If you visit the churchyard of the Church of St John the Evangelist in Stratford, you can see a memorial to the Stratford Martyrs. According to some, this marks the approximate location where 13 people were burned at the stake by Queen Mary I because of their religious beliefs.
The Stratford Martyrs – The Marian Persecutions
By the time Mary inherited the throne from her brother, Edward VI, England was long used to religious turmoil and conflict between Protestants and Catholics. During the short reign of Edward, things had calmed down and the country was moving towards accepting Protestantism after years as a traditionally Catholic nation. Mary, a staunch Catholic, turned things around completely once again, dictating that England would have to practice Catholicism again. Anyone following the Protestant faith was guilty of heresy and ran the risk of trial and execution by the state.
During Mary’s reign, many people were prosecuted and executed because they refused to acknowledge Catholicism as the true faith. This led to Mary getting her nickname of “Bloody Mary”. In 1556, her reach extended to the East End of London with the execution of a group of Protestants who were to become known as the Stratford Martyrs. As you might expect, this name comes from the fact that they were executed in Stratford.
The Stratford Martyrs
There were 13 people executed in Stratford at this time. Eleven were men and two were women; all had refused to renounce their Protestant beliefs and to do what the Queen dictated and accept Catholicism as the true faith. Although general executions at the time usually saw the accused hung, drawn and quartered, Mary reserved burning at the stake while the victim was alive for heretics.
The martyrs did not all come from the East End of London, but were a disparate group who came from various locations including Essex, Hertfordshire and London. They worked in various trades; one of the women was prosecuted and condemned even though she was pregnant. All of them were brought to Newgate prison in London for trial by religious tribunal in June 1556. During their trial, they all agreed to their heresy or refused to deny it, despite attempts to get them to recant their beliefs, and they were consequently condemned to death by fire.
The execution of the Stratford Martyrs
Executions at this time were often open to the general public. They were a common source of entertainment and were usually well attended. This suited Mary who wanted to people to learn a lesson by watching the execution of heretics. The 13 Stratford Martyrs were executed on the 27th June 1556. They may have been killed in a relatively rural place at the time, but it is said that their execution day was such a big deal that it drew crowds of up to 20,000 people.
The 13 people were brought to their execution site in carts from Newgate prison early in the morning. Although they were all offered the chance to recant their heresy and spare themselves from execution, none took this opportunity. According to a report at the time, the eleven men were then all tied to three stakes, while the two women were simply left standing in the middle of the pyre. They were all burned alive at the same time.
The site of the execution of the Stratford Martyrs
Although there is a memorial to the martyrs in the churchyard at Stratford, it is not now definite that this was the actual execution site. Over the years, people assumed that this had been set up on Stratford Green, which could be part of the churchyard or part of the land upon which the nearby University of East London now stands. This green was often also called Gallows Green.
However, some believe that the executions were held elsewhere in the area. There have been various places that have used Stratford as part of their names in the East End over the years. It is, therefore, also possible that the executions took place in nearby Bow. At the time, this was known as Stratford-le-Bow.
The author, John Foxe, who wrote a book about Protestant martyrs, stated that the execution site was at Stratford-le-Bow. This may well be the more likely location, given that so many people attended the burnings, as Bow had the only area of common land large enough to accommodate so many spectators.
The Martyrs’ Memorial
The memorial in the churchyard at Stratford was not put in place until the 1870s. The church’s then vicar, Rev. Bolton raised money for the memorial from the general public. It carries the names of the 13 martyrs, plus a few others who were executed in the area for the same crimes at different dates. It also has inscriptions on it outlining the reasons for their deaths. The memorial is now graded as a listed building.