On this day in Tudor history, 27th November 1531, in the reign of King Henry VIII, Reformer Richard Bayfield was burnt at the stake at Smithfield for heresy.
The former Benedictine monk had been caught importing heretical books into England by Sir Thomas More.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t Bayfield’s first brush with the authorities. Bayfield had been in trouble for heresy previously so was now deemed a “relapsed heretic”. This time, penance wasn’t enough for his crime, he was condemned to death.
Find out more about Richard Bayfield, how he went from being a monk to a reformer, and how he ended up at the stake as a Protestant martyr…
On this day in Tudor history, 27th November 1531 (some say 4th December) Benedictine monk and reformist, Richard Bayfield, was burnt at the stake at Smithfield for heresy. He’d been caught importing heretical books into England.
Let me tell you a bit more about this Protestant martyr…
- Bayfield was originally from Hadleigh in Suffolk and his use of the alias Somersam suggests that his family was originally from nearby Somersham.
- He was ordained as a priest in 1518 at Bury St Edmunds Abbey and became chamberlain of the abbey. His role as chamberlain meant that Bayfield was in charge of organising lodgings for visitors, and this was how he met reformer Robert Barnes, who was visiting the abbey.. The two men became good friends. During Barnes’ time at the abbey, he was visited by brickmakers and Lollards, Lawrence Maxwell and John Stacy, who Bayfield also came to know, and who, like Barnes, influenced his faith. Barnes gave Bayfield a copy of the New Testament in Latin and the Lollards gave him Tyndale’s New Testament in English, along with The Wicked Mammon, and The Obedience of a Christian Man.
- Due to his changing faith, Bayfield ended up being imprisoned at the abbey, and, according to martyrologist John Foxe, whipped and put in the stocks. Fortunately, Barnes was able to get his friend released and on his release took him to Cambridge. There, Bayfield came into contact with other likeminded men, including Thomas Bilney and Thomas Arthur.
- In 1526, Barnes was apprehended for heresy and imprisoned in the Fleet, and Bayfield was sheltered by his Lollard friends, Maxwell and Stacy, before spending a few months overseas.
- In 1528, Bayfield was arrested and brought before Cuthbert Tunstall, Bishop of London, to answer charges of heresy, for “for affirming and holding certain articles contrary to the holy church, and especially that all laud and praise should be given to God alone, and not to saints or creatures”, and for saying that every priest could preach God’s Word by authority of the Gospel, and without the need for a licence. He was convicted of heresy, but, according to his later trial “abjured the said articles”, renounced them and promised to change his ways and avoid heresy, making a solemn oath on the book. He was ordered to do penance, and ordered back to Bury St Edmunds wearing his monk’s habit. Bayfield refused to wear his habit, but did return to Bury temporarily, before fleeing into exile in the Low Countries, avoiding completing his penance. There, he began supplying England with books relating to the reformed faith, including works by Luther and Zwingli. He sent two consignments in 1530 and another in 1531.
- Unfortunately for Bayfield, his second and third consignments were intercepted by Sir Thomas More, Henry VIII’s Lord Chancellor, a staunch Catholic.
- In late 1531, Bayfield was arrested in London while visiting a bookbinder. John Foxe writes of how he was betrayed and followed to the bookbinder’s. He was imprisoned first in Lollards’ Tower at Lambeth and then in the Coal House Prison. Foxe describes how he was “ tied both by the neck, middle, and legs, standing upright by the walls, divers times manacled” in the hope that he’d share the names of other people involved in importing heretical works, but he would not. He was interrogated by More. On 10th November 1531, at St Paul’s, Bayfield was tried by John Stokesley, who’d become Bishop of London the previous year, for his relapse of heresy.
- Bayfield’s trial lasted several days but it was found that he had “abjured certain, errors and heresies, and damnable opinions”, and that he had “brought in, divers and sundry times, many books of the said Martin Luther, and his adherents and complices, and of other heretics”. The court deprived him of his ecclesiastical office, and pronounced him a relapsed heretic, due to him going back on his promises to Bishop Tunstall.
Foxe describes how Bayfield “with a vehement spirit, (as it appeared,) said unto the bishop of London, “The life of you of the spiritualty is so evil, that ye be heretics; and ye do not only live evil, but do maintain evil living, and also do let, that what true living is, may not be known;” and said that their living is against Christ’s gospel, and that their belief was never taken of Christ’s church.”
On 20th November 1531, he was sentenced and turned over to the sheriffs to take him to Newgate Prison. Then, on 27th November 1531, he was taken to St Paul’s where, again, the Bishop of London degraded him and, according to Foxe, “took his crosier-staff, and smote him on the breast, that he threw him down backwards, and brake his head, that he swooned”. When Bayfield came round, “he thanked God that he was delivered from the malignant church of antichrist, and that he was come into the true sincere church of Jesus Christ, militant here in earth.”
He was led back to Newgate, where he spent an hour in prayer, before being taken to the stake at Smithfield. Foxe writes that Bayfield “went to the fire in his apparel manfully and joyfully, and there, for lack of a speedy fire, was two quarters of an hour alive. And when the left arm was on fire and burned, he rubbed it with his right hand, and it fell from his body, and he continued in prayer to the end without moving.”
- Foxe goes on to say that Sir Thomas More set about maligning Bayfield’s memory by claiming that he was a bigamist, having a wife in England and another in Brabant, but there’s no evidence to support More’s story.