410. THE PRESERVATION OF THE CONGREGATION AT LONDON.
No less marvellous was the preservation of the congregation in London, which from the first beginning of Queen Mary, to the latter end thereof, continued, notwithstanding whatsoever the malice, device, searching, and inquisition of men, or strictness of laws, could work to the contrary. Such was the merciful hand of the Lord, according to his accustomed goodness, ever working with his people. Of this great bountiful goodness of the Lord, many and great examples appeared in the congregation which now I speak of. How oft, and in what great danger, did he deliver them!
First, at the Black-friars, when they should have resorted to Sir Thomas Carden's house, privy watch was laid for them; but yet, through the Lord's vigilant providence, the mischief was prevented, and they delivered.
Again, how narrowly did they escape about Aldgate, where spies were laid for them; and had not Thomas Simson the deacon espied them, and bid them disperse themselves away, they had been taken. For within two hours the constable, coming to the house after they were gone, demanded of the wife, what company had been there. To whom she, to excuse the matter, made answer again, saying, that half a dozen good fellows had been there at breakfast, as they went a Maying.
Another time also, about the great Conduit, they, passing there through a very strait alley into a cloth-worker's loft, were espied, and the sheriffs sent for: but before they came, they, having privy knowledge thereof, immediately shifted away out of the alley, John Avales standing alone in the mercer's chapel staring at them.
Another like escape they made in a ship at Billingsgate, belonging to a certain good man of Leigh, where in the open sight of the people they were congregated together, and yet, through God's mighty power, escaped.
Betwixt Ratcliffe and Rotherhithe, in a ship called Jesus ship, twice or thrice they assembled, having there closely, after their accustomed manner, both sermon, prayer, and communion; and yet, through the protection of the Lord, they returned, although not unespied, yet untaken.
Moreover, in a cooper's house in Pudding Lane, so near they were to perils and dangers, that John Avales, coming into the house where they were, talked with the goodman of the house, and after he had asked a question or two, departed; God so working, that either he had no knowledge of them, or no power to apprehend them.
But they never escaped more hardly, than once in Thames Street in the night time, where the house being beset with enemies, yet, as the Lord would, they were delivered by the means of a mariner, who being at that present in the same company, and seeing no other way to avoid, plucked off his slops and swam to the next boat, and so rowed the company over, using his shoes instead of oars; and so the jeopardy was despatched.
I have heard of one, who being sent to them to take their names, and to espy their doings, yet, in being amongst them, was converted, and cried them all mercy.
What should I speak of the extreme and present danger which that godly company was in at the taking of Master Rough their minister, and Cutbert Symson their deacon, had not the Lord's providence given knowledge before to Master Rough in his sleep, that Cutbert Symson should leave behind him at home the book of all their names, which he was wont to carry about with him; whereof mention is made before.
In this church or congregation there were sometimes forty, sometimes a hundred, sometimes two hundred, sometimes more and sometimes less. About the latter time of Queen Mary it greatly increased. From the first beginning, which was about the first entry at Queen Mary's reign, they had divers ministers; first Master Seamier, then Thomas Foule, after him Master Rough, then Master Augustine Bernher, and last Master Bentham; concerning the deliverance of which Master Bentham, (being now bishop of Coventry and Lichfield,) God's mighty providence most notably is to be considered. For how is it possible, by man's estimation, for the said Master Bentham to have escaped, had not the present power of the Lord, passing all men's expectation, been pressed and ready to help his servant in such a strait! The story and case is this:
At what time the seven last burnt in Smithfield, mentioned in this book before, were condemned and brought to the stake to suffer, came down in the name of the king and queen a proclamation, being twice pronounced openly to the people, (first at Newgate, then at the stake where they should suffer,) straitly charging and commanding, that no man should either pray for them, or speak to them, or once say, God help them.
It was appointed before, of the godly there standing together, which was a great multitude, that so soon as the prisoners should be brought, they should go to them to embrace and to comfort them; and so they did. For as the said martyrs were coming towards the place in the people's sight, being brought with bills and glaves, (as the custom is,) the godly multitude and congregation with a general sway made toward the prisoners, in such manner that the bill-men and the other officers, being all thrust back, could nothing do, nor any thing come nigh. So the godly people meeting, and embracing and kissing them, brought them in their arms (which might as easily have conveyed them clean away) unto the place where they should suffer.
This done, and the people giving place to the officers, the proclamation with a loud voice was read to the people, containing (as is before said) in the king and queen's name, that no man should pray for them, or once speak a word unto them, &c. Master Bentham, the minister then of the congregation, not sparing for that, but as zeal and Christian charity moved him, and seeing the fire set to them, turning his eyes to the people, cried and said, "We know they are the people of God, and therefore we cannot choose but wish well to them, and say, God strengthen them:" and so boldly he said, "Almighty God, for Christ's sake, strengthen them!" With that all the people, with a whole consent and one voice, followed and said, "Amen, Amen! ", The noise whereof was so great, and the cries thereof so many, that the officers could not tell what to say, or whom to accuse. And thus much concerning the congregation of the faithful assembling together at London, in the time of Queen Mary.
The said Master Bentham another time, as he passed through St. Katharine's, intending to walk and take the air abroad, was enforced by two or three men, approaching upon him, needs to go with them to a place whither they would lead him. Master Bentham, astonied at the suddenness of the matter, and marvelling what the thing should be, required what their purpose was, or whither they would have him. They answered, that by the occasion of a man there found drowned, the coroner's quest was called, and charged to sit upon him, of the which quest he must of necessity be one, &c. He again, loth to meddle in the matter, excused himself, alleging that in such kind of matters he had no skill, and less experience: if it would please them to let him go, they should meet with others more meet for their purpose. But when with this they would not be satisfied, he alleged further, that he was a scholar of Oxford, and thereby was privileged from being of any inquest. The coroner demanded the sight of his privilege. He said, if he would give him leave, he would fetch it. Then said the coroner, the queen must be served without all delay; and so constrained him notwithstanding to be with them in hearing the matter.
Being brought to the house where the coroner and the rest of the quest were sitting, as the manner is, a book was offered to him to swear upon. Master Bentham, opening the book, and seeing it was a papistical primer, refused to swear thereupon, and declared moreover what superstition in that book was contained. "What! "said the coroner; "I think we shall have here a heretic among us." And upon that, after much reasoning amongst them, he was committed to the custody of an officer, till further examination: by occasion whereof, to all men's reason, hard it had been and inevitable for Master Bentham to have escaped, had not the Lord helped, where man was not able. What followed? Incontinent as they were thus contending and debating about matters of heresy, suddenly cometh the coroner of the admiralty, disannulling and repealing the order and calling of that inquest, for that it was (as he said) pertaining to his office; and therefore the other coroner and his company in that place had nothing to do. And so the first coroner was discharged and displaced; by reason whereof Master Bentham escaped their hands, having no more said unto him.