179. THOMAS BENET
The history of the persecution and death of Thomas Benet, burned in Exeter: collected and testified by John Dowel, alias Hoker.
This Thomas Benet was born in Cambridge, and, by order of degree, of the university there made master of arts, and, as some think, was also a priest; a man doubtless very well learned, and of a godly disposition, being of the acquaintance and familiarity of Thomas Bilney, the famous and glorious martyr of Christ. This man, the more he did grow and increase in the knowledge of God and his holy word, the more he did mislike and abhor the corrupt state of religion then used; and therefore, thinking his own country to be no safe place for him to remain in, and being desirous to live in more freedom of conscience, he did forsake the university, and went into Devonshire, A.D. 1524, and first dwelled in a market-town, named Torrington, both town and country being to him altogether unknown, as he was also unknown to all men there; where, for the better maintenance of himself and his wife, he did practise to teach young children, and kept a school for the same purpose. But that town not serving his expectation, after his abode one yearthere, he came to the city of Exeter; and there, hiring a house in a street called the Butcher Row, did exercise the teaching of children, and by that means sustained his wife and family. He was of a quiet behaviour, of a godly conversation, and of a very courteous nature, humble to all men, and offensive to nobody. His greatest delight was to be at all sermons and preachings, whereof he was a diligent and attentive hearer. The time which he had to spare from teaching, he gave wholly to his private study in the Scriptures, having no dealings nor conferences with any body, saving with such as he could learn and understand to be favourers of the gospel, and zealous of God's true religion: of such he would be inquisitive, and most desirous to join himself unto them. And therefore, understanding that one William Strowd, esquire, of Newnbam, in the county of Devonshire, was committed to the bishop's prison in Exeter, upon suspicion of heresy, although he were never before acquainted with him, yet did he send his letters of comfort and consolation unto him; wherein, to avoid all suspicion which might be conceived of him, he did disclose himself, and utter what he was, and the causes of his being in the country, writing among other things these words: "Because I 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."
But, as every tree and herb hath its due time to bring forth its fruit, so did it appear by this man. For he, daily seeing the glory of God to be so blasphemed, idolatrous religion so embraced and maintained, and that most false usurped power of the bishop of Rome so extolled, was so grieved in conscience, and troubled in spirit, that he could not be quiet till he did utter his mind therein. Wherefore, dealing privately with certain of his friends, he did plainly open and disclose how blasphemously and abominably God was dishonoured, his word contemned, and his people, whom he so dearly bought, were, by blind guides, carried headlong to everlasting damnation: and therefore he could no longer endure, but must needs, and would, utter their abominations; and for his own part, for the testimony of his conscience, and for the defence of God's true religion, would yield himself most patiently (as near as God would give him grace) to die and to shed his blood therein; alleging that his death should be more profitable to the church of God, and for the edifying of his people, than his life should be. To whose persuasions when his friends had yielded, they promised to pray to God for him, that he might be strong in the cause, and continue a faithful soldier to the end: which done, he gave order for the bestowing of such books as he had, and very shortly after, in the month of October, he wrote his mind in certain scrolls of paper, which, in secret manner, he set upon the doors of the cathedral church of the city; in which was written, "The pope is antichrist; and we ought to worship God only, and no saints."
