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The shocking story of the Suffolk Marian Martyrs

An engraving showing the martyrdom of John Rogers (1500-1555), the first of many English Protestant martyrs under Mary I . Photo: Getty Images
An engraving showing the martyrdom of John Rogers (1500-1555), the first of many English Protestant martyrs under Mary I . Photo: Getty Images

On a July evening 500 years ago, Mary Princess of Wales, daughter of Henry VIII, would have been arriving at the castle she owned in Framlingham. At about the same time, just a few miles away in Grundisburgh, a young woman named Alice Driver was most likely finishing an exhausting day in the fields, harvesting barley with her father.

The two women would never meet in person, yet Mary would be instrumental in the horrendously violent deaths of more than 300 people, among them Alice and at least 26 other Suffolk souls.

As Henry and Catherine of Aragon’s only child, Mary had a carefree childhood. But Henry's impatience for a male heir, his break from the Roman Catholic church, divorce from Catherine and marriage to Anne Boleyn, and his declaration of Mary’s illegitimacy, changed everything. Mary was reduced from princess to lady, and denied access to her mother. A wave of resentment, coupled with anxiety, meant Mary's teenage years were blighted by headaches, nausea, insomnia, irregular menstruation and depression.

Great British Life: William Seaman, of Mendlesham, died, with two other men, chained to a stake at Norwich, as illustrated in Foxe's Book of Martyrs. Photo: Newsquest archiveWilliam Seaman, of Mendlesham, died, with two other men, chained to a stake at Norwich, as illustrated in Foxe's Book of Martyrs. Photo: Newsquest archive

Furthermore, the arrival of Mary's younger half siblings, Princess Elizabeth, by Anne Boleyn, and Henry's much longed for male heir, Prince Edward, by Jane Seymour, brought a change in the line of succession. Edward was raised a Protestant, but in his will Henry named Mary, a Catholic, as Edward's heir. When Edward fell gravely ill at the age of 14, he surrendered the Tudor line in favour of his Protestant cousin, Lady Jane Grey, daughter of Henry Grey, Duke of Suffolk, and Henry VIII's sister, Mary.

A marriage was discreetly arranged between Jane and protestant Lord Dudley, son of the Duke of Northumberland. When Edward died on July 6, 1553, Jane was proclaimed Queen of England. Her reign lasted just nine days. Northumberland planned to capture Princess Mary and, fearing for her life, she fled to Framlingham to gather her troops. Public support for her grew, and at Framlingham she was crowned queen. Jane, very much a reluctant queen, was beheaded for treason.

For Mary, 1553 was a pivotal year; she married Prince Phillip of Spain, turned her attention to producing a Catholic heir and resolved to restore the Catholic faith to England. Crucially, Parliament restored medieval heresy laws which meant heretics could be killed and their properties given to the Crown. Those who refused to cease their 'heretical activities' – the fiercely protestant – were doomed unless they converted. Mary began to fight fire with fire.

It has been estimated that Henry VIII was responsible for about 72,000 executions; beheading, hanging, drawing and quartering, boiling and burning were the main ghastly methods. Mary chose to execute offenders by burning them at the stake. The first 'Marian' arrests began on February 4, 1555. It's impossible to understand the seemingly happy defiance of the Tudor martyrs; during Mary's reign, all were given a last chance to convert to Catholicism.

Great British Life: The memorial to Dr Rowland Taylor, rector at St Mary's Hadleigh, who was burnt for 'observing a Catholic service in progress which he resisted' Photo: Maggie AggissThe memorial to Dr Rowland Taylor, rector at St Mary's Hadleigh, who was burnt for 'observing a Catholic service in progress which he resisted' Photo: Maggie Aggiss

Dr Rowland Taylor had only recently been appointed rector at St Marys church in Hadleigh when he was arrested for 'observing a Catholic service in progress which he had resisted' and was imprisoned in London. On his way back to Suffolk, where he was due to be burnt, he is recorded to have been 'as merry as one going to a banquet or a bridal'.

Before his execution Taylor declared: 'I will tell you now, I have been deceived. There are a great number of worms in Hadleigh churchyard, which should have had jolly feeding upon the carrion, which they have looked for many a day. But I know we be deceived, both I and they, for this carcass must be burnt to ashes, so they shall lose their bait and feeding that they have looked to have had of it.'

