Stratford history: from flames and death to peace and tolerance

A portrayal of the burning of the Stratford Martyrs Picture: Newham Heritage S

A portrayal of the burning of the Stratford Martyrs Picture: Newham Heritage Service: available to purchase at newhamphotos.com - Credit: Archant

In the Stratford of 460 years ago, the must-see public event wasn’t the Olympics – it was mass sectarian slaughter. But what lessons can we learn from the past about religious tolerance?

Queen Mary I of England and Ireland, bane of Protestants

Queen Mary I of England and Ireland, bane of Protestants - Credit: Archant

Four centuries ago, in a village not so far away, 11 men and two women were thrust among bundles of wood and straw and burned alive until they were nothing but ashes and dust.

Twenty thousand people came to watch this state-sanctioned murder – right in the heart of what is now Stratford – in 1556.

The group was executed as part of the sectarian slaughter that beset the kingdom of Queen Mary I, a savagely vindictive Catholic monarch consumed by anti-Protestant zealotry. The 13 were subsequently immortalised as the Stratford Martyrs.

“These were the show trials of the time,” Andrew Summers, historian and author of London’s Metropolitan Essex, says.

The memorial to the martyrs in the grounds of St John's church

The memorial to the martyrs in the grounds of St John's church - Credit: Archant


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“It is quite easy to draw parallels with the likes of Isis today.”

The Martyrs’ charges, Andrew explains, were utterly trivial: observing the wrong sacraments, possessing the wrong icons, even simply expressing a dislike for Mary.

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The horrifying brutality and senseless barbarism of these killings – one of the victims was pregnant – may astound and sicken us now, but is there anything to be learned from them?

“It was a low point in religious tolerance in this country,” says the Rev David Richards, vicar of St John’s Church – the site of a monument to the martyred 13.

A sketch of Newham during the Tudor period Pictures: Newham Heritage Service

A sketch of Newham during the Tudor period Pictures: Newham Heritage Service: available to purchase at newhamphotos.com - Credit: Archant

“I suppose they misguidedly thought they were doing good work – saving people’s souls from hell. But it serves now as a prompt from history, a reminder of the awful things we’ve done as a society.

“It also shows that even people of faith get things wrong,” he concludes, before rushing off to a meeting with “16 or 17” different church representatives – a living symbol, he says, that proves people can work together.

The memorial to the slain – a 65ft column in St John’s grounds – was erected in 1878.

Residents put forward the money for its construction with eagerness – but when it was inaugurated by the Earl of Shaftesbury, famous Victorian social reformer and prominent Tory, there was little of Mr Richards’ tolerance on show.

The memorial to the martyrs in the grounds of St John's church

The memorial to the martyrs in the grounds of St John's church - Credit: Archant

“We must watch every advance,” Shaftesbury said, “for although the majority of Catholics may be peaceable and orderly, there are many decided and many, I will say, wicked persons amongst them.

“Be on your guard forever against the Church of Rome. Be on your guard against the Jesuits. Be on your guard against the man on the throne in the Vatican. They are great dangers.”

Nothing unusual, according to Andrew – the Victorians were the first “professional spinners” in British history – and they had an imperial identity to craft.

But for Jon Cullen, conductor of All Saints Chorus at West Ham Parish Church and composer of Fire on the Green, an orchestral piece about the martyrs, the episode transcends religion and concerns human rights.

“It’s about freedom of expression,” he says. “And standing up for what you believe is right.

“People like Nelson Mandela have acted similarly – it’s all about asserting your right to say and think what you feel. That’s why I wrote the piece, and that’s why I think the martyrs should be remembered.”

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