These bills were found, there was no small ado, and no little search made for the inquiry of the heretic that should set up these bills: and the mayor and his officers were not so busy to make searches to find this heretic, but the bishop and all his doctors were as hot as coals, and enkindled as though they had been stung with a sort of wasps. Wherefore, to keep the people in their former blindness, order was taken that the doctors should in haste up to the pulpit every day, and confute this heresy. Nevertheless this Thomas Benet, keeping his own doings in secret, went the Sunday following to the cathedral church to the sermon, and by chance sat down by two men, who were the busiest in all the city in seeking and searching for this heretic; and they, beholding this Benet, said the one to the other, "Surely this fellow, by all likelihood, is the heretic that hath set up the bills, and it were good to examine him." Nevertheless, when they had well beheld him, and saw the quiet and sober behaviour of the man, his attentiveness to the preacher, his godliness in the church, being always occupied in his book, which was a Testament in the Latin tongue, they were astonied, and had no power to speak unto him, but departed, and left him reading in his book. As touching this point of Benet's behaviour in the church, I find the reports of some others a little to vary, and yet not much contrary one to the other. For in receiving the letters and writings of a certain minister, who at the same time was present at the doing hereof in Exeter, thus I find moreover added, concerning the behaviour of this Thomas Benet in the church:
At that time, saith he, as I remember, Dr. Moreman, Crispin, Caseley, with such others, bare the swinge there. Besides these, were also preachers there, one Dr. Bascavild, an unlearned doctor, God knoweth: and one Dr. David, as well learned as he, both Grey Friars, and Doctor I-know-not-who, a Black Friar, not much inferior unto them. Moreover, there was one bachelor of divinity, a Grey Friar named Gregory Basset, more learned indeed than they all, but as blind and superstitious as he which was most; which Gregory, not long before, was revolted from the way of righteousness, to the way of Belial: for in Bristol, saith the author, he lay in prison long, and was almost famished, for having a book of Martin Luther, called his Questions, which he a long time privily had studied, and for the teaching of youth a certain catechism. To he short, the brains of the canons and priests, the officers and commons of that city, were very earnestly busied, how, or by what means, such an enormous heretic, who had pricked up those bills, might be espied and known: but it was long first. At last, the priests found out a toy to curse him, whatsoever he were, with a book, bell, and candle; which curse at that day seemed most fearful and terrible. The manner of the curse was after this sort:
One of the priests, apparelled all in white, ascended up into the pulpit. The other rabblement, with certain of the two orders of friars, and certain superstitious monks of St. Nicholas' house standing round about, and the cross (as the custom was) being holden up with holy candles of wax fixed to the same, he began his sermon with this theme of Joshua, There is blasphemy in the army; and so made a long protestation, but not so long as tedious and superstitious: and so concluded that that foul and abominable heretic who had put up such blasphemous bills, was, for that his blasphemy, damnably accursed; and besought God, our Lady, St. Peter, patron of that church, with all the holy company of martyrs, confessors, and virgins, that it might be known what heretic had put up such blasphemous bills, that God's people might avoid the vengeance.
The manner of the cursing of the said Benet was marvellous to behold, forasmuch as at that time there were few or none, unless a shearman or two, whose houses, I well remember, were searched for bills at that time, and for books, that knew any thing of God's matters, or how God doth bless their curses in such cases. Then said the prelate thus:
The pope's curse, with book, bell, and candle.
"By the authority of God the Father Almighty, and of the blessed Virgin Mary, of Saint Peter and Paul, and of the holy saints, we excommunicate, we utterly curse and ban, commit and deliver to the devil of hell, him or her, whatsoever he or she be, that have, -- in spite of God and of St. Peter, whose church this is, in spite of all holy saints, and in spite of our most holy father the pope, God's vicar here in earth, and in spite of the reverend father in God, John, our diocesan, and the worshipful canons, masters, and priests, and clerks, who serve God daily in this cathedral church, -- fixed up with wax such cursed and heretical bills, full of blasphemy, upon the doors of this and other holy churches within this city. Excommunicated plainly be he, or she, or they, plenarily, and delivered over to the devil, as perpetual malefactors and schismatics. Accursed may they be, and given body and soul to the devil. Cursed be they, he or she, in cities and towns, in fields, in ways, in paths, in houses, out of houses, and in all other places, standing, lying, or rising, walking, running, waking, sleeping, eating, drinking, and whatsoever thing they do besides. We separate them, him, or her, from the threshold, and from all the good prayers, of the church; from the participation of the holy mass; from all sacraments, chapels, and altars; from holy bread and holy water; from all the merits of God's priests and religious men, and from all their cloisters; from all their pardons, privileges, grants, and immunities, which all the holy fathers, popes of Rome, have granted to them; and we give them over utterly to the power of the fiend: and let us quench their souls, if they be dead, this night in the pains of hell-fire, as this candle is now quenched and put out (and with that he put out one of the candles): and let us pray to God, if they be alive, that their eyes may be put out, as this candle light is (so he put out the other candle); and let us pray to God and to our Lady, and to St. Peter and Paul, and all holy saints, that all the senses of their bodies may fail them, and that they may have no feeling, as now the light of this candle is gone, (and so he put out the third candle,) except they, he, or she, come openly now and confess their blasphemy, and by repentance, as much as in them shall lie, make satisfaction unto God, our Lady, St. Peter, and the worshipful company of this cathedral church: and as this holy cross-staff now falleth down, so may they, except they repent."
