was approved by William Simons although Filmer considered it superstitious nonsense. He reasoned with the Vicar and introduced him to new ideas. This alarmed Simons who succeeded in persuading the weak-willed Vicar to complain about the Church Warden to Dr. Capon, the Bishop of Salisbury, in whose diocese Windsor then was. Filmer heard of this ruse and was able to get to Salisbury first. The Bishop listened to Filmer and agreed with him that what the Vicar was preaching was based on superstition and not on sound doctrine. What is more, Simons was eventually reproved by the Bishop for causing trouble. Simons never forgave Filmer.

Robert Testwood was in St George’s choir. He had a fine singing voice and the Dean and Canons enjoyed his animated company. He watched the many pilgrims who came to St. George’s and he was astonished to see what he considered the encouragement of idolatry in these simple people and expressed himself openly. The Canons became annoyed as they feared the loss of offertory money if pilgrims did not visit and revere the relics on show, and Testwood’s scathing comments particularly offended William Simons.

Dr. London carried all Simons’ reports back to Gardiner, the Bishop of Winchester, and they agreed that the time had come to halt the subversive undercurrent at work in Windsor. An approach was made to the King to allow for the search and seizure of heretical books and permission was granted for a search to be made.
A raid was carried out at 11 o’clock at night on the Thursday before Palm Sunday (16th March). Henry Filmer and Robert Testwood were arrested for having writings against the Six Articles in their homes, as were a minor lawyer in Windsor, Robert Bennett, and John Marbeck.

John Marbeck had been a lay clerk and in 1541 he had become an organist at St. George’s Chapel. His ability as a musician was acknowledged but he was not in any strict sense a scholar and theologian. Yet at his house, there were not only writings against the Six Articles but material for a Concordance of the Bible in English – “A Worke wherein by the ordre of the letters of the A B C ye maie redely finde any worde conteigned in the whole Bible“. As he had been engaged in preparing the Concordance for the past six years he had collected a large number of books and papers – a surprisingly large number in the view of the authorities. It became clear in his subsequent prolonged examination by Gardiner that it was considered he was incapable of doing such research alone and that he must have had the direction of a better-educated sponsor. Gardiner made every effort to discover who this person might be.

After arrest, the men were kept over the weekend in custody at Windsor. Robert Testwood was suffering from gout and he was allowed to remain at home in the charge of the bailiffs of the town, but the others were taken to prison in London. Although Foxe is not specific about Pierson’s arrest it must have been at the same time and his later indictment in Court made clear that it was because his preaching was in contravention of the Act of Six Articles.

At the beginning of John Marbeck’s imprisonment in the Marshalsea the conditions were reasonably lenient, but when he continued to insist that he worked on his own and there was no one else to name, the Bishop ordered that Marbeck was to be kept in irons and that no one was to talk to him or visit him – not even his wife.

Mistress Marbeck had followed her husband to London, leaving behind in Windsor a 3-month-old baby. In desperation, she pestered the Bishop until finally one day she managed to grab his gown as he was passing her, forcing him to stop and listen and she pleaded to be allowed a visit. It so happened that at this moment one of the King’s men, Henry Carrike, was passing and heard the Bishop’s vehement refusal. Carrike was the Marbeck’s next-door neighbour in Windsor and he immediately spoke on her behalf, saying that she was a good woman who had her own mother lying bedridden back at Windsor besides several children for whom to care. The Bishop argued that John was a great heretic but Carrike said that all he knew was that outwardly he was an honest and quiet neighbour. Finally, the Bishop was persuaded to allow Mistress Marbeck to visit her husband but he continued to press her to incriminate others and to urge her husband to do so.

On Saturday, 21st July, when they had been in prison for four months, Pierson, Filmer and Marbeck were brought to the town jail in Windsor. Testwood, still suffering from gout, was brought out of his home on crutches and joined them. Robert Bennett was reported to be “sick of the pestilence” and was left behind in the Bishop of London’s jail.
The trial was arranged for the following Thursday (26th July) and their accusers were so determined to achieve a conviction that they arranged for the jury to be specially chosen from among St. George’s tenant farmers so that they could be trusted to do as they were told. The prisoners wanted a jury of Windsorians who would know them or at any rate asked for a jury comprising strangers and local men in equal numbers. This request was refused. There were six judges, led by the Bishop of the Diocese, Dr. Capon.

The indictment against them all was of heresy. They denied the accusations, saying they were either misrepresented or that they had been deliberately slandered.

