On this date in 1558, Protestant Cuthbert Simson or Simpson was burned at Smithfield — having withstood harrowing torture in the Tower of London.
As deacon of a secret congregation during the reign of the Catholic Queen Mary, Simson bore the dangerous responsibility of keeping membership rolls. When he was arrested as a heretic and a traitor, he was subjected to “enhanced interrogation” in an effort to obtain the identities of the whole coterie.
Protestant hagiographer John Foxe recorded an alleged last letter that Simson sent to his friends from captivity (updated to present-day English from the glorious original), describing what happened after he, Simson, refused interrogators’ demand that he begin naming names.
I was set in an engine of iron, for the space of three hours as I judged. After that, they asked me if I would tell them. I answered as before. Then I was loosed, and carried to my lodging again. On the Sunday after, I was brought into the same place again before the lieutenant, being also constable, and the recorder of London, and they examined me. As before I had said I answered. Then the lieutenant sware by God, I should tell. Then did they bind my two forefingers together, and put a small arrow betwixt them, and drew it through so fast that the blood followed, and the arrow brake.
1563 woodcut of Cuthbert Simson’s torture. (Source)
Then they racked me twice. After that was I carried to my lodging again; and ten days after, the lieutenant asked me if I would not confess that which before they had asked me. I said I had said as much as I would. Then five weeks after, he sent me unto the high priest, where I was greatly assaulted; and at whose hand I received the pope’s curse, for bearing witness of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
And thus I commend you unto God, and to the word of His grace with all them that unfeignedly call upon the name of Jesus; desiring God, or His endless mercy, through the merits of His dear Son Jesus Christ, to bring us all to His everylasting kingdom. Amen. I praise God for His great mercy shewed upon us. Sing Hosanna unto the Highest, with me Cuthbert Simson. God forgive me my sins. I ask all the world forgiveness, and I do forgive all the world; and thus I leave this world, in hope of a joyful resurrection.
Two associates, Hugh Fox and John Davenish, suffered at Smithfield with Simson.
18th century engraving (via the British Museum) shows a procession through the streets of Cambridge, with a separate scene depicting men burning both books and the two scholars in their coffins.
Both were Rhenish eminences of the reform movement, such early adopters that they embarked on their heresies from personally attending one of Luther’s earliest disputations, before his doctrines were officially excommunicate.
Bucer was a leading figure in the 1530s and 1540s struggle to keep unity among the competing strains of German Protestantism, and maintained an active correspondence with both Luther and Zwingli. The price of disunity was starkly underscored by the military rollback the Church achieved in the Schmalkaldic War of the late 1540s — and under growing pressure, both men accepted the invitations of Thomas Cranmer to cross the sea and reform the English liturgy.
Their labors there were but brief.** Each appointed to the Cambridge faculty, Phagius promptly died of the plague in 1549; Bucer outlived him, but he was in his late fifties and his health was failing. Before he too died in February of 1551, he produced a treatise to the young king Edward VI on government both ecclesiastical and secular, as well as recommended liturgical revisions that helped shape Cranmer’s 1552 version of the Book of Common Prayer.
If Bucer was fortunate to predecease Edward VI, his bones and Phagius’s would not be spared the Catholics’ wrath. In 1556, heresy proceedings (recounted at admiring length in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs) were opened against them by a deputation sent to cleanse Cambridge of its theological novelties. The Bishop of Chester conceived it a merciful example to be made:
If we had desired revengement, we might have showed cruelty upon them that are alive: of the which (alas! more the pity,) there are too many that embrace this doctrine. If we thirsted for blood, it was not so to be sought in withered carcases and dry bones. Therefore ye may well perceive, it was no part of our wills that we now came hither … but especially for the care and regard we have of your health and salvation, which we covet by all means to preserve. For you yourselves are the cause of this business; you gave occasion of this confession, among whom this day ought to be a notable example, to remain as a memorial to them that shall come after …
[I]f God, as he is slow to wrath and vengeance, will wink at it for a time, yet notwithstanding if we, upon whom the charge of the Lord’s flock leaneth, should permit so execrable crimes to escape unpunished, we should not live in quiet one hour.
Their condemnation was reversed a few years later, when Mary’s Protestant half-sister Elizabeth I succeeded the throne.
* 1557 by our present reckoning; England at the time recognized the new year in March, so it was 1556 to contemporaries.
** Though they hardly had time to make the impact on the English Reformation that they might have aspired to, Bucer had already influenced it in an important way: tracts of Bucer’s from years prior supporting more liberal divorce options, which had made Luther think the man a sybarite, had been fixed upon in the young Cranmer’s effort to construct a respectable theological framework for Henry VIII’s pursuit of Anne Boleyn.
The Martyrs Mirror hagiography of Reformation martyrs offers us these four stalwart subjects of the Habsburgs’ Low Countries patrimony:
On the last of January, 1550, there were offered up for the faith, at Lier, in Brabant, four pious Christians, named Govert, Gillis, Mariken and Anneken, who, as sheep for the slaughter, had been apprehended without violence. When they were brought before the council, and questioned concerning their faith, they made a frank and unfeigned confession of it. The bailiff then said, “You stand here to defend yourselves?”