[Note: "So far is this horrible curse from being obsolete, that there are several yet snore instinct with cursing in the Pontificale Romanum; a book in the possession of every Romish bishop and priest, and embodying the formulas according to which they bless and curse at this day. Popery accommodates itself to circumstances, but never changes.]
Now this fond foolish fantasy and mockery being done and played, which was to a Christian heart a thing ridiculous; Benet could no longer forbear, but fell to great laughter, and within himself, and for a great space could not cease; by which thing the poor man was espied. For those that were next to him, wondering at that great curse, and believing that it could not but light on one or other, asked good Benet, for what cause he should so laugh. "My friends," said he, "who can forbear, seeing such merry conceits and interludes played by the priests?" Straightway a noise was made, Here is the heretic! here is the heretic! hold him fast, hold him fast! With that there was a great confusion of voices, and much clapping of hands, and yet they were uncertain whether he were the heretic or no. Some say, that upon the same he was taken and apprehended. Others report, that his enemies, being uncertain of him, departed, and so he went home to his house; where he, being not able to digest the lies there preached, renewed his former bills, and caused his boy, early in the morning following, to set the said bills upon the gates of the churchyard. As the boy was setting one of the said bills upon a gate, called The little Stile, it chanced that one W. S., going to the cathedral church to hear a mass, called Barton's Mass, which was then daily said about five o'clock in the morning, found the boy at the gate, and asking him whose boy he was, did charge him to be the heretic that had set up the bills upon the gates: wherefore, pulling down the bill, he brought the same, together with the boy, before the mayor of the city; and thereupon Benet, being known and taken, was violently committed to ward.
On the morrow began both the canons and the heads of the city joined with them, to fall to examination; with whom, for that day, he had not much communication, but confessed and said to them, "It was even I that put up those bills; and if it were to do, I would yet do it again; for in them I have written nothing but that is very truth." "Couldst not thou," said they, "as well have declared thy mind by mouth, as by putting up bills of blasphemy?" "No," said he, "I put up the bills, that many should read and hear what abominable blasphemers ye are, and that they might the better know your antichrist, the pope, to be that boar out of the wood, which destroyeth and throweth down 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 blasphemous doings will thereby be opened and come to light; for God will so have it, and no longer will suffer you."
The next day after, he was sent unto the bishop, who first committed him to prison, called The Bishop's Prison, where he was kept in stocks and strong irons, with as much favour as a dog should find. Then the bishop, associating unto him one Dr. Brewer, his chancellor, and other of his lewd clergy and friars, began to examine him and burden him, that, contrary to the catholic faith, be denied praying to saints, and also denied the supremacy of the pope. Whereunto he answered in such sober manner, and so learnedly proved and defended his assertions, that he did not only confound and put to silence his adversaries, but also brought them in great admiration of him; the most part having pity and compassion on him. The friars took great pains with him to persuade him from his erroneous opinions, to recant and acknowledge his fault, touching the bills; but they did but dig after day; for God had appointed him to be a blessed witness of his holy name, and to be at defiance with all their false persuasions.
