Thomas Benet, Martyr.
 Cursed by Bell, Book, and Candle.

Thomas Benet came from Cambridge where he was also educated and graduated Master of Arts from that university. It is thought possible that he may have been a priest at some stage as in later life he disclosed that he had married and it had been a factor in his move to Devon .

 Benet was a quiet unassuming individual ,evidently well educated, and an acquaintance of Thomas Bilney. He became more and more disillusioned with the catholic religion and the issues surrounding it . The emerging dissent on religion that was gaining ground in Cambridge, caused him to consider his and his family`s safety and they remove firstly to Torrington,  Devon, in 1524. Here he taught local children but after a year and disappointed in the place ,moved again to Exeter where  the family settled in  Butcher`s Row. He again took up teaching. and spent his private time studying the Scriptures and attending all the sermons and preachings he could.

It came to his attention that a William Stroud  of Newnham, a complete stranger to him, had been locked up in the Bishop of Exeter`s  prison on suspicion of heresy. Benet wrote to Stroud  letters of comfort and consolation  and disclosed his background including  that he would not be

 " a whoremonger, or an unclean person, therefore I married a wife, with whom I have hidden myself in Devonshire  from the tyranny of the antichristians these six years.".

It seemed to be  a strange thing to do - to deliberately write  self incriminating letters to a prisoner held for heresy, since there was a strong possibility that the letters would be intercepted and read. However, it seems that Benet was going through a catharsis and began to be much more open and critical of the priests when in the company of friends. His fervour increased to such an extent that he became minded to " continue a faithful soldier to the end", convincing himself that he must die for his beliefs. He then gave instructions to dispose of his books, and in October 1530 wrote his beliefs and criticisms on scrolls of paper and secretly affixed them to to the doors of Exeter Cathedral. In this action, reminiscent of Martin Luther a few years previous, he was bound to excite the papists and his own pursuit. Inquiries commenced immediately, although the secular authority - the mayor and his officers were not greatly enthused to do so.

A week later Benet went on the Sunday to the cathedral where he came under suspicion but fooled the watchers by his attentiveness to the sermon, good behaviour, and reading a New Testament in Latin. Confounded by his outward appearances they were unable to find cause to question him. The prelates then hit upon the idea of cursing the unknown author `by Bell, Book and Candle`, in the hope that it might drive him into the open.  This elaborate process was devised by the Bishop of Winchester at the Council of London, ca 1144 AD.

The curse by Bell, Book and Candle.

The activity in the cathedral was deliberately dramatic to impress upon the audience the enormity of the curse being uttered.  A priest, dressed in white, entered the pulpit while around him stood several monks, one bearing a cross adorned with lit candles. The priest began with "there is blasphemy in the army" and then tediously went through the events complained of, concluding it was the actions of a foul and abominable  heretic. The formality of the curse was uttered and the priest beseeched God , Our Lady,  St Peter,  with all the holy martyrs and saints , confessors and virgins that it might be made known  what heretic had put up the blasphemous posters. The drama was then enhanced by a throwing down, with a startling and loud clatter, of the staff, signifying the the end of the curse.

Benet who was in the congregation watching, could not contain himself and began to laugh openly at the fantasy unfolding in the church.  Exclaiming to those around him  "who can forbear , seeing such merry conceits and interludes played by the priests" he was immediately seized, even though there was uncertainty whether he was the mysterious bill poster. He was released and went home, determined to post more bills, which were prepared for posting in the early morning of the next day. Fate then turned upon Benet, as his son was caught at about five am posting a bill to the church gate and taken before the mayor. Benet was promptly seized and thrown into prison.

The following day the interrogations began during which Benet was asked why he put up the bills rather than speaking out, to which he replied

" I put up the bills that many should read and hear what abominable  blasphemers ye are, and that they might better know  your antichtrist, the pope, to be that boar out of the wood, which destroyeth and throweth down the the hedges of God`s church; for if I had been heard to speak but one word, I should have been clapped fast in prison, and the matter of God hidden . But now I trust more of your blasphemious doings will thereby be opened and come to light; for God will so have it , and will no longer suffer you."

Thrown in chains and manacles into the Bishops prison, Benet was surrounded in the usual manner by friars and priests endeavouring to catch him out, find and verify heresies as they saw it. The inquisitors included an apostate monk, Gregory Basset.  Bassett had left the Church and been imprisoned several times. He then recanted when he was threatened that they, his interrogators, would burn his hands off in a cauldron of fire prepared for the purpose. He became a fanatical supporter of the Church. He was also a learned man and smooth talker, who was involved in disputing with Benet the matter of the Pope`s ascendancy and God`s representative on earth. Benet  repudiated the core arguement with ease, rejecting St Peter as the rock and keeper of the keys of Heaven, quoting St Paul  saying  the church should be  `Upon the foundation of the apostles and the prophets. The interrogations continued night and day for over a week to no avail before the writ of `de comburendo` arrived from London. On `15 January  1531 he was delivered into the custody of Sir Thomas Denis, sheriff of Devonshire, for execution which duly took place at the `Livery-dole`, Exeter. Even here at the time of death, the papists  Thomas Carew and John Barnehouse, could not let him alone. They shouted at him to confess, retract, and call upon the Virgin Mary . Benet replied that it was only to God that we should call . This so incensed Barnehouse that he speared some furze kindling on a pike, lit it and thrust it into Benet`s face, such was his intolerance and frustration at Benet`s repudiation of their demands to recant.

So died yet another humble man, sacrificed on the altar of intolerance and prejudice.

18/07/2011

Home Scottish Reformation The Covenanters Ulster Scots English Reformation European Reformation General Topics & Glossary My Books & Bibliography Contact