Govert replied, “As regards my faith, I have freely confessed it, and shall turn to no other; though it cost my life, I will adhere to it.”
Forthwith the imperial edict* was read to them, and the bailiff asked them whether they understood its contents.
Govert said, “God has commanded us through Christ, as is recorded in the sixteenth chapter of Mark, that all who believe and are baptized shall be saved, and that those who do not believe shall be damned; but the emperor, in his blind judgment, has commanded that whoever is baptized upon his faith, shall be put to death without mercy. These two commands militate against each other; one of the two we must forsake; but everyone ought to know that we must keep the command of God; for though Satan teaches that we are heretics, yet we do not act contrary to the Word of God.”
When they were led to the tribunal, Govert said to the priests, “Take off your long robes, put on sack cloth, put ashes on your heads, and repent, like those of Nineveh.”
In the court the bailiff asked him whether he desired no favor.
He replied, “I will not ask for your favor; for what I cannot do without, the most high God will give me.”
The bailiff said also to Anneken, “Do you not desire a favor, before sentence is passed upon you?
She answered, “I shall ask favor of God, my refuge.”
Mariken, an old woman of seventy-five years, was asked whether she would confess her sins to the priest.
She replied, “I am sorry that I ever confessed my sins to the mortal ears of the priests.”
Seeing some brethren, Govert turned his face and joyfully comforted them, saying among other things, “I pray God, that you may be thus imprisoned for His glory, as I now am.”
The bailiff very fiercely said, “Be still, for your preaching is of no account here.”, “My lord bailiff,” said he,”I speak only five or six words, which God has given me to speak, does this give you so much pain?” And when the people murmured on this account, he said, “This has been witnessed from the time of righteous Abel, that the righteous have suffered reproach; hence be not astonished.” The two servants that stood by him said, “You must not speak; the bailiff will not have it; hence be still.”
Immediately God closed his mouth, which grieved many. Gillis was not questioned, and he said nothing at all; but they were led back to prison, where they rejoiced together, and sang: Saligh is den man, en goet geheeten; and also the forty-first psalm. The bailiff then came into prison, and asked Govert, whether he had considered the matter; to which be replied, “Unless you repent, the punishment of God shall come upon you.” The bailiff looked out of the window, and said, “Will God damn all this multitude of people?”
Govert replied, “I have spoken the Word of God to you; but I hope there are still people here who fear God?”
The bailiff then turned to Anneken, and asked her what she had to say to it.
She replied, “Lord bailiff, twice I have been greatly honored in this city, namely, when I was married, and when my husband became emperor; but I never had a joy that did not perish, as I now have.”
On his way to death, Govert delivered an excellent admonition, reproving the wicked railing, and said, “Be it known to you, that we do not die for theft, murder or heresy, but because we seek an inheritance with God, and live according to His Word.”
The executioner commanded him silence, but he said, “Leave God be with me for a little while; repent, for your life is short.”
A brother then said, “God will strengthen you.” “Oh, yes,” said he, “the power of His Spirit is not weakening in me.”
The monk attempted to speak to Mariken, but Govert said, “Get you hence, deceiver, to your own people; for we have no need of you.”
Entering the ring, Govert said to the gild-brothers, “How you stand here with sticks and staves? Thus stood the Jews when they brought Christ to death; if we had been afraid of this, we would have fled in time.”
They then knelt down together, and prayed; whereupon they kissed each other. Anneken immediately commenced to sing, “In thee, O Lord; do I put my trust.” The servants told her to be still; but Govert said, “No, sister, sing on,” and helped her sing. Enraged at this, the bailiff called to him a servant, and whispered something in his ear. The latter went to the assistant of the executioner, who, upon receiving the order, immediately put a gag on Govert; but the latter held his teeth so firmly closed, that the gag did not hinder him much, and he laughingly said, “I could easily sing with the gag on; but Paul says: “Sing in your heart to God.”
The executioner, in order to put her to shame, made Anneken stand in her bare chemise. A servant asked Gillis whether he did not see some of his people. Gillis said, “Do you know of nothing else to torment us with?” “What does he say?” asked Govert. “He inquires for our fellow brethren,” replied Gillis. Govert said, “Though I could count twenty, I would not mention a single one. You think that by killing us you can suppress the Word of God; but of those that hear and see this, hundreds shall yet come forth.” Standing at the stake, he said, “Amend your ways and repent; for after this there will be no more time for repentance.” A servant who had a bottle of wine, asked them whether they wished to drink. Govert said, “We have no desire for your insipid wine; for our Father shall give us new wine in His eternal kingdom.” When it was thought that the old woman had been strangled at the stake, she began to sing a hymn in honor of her Bridegroom, which when Anneken heard it, she, from ardent love, sang with her. When they all stood at their stakes, each with a strap around the neck, they smiled at and nodded to one another, thus affectionately saluting and comforting each other, and commending their souls into the hands of God, they fell asleep in the Lord, and were burned.