To declare here with what cruelty the officers searched his house for bills and books, how cruelly and shamefully they handled his wife, charging her with divers enormities, it were too long to write. But she, like a good woman, took all things patiently that they did unto her; like as in other things she was contented to bear the cross with him, as to fare hardly with him at home, and to live with coarse meat and drink, that they might be the more able somewhat to help the poor, as they did to the uttermost of their power.
Amongst all other priests and friars, Gregory Basset was most busy with him. This Gregory Basset, as is partly touched before, was learned, and had a pleasant tongue, and not long before was fallen from the truth, for the which he was imprisoned in Bristol a long time; at whose examination was ordained a great pan of fire, where his holy brethren (as the report went abroad) menaced him to burn his hands off: whereupon he there before them recanted, and became afterwards a mortal enemy to the truth all his life. This Gregory, as it is said, was fervent with the poor man, to please the canons of that church, and marvellously tormented his brains, how to turn him from his opinions; yea, and he was so diligent and fervent with him, that he would not depart the prison, but lay there night and day, who notwithstanding lost his labour; for good Benet was at a point not to deny Christ before men. So Gregory, as well as the other holy fathers, lost his spurs, insomuch that he said in open audience, that there never was so obstinate a heretic.
The matter between Gregory Basset and Thomas Benet.
The principal point between Basset and Benet was touching the supremacy of the bishop of Rome, whom in his bills he named antichrist, the thief, the mercenary, and the murderer of Christ's flock: and these disputations lasted about eight days, where, at sundry times, repaired to him both the Black and Grey Friars, with priests and monks of that city. They that had some learning persuaded him to believe the church, and showed by what tokens she is known. The others unlearned railed, and said that the devil tempted him, and spat upon him, calling him heretic; who prayed God to give them a better mind, and to forgive them: "For," said he, "I will rather die, than worship such a beast, the very whore of Babylon, and a false usurper, as manifestly doth appear by his doings." They asked, What he did, that he had not power and authority to do, being God's vicar? "He doth," quoth he, "sell the sacraments of the church for money, he selleth remissions of sins daily for money, and so do you likewise: for there is no day but ye say divers masses for souls in feigned purgatory: yea, and ye spare not to make lying sermons to the people, to maintain your false traditions and foul gains. The whole world doth begin now to note your doings, to your utter confusion and shame." "The shame," said they, "shall be to thee, and such as thou art, thou foul heretic! Wilt thou allow nothing done in holy church? what a perverse heretic art thou!" "I am," said he, "no heretic, but a Christian man, I thank Christ; and with all my heart will allow all things done and used in the church to the glory of God, and edifying of my soul: but I see nothing in your church, but what maintaineth the devil." "What is our church?" said they. "It is not my church," quoth Benet, "God give me grace to be of a better church, for verily your church is the plain church of antichrist, the malignant church, the second church, a den of thieves, and an awmbry of poison, and as far wide from the true, universal, and apostolic church, as heaven is distant from the earth."
"Dost not thou think," said they, "that we pertain to the universal church?" " Yes," quoth he, "but as dead members, unto whom the church is not beneficial; for your works are the devices of man, and your church a weak foundation: for ye say and preach that the pope's word is equal with God's word in every degree." "Why," said they, "did not Christ say to Peter, To thee I will give the keys of the kingdom of heaven?" "He said that," quoth he, "to all, as well as to Peter; and Peter had no more authority given to him than they, or else the churches planted in every kingdom by their preaching are no churches. Doth not St. Paul say, Upon the foundations of the apostles and prophets? Therefore I say plainly, that the church that is built upon a man, is the devil's church or congregation, and not God's. And as every church this day is appointed to be ruled by a bishop or pastor, ordained by the word of God in preaching and administration of the sacraments under the princes the supreme governor under God, so, to say that all the churches with their princes and governors be subject unto one bishop, is detestable heresy; and the pope, your god, challenging this power to himself, is the greatest schismatic that ever was in the church, and the most foul whore; of whom John, in the Revelation, speaketh."