The case against Henry Filmer is given by Foxe in some detail and is indicative of the sort of story submitted to the Court. Henry’s own brother stood up in the witness box and said that Henry was coming from Clewer in the company of one or two neighbours, when they met. The court was told that on hearing his brother was going to hear mass, Henry told him “If that be God, I have eaten twenty Gods in my day”.

Henry denied the story and rounded on his brother, a poor labourer, and accused him of accepting bribery, pointing out that he had always helped him in every way he could. Henry then demanded to see the Book of Statutes under which he was accused and his wife managed to bring it to him. He said if he was to be judged by a law he had the right to see it and pointed out that “the law is that I have two lawful witnesses and here is but one”. He was told, “Thine heresy is so heinous and abhorreth thine own brother so much that it forceth him to witness against thee, which is more than two other witnesses”.

John Marbeck was accused of uttering sacrilegious words against the mass. He claimed they were not his own words but John Calvin’s which he had simply copied out, and that he had done this long before the Act of Six Articles was promulgated. However, as he could not prove when he had copied out the words, he lost the argument.

The jurymen went off to consider their verdict, and Simons took it upon himself to go and sit with them. Eventually, a man called Hide, from Abingdon, pronounced the accused guilty and they were told to prepare themselves to die the next day. Even then they were further tormented because on Friday the news came that they would not die that day. The Bishop of Salisbury had decided that there was something to be said for believing Marbeck when he claimed that he had written Calvin’s words long before. He wrote to the Bishop of Winchester who went to the King and obtained a pardon for Marbeck.

Why the pardon was requested and granted is not known. Some said that the Bishop of Salisbury’s conscience pricked him, others that the Bishop of Winchester hoped that now he could break Marbeck’s will and get him to indict others of heresy, yet others that the King admired Marbeck’s musicianship. At any rate, the town rejoiced at Marbeck’s release.

Pierson, Filmer, and Testwood were not so fortunate. There was no reprieve for them. Before their execution on Saturday, they were offered and accepted confession. Pierson’s confessor was a Canon, Dr. Blithe, with whom the irrepressible Anthony was arguing to the last. His parting shot was “Do you call him Dr. Blithe? I call him Dr. Blind!”
The three took their leave of Marbeck, praising God for his deliverance and asking for his prayers They were led through the streets asking people to pray for them and to stand fast in the truth of the gospel. It is clear that the crowds were deeply moved by their bearing and cheerfulness.

The route took them past the house belonging to Filmer’s brother. He called and called but the brother remained out of sight. “And will he not come?” said Henry, “Then God forgive him and make him a good man”.

On the low-lying wasteland which lay North of the castle and east of the hundred steps, the three men were tied to a stake, the brushwood was piled around them and they were burnt to death.

But what of Robert Bennett who was left in the Bishop of London’s jail suffering from the plague? Bennett was, strange to relate, a close friend of his fellow lawyer, William Simons. Although they disagreed profoundly on religion it is recorded that “in all other worldly matters they cleaved together like burrs”. Bennett’s wife went to see Simons in great distress and he agreed to obtain a letter from the Bishop of Salisbury asking the Bishop of Winchester to approach the King for a pardon for Bennett as he had done for Marbeck.

However, the investigations before the trial revealed that the priest Pierson had the support of friends at Court. An attempt was made to name these men and their wives and to indict them of being “aiders, helpers, and maintainers of Pierson”, and the request for Bennett’s pardon was forwarded together with these indictments to Gardiner. The papers were intercepted and brought to the King as a witness to the type of unsubstantiated evidence by which the martyrs had been convicted and others were to be indicted. The King quashed the charges against the members of his Privy Council who had been implicated, and he granted a pardon to Bennett. Upon further inquiries into the trial at Windsor, he withdrew his favour from Gardiner although the Bishop survived to conduct other infamous heresy hunts.

Dr. London and William Simons were arrested, examined before the Council, and found guilty of perjury. Their punishment was the humiliation of being made to ride, each with his face to the horse’s tail, through Windsor, Reading, and Newbury, and to stand in the pillory. They were then committed to the Fleet prison and Dr. London died there soon afterward.

Whatever may be our view now of the issues involved, there can be no doubt about the courage and steadfastness with which Pierson, Testwood, and Filmer faced trial and death. Foxe’s book, which included a woodcut illustrating in graphic detail the Windsor martyrdom, soon became one of the most widely read books in England. Those who witnessed the martyrs’ brave endurance and those who learned of it through Foxe’s book, were deeply influenced. The qualities displayed still command our respect and make the same deep impression upon us now as they did on the people of Windsor in days gone by.

Jean Kirkwood

Footnote: The Martyrdom almost certainly took place on 28th July 1543 and not in 1854 as is sometimes thought since the King was in France from 12th July to 1st October 1544.