Former East Bergholt rector Robert Samuel was one of the nine 'Ipswich Martyrs' executed for their Protestant beliefs. Robert was arrested for ministering privately. While imprisoned in Norwich castle he was chained to a post and fed 'three spoons of water and three mouthfuls of bread', allowing him to cling on to life just long enough to meet his execution date. Two young mothers, Joan Trunchfield and Agnes Potten, whose husbands had already been executed, were accused of taking food to Robert Samuel while he was imprisoned and suffered the same fate.

Great British Life: John Noyes, of Laxfield, was burnt at the stake close to where the village war memorial now stands. Photo: Maggie AggissJohn Noyes, of Laxfield, was burnt at the stake close to where the village war memorial now stands. Photo: Maggie Aggiss

Although clergymen stand out in the records as high-profile martyrs, many of the accused were skilled artisans and labouring farmers, and were taken to a variety of places for execution. James Abbess, a shoemaker from Thetford, and Thomas Cob, a butcher from Haverhill, were burnt at Thetford. James Abess, another shoemaker, was burnt at Bury St Edmunds, and Roger Coe, a shearman, was burnt at Yoxford. John Tudson, an artificer born in Ipswich, was burnt at Smithfield in London. Strangely, John Spicer a bricklayer from Winston, near Debenham, was taken to Salisbury for execution, while just a few weeks later his brother Thomas, a labourer, was taken to Beccles, where he was burnt alongside John Denny and Edmund Poole, both residents of Beccles.

Adam Foster, a married tenant farmer, and Robert Lawson, a linen weaver, both from Mendlesham were 'Taken at home from their houses before the sun going down' to Eye dungeon because they refused to attend church and hear mass. Adam and Robert, together with Roger Bernard, a labourer from Framsden, were all burnt at Bury St Edmunds. Shoemaker John Noyes, of Laxfield, having rejected Holy Communion was burnt at the stake in his home village, close to the site of the present 20th century war memorial.

One of the last people to be arrested was 30-year-old Alice Driver, married and living in Grundisburgh. Alice was in trouble for helping a friend, Alexander Gooch, a weaver from Woodbridge, who had refused to recognise the Pope as head of the church and to attend mass. Alexander sought refuge at Alice's home. Having heard they were in deep trouble, the pair hid themselves inside a haystack. Justice Noone's men, however, thrust pitchforks into the stack, revealing Alice and Alexander, who were taken to Melton Gaol before being moved to Bury St Edmunds to attend the assizes.

Great British Life: The inscription to the nine Ipswich martyrs on the monument in Christchurch Park, Ipswich. Photo: Maggie AggissThe inscription to the nine Ipswich martyrs on the monument in Christchurch Park, Ipswich. Photo: Maggie Aggiss

Appearing before Sir Clement Heigham, MP for Ipswich, Alice demonstrated that she was brave and determined. Sir Clement had already been involved in the burning of Agnes Potten and Joan Trunchfield, but Alice held nothing back, declaring that Queen Mary was a jezebel. Sir Clement ordered Alice's ears to be cut off immediately, which only seemed to strengthen her resolve.

'I am an honest poor man’s daughter, never brought up to university as you have been, but I have driven the plough many a time before my father, many a time, I thank God, yet not withstanding in defence of God's truth, and in the cause of my master Christ, I will set foot to the foot of any of you!'

On November 4, 1558, Alice and Alexander were taken to the Cornhill in Ipswich to be burnt. Many people came to shake their hands, causing chaos and interruption. Then Alice had a chain wrapped around her neck and was tied to the stake. Vocal and determined to be a martyr to her cause, she was recorded as saying calmly and kindly: 'Here is a goodly neckerchief, blessed be God for it.' The fire was lit.

Great British Life: The memorial to the Ipswich martyrs in Christchurch Park. Photo: Maggie AggissThe memorial to the Ipswich martyrs in Christchurch Park. Photo: Maggie Aggiss

Where to find Mary's Martyrs

More than 330 people were executed during Mary I’s reign. A memorial to 17 Suffolk Martyrs stands in the Abbey Precincts in Bury St Edmunds. There is a memorial to the nine Ipswich martyrs in Christchurch Park, Ipswich. Reverend Dr Rowland Taylor has a memorial on part of the old Aldham Common, near Hadleigh, and in Grundisburgh a road is named after Alice Driver.

Mary remained childless throughout her reign, enduring several false pregnancies, and her husband left her. Just 10 days after the deaths of Alice and Alexander, possibly as a result uterine or ovarian cancer, England's first Tudor queen died.

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