"O thou blind and unlearned fool!" said they, "is not the confession and consent of all the world, as we confess and consent -- That the pope's Holiness is the supreme head and vicar of Christ?" " That is," said Benet, "because they are blinded and know not the Scriptures: but if God would of his mercy open the eyes of princes to know their office, his false supremacy would soon decay." "We think," said they, "thou art so malicious, that thou wilt confess no church." "Look!" said he, "where they are that confess the true name of Jesus Christ; and where only Christ is the Head, and under him the prince of the realm, to order all bishops, ministers, and preachers, and to see them do their duties in setting forth the only glory of God by preaching the word of God; and where it is preached that Christ is our only Advocate, Mediator, and Patron before God his Father, making intercession for us; and where the true faith and confidence in Christ's death and passion, and his only merits and deservings are extolled, and our own depressed; where the sacrament is duly, without superstition or idolatry, administered in remembrance of his blessed passion and only sacrifice upon the cross once for all, and where no superstition reigneth: -- of that church will I be! "
"Doth not the pope," said they, "confess the true gospel? do not we all the same?" " Yes," said he, "but ye deny the fruits thereof in every point. Ye build upon the sands, not upon the rock." "And wilt thou not believe indeed," said they, "that the pope is God's vicar?" "No," said he, "indeed." "And why?" said they. "Because," quoth he, "he usurpeth a power not given to him by Christ, no more than to other apostles; and also because, by force of that usurped supremacy, he doth blind the whole world, and doth contrary to all that ever Christ ordained or commanded." "What," said they, "if he do all things after God's ordinance and commandment: should he then be his vicar?" "Then," said he, "would I believe him to be a good bishop at Rome over his own diocese, and to have no further power. And if it pleased God, I would every bishop did this in his diocese: then should we live a peaceable life in the church of Christ, and there should be no such seditious therein. If every bishop would seek no further power than over his own diocese, it were a goodly thing. Now, because all are subject to one, all must do and consent to all wickedness as he doth, or be none of his. This is the cause of great superstition in every kingdom. And what bishop soever he be that preacheth the gospel, and maintaineth the truth, is a true bishop of the church." "And doth not," said they, "our holy father the pope maintain the gospel?" "Yea," said he, "I think he doth read it, and peradventure believe it, and so do you also: but neither he nor you do fix the anchor of your salvation therein. Besides that, ye bear such a good will to it, that ye keep it close,that no man may read it but yourselves. And when you preach, God knoweth how you handle it; insomuch, that the people of Christ know no gospel well-near, but the pope's gospel; and so the blind lead the blind, and both fall into the pit. In the true gospel of Christ, confidence is none; but only in your popish traditions and fantastical inventions."
Then said a Black Friar unto him, (God knoweth, a blockhead,) "Do we not preach the gospel daily?" "Yes," said he, "but what preaching of the gospel is that, when therewith ye extol superstitious things, and make us believe that we have redemption through pardons and bulls of Rome, and by the merits of your orders ye make many brethren and sisters; ye take yearly money of them, ye bury them in your coats, and in shrift ye beguile them; yea, and do a thousand superstitious things more: a man may be weary to speak of them." "I see," said the friar, "that thou art a damned wretch; I will have no more talk with thee."
