The Windsor Martyrs
The condemning of Anthony Pierson,
Marbecke, Testwood, and Filmer with the burning if the said Pierson,
Testwood, and Filmer, under the castle of Windsor, here lively
described. Marbecke saved by the Kings pardon.
(The above image is extracted from the original)
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 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.
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
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 on the next day.
Even then they were further tormented because on the 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 the
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 had
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 were brought to the King as 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 enquiries 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 afterwards.
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 learnt 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.
Footnote: The martyrdom almost certainly
took place on 28th July 1543 and not in 1544 as is sometimes
thought since the King was in France from 12th July to 1st October
Windsor Home Page
contact us, email Thamesweb.