Then stepped to him a Grey Friar, a doctor, (God knoweth of small intelligence,) and laid before him great and many dangers. "I take God to record," said Benet, "my life is not dear to me; I am content to depart from it, for I am weary of it, seeing your detestable doings, to the utter destruction of God's flock; and, for my part, I can no longer forbear; I had rather, by death, (which I know is not far off,) depart this life, that I may no longer be partaker of your detestable idolatries and superstitions, or be subject unto antichrist, your pope." "Our pope," said the friar, "is the vicar of God, and our ways are the ways of God." "I pray you," said Benet, "depart from me, and tell not me of your ways. He is only my way, who saith, I am the way, the truth, and the life. In his way will I walk, his doings shall be my example; not your's, nor your false pope's. His truth will I embrace; not the lies and falsehood of you and your pope. His everlasting life will I seek, the true reward of all faithful people. Away from me, I pray you. Vex my soul no longer; ye shall not prevail. There is no good example in you, no truth in you, no life to be hoped for at your hands. Ye are all more vain than vanity itself If I should hear and follow you this day, everlasting death should hang over me, a just reward for all them that love the life of this world. Away from me: your company liketh me not."
Thus a whole week, night and day, was Benet plied by these and such other hypocrites. It were an infinite matter to declare all things done and said to him in the time of his imprisonment; and the hate of the people that time, by means of ignorance, was hot against him: notwithstanding they could never move his patience; he answered to every matter soberly, and that, more by the aid of God's Spirit, than by any worldly study. I think he was at the least fifty years old. Being in prison, his wife provided sustenance for him; and when she lamented, he comforted her, and gave her many good and godly exhortations, and prayed her to move him nothing to apply unto his adversaries.
Thus when these godly canons and priests, with the monks and friars, had done what they could, and perceived that he would by no means relent, then they, proceeding unto judgment, drew out their bloody sentence against him, condemning him, as the manner is, to be burned. Which being done, and the writ which they had procured being brought from London, they delivered him on the fifteenth of January, 1531, unto Sir Thomas Denis, knight, sheriff of Devonshire, to be burned. The mild martyr, rejoicing that his end was approaching so near, as the sheep before the shearer, yielded himself with all humbleness to abide and suffer the cross of persecution. And being brought to his execution, in a place called Livery-dole, without Exeter, he made his most humble confession and prayer unto Almighty God, and requested all the people to do the like for him; whom he exhorted with such gravity and sobriety, and with such a pithy oration, to seek the true honouring of God, and the true knowledge of him; as also to leave the devices, fantasies, and imaginations of man's inventions, that all the hearers and beholders of him were astonied and in great admiration; insomuch that the most part of the people, as also the scribe who wrote the sentence of condemnation against him, did pronounce and confess that he was God's servant, and a good man.
Nevertheless two esquires, namely, Thomas Carew and John Barnehouse, standing at the stake by him, first with fair promises and goodly words, but at length through rough threatenings, willed him to revoke his errors, and to call to our Lady and the saints, and to say, I pray holy Mary, and all the saints of God, &c. To whom, with all meekness, he answered, saying, "No, no; it is God only upon whose name we must call; and we have no other advocate unto him, but only Jesus Christ, who died for us, and now sitteth at the right hand of his Father, to be an advocate for us; and by him must we offer and make our prayers to God, if we will have them to take place and to be heard." With which answer the aforesaid Barnehouse was so enkindled, that he took a furze-bush upon a pike, and having set it on fire, he thrust it unto his face, saying, "Ah! whoreson heretic! pray to our Lady, and say, Holy Mary, pray for us, or, by God's wounds, I will make thee do it." To whom the said Thomas Benet, with a humble and a meek spirit, most patiently answered, "Alas, sir! trouble me not. And holding up his hands, he said, "Father, forgive them." Whereupon the gentlemen caused the wood and furzes to be set on fire, and therewith this godly man lifted up his eyes and hands to heaven, saying, "O Lord, receive my spirit." And so, continuing in his prayers, did never stir nor strive, but most patiently abode the cruelty of the fire, until his life was ended. For this the Lord God be praised, and send us his grace and blessing, that at the latter day we may with him enjoy the bliss and joy provided and prepared for the elect children of God.
This Benet was burned in a jerkin of neat's leather; at whose burning, such was the devilish rage of the blind people, that well was he or she that could catch a stick or furze to cast into the fire.