Schiemer abandoned a Franciscan monastery, preferring to set his table with honest labor as a tailor, and to succor his soul with that that new heresy minting martyrs in northern Europe.
In 1527, Schiemer was both a vigorous missionary and an eloquent proponent of the pacificism for which the sect would eventually become known. In Schiemer’s time, before the catastrophe of Münster’s Anabaptist theocracy, this was quite naturally a hot dispute among the persecuted adherents trying to determine how to make their way in a world where they were considered heretical even by the other heretics: turn the other cheek, or come like Christ with a sword?
Schiemer’s answer was for the true Christian to give himself to the ordeal of Christ’s cross.
[The Holy Spirit] teaches no one, however, unless he despaired of all human comforting and wisdom first. He does not comfort or strengthen anyone unless he feels a horror and turns away from all comforting and power of man. This is why the Lord says, “Do not be called masters.” But this master, Christ, does not accept anyone as His pupil or disciple, unless he renounces and hates everything that he has, and follows Him and carries his cross daily. In doing this, one has to trust in the Lord’s comforting and keep still, as the Scriptures say in many passages, particularly in the Psalms, the Prophets, most of all in Isaiah and the Lamentations of Jeremiah.
The strength of all Christians consists in keeping still, by not forsaking the words of the Lord so quickly, by not losing courage so soon, but by being patient, waiting for the comfort of the Holy Spirit, in the midst of the greatest desolation and misery. This is true weakness of which the Scriptures speak, in particular Paul when he says, “For when I am weak I am strong.”
He also says, “For as we share abundantly in Christ’s suffering, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.” That is what Christ means when He says, “A little while and you will see me no more, again a little while and you will see me.” And when the apostles asked Him what He meant by this, He answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice; you will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn in to joy … Indeed the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God.
It is often suspected that Schiemer’s execution on January 14 might have inspired the Rattenberg grandee Pilgram Marpeck to convert — for he was dismissed from a post as a mining magistrate on January 28, and thereafter became an influential, itinerant Anabaptist “wandering citizen of heaven” crisscrossing southern Germany.
Autos were also enacted for benefit of the subjects in the hinterlands of Spain’s global empire — especially since lapsed Jewish conversos, who were one of the principal interests of the Spanish Inquisition, were known to seek safety in the periphery.
All three were the playthings of Inquisitor Cristóval Sánchez Calderón — whose prosecutor’s office, then as now, enjoyed a wide scope for mischief.
According to the public domain The Inquisition in the Spanish Dependencies, one distant predecessor in the post had “aroused indignation” with his “arbitrary and scandalous conduct”: planting spies in the palace, and brazenly taking concubines. According to a report submitted to Toledo, this bygone inquisitor
was in the habit of walking the streets at night dressed as a cavalier, brawling and fighting, and on one Holy Thursday he supped with a number of strumpets … He was involved in perpetual contests with the [viceregal] judges and royal officials, whom he treated without ceremony or justice, interfering with their functions, of which a number of cases were given which, if not exaggerated, show that the land was at the mercy of the inquisitorial officials, who murdered, robbed and took women at their pleasure, and any who complained were fined or kept chained in prison.
But Inquisitors liked to keep busy with the pleasures of destroying the flesh, too.
Francisco de Ulloa, a Jesuit mystic “of little education but of high spiritual gifts,” had gained a small following who revered him as a saint by the time he died in 1709. For the Inquisition he looked like a possible exponent of heretical quietism, whose founder had been forcibly shushed by the Inquisition in the late 17th century. A half-mad expelled Jesuit named Juan Francisco Velazco was caught up in the same charge, and although he died in prison in 1719 the legal machinery proceeded against both he and Ulloa just the same — albeit without any great hurry.
Meanwhile, in 1726, a beautiful (multiple sources of the time dwell on this characteristic) noblewoman named Ana de Castro was turned in by a lover as a possible Judaizer. Her case along with those of the late Jesuit heretics languished for a decade for unclear reasons,* but when Calderon (who only became Inquisitor in 1730) turned his attention to her, she was tortured on three different occasions — treatment that her sex ought to have exempted her from.
Apparently (pdf) one basis of the case against her was her continued recourse to Jewish rituals learned in her childhood, whose observance she thought was immaterial to Christianity — things like Jewish mourning practices. But if the subsequent reports of the skeptical chief Peruvian inquisitor Mateo de Amusquibar are to be believed, Calderon was determined to send her to the stake in order to gratify his auto with a live human sacrifice. (Absent Castro, the auto’s apex sentences would have been mere floggings of various misbelievers and polygamists.)
In doing so, Calderon ignored an explicit directive straight from the mother country not to execute her; he may even have ignored Castro’s own attempt to claim the sanctuary of penitence — something her situation should have allowed her.
Amusquibar reported that the day before the auto she sought two audiences; no record was made of what occurred, but there could be no doubt that she confessed more than enough to entitle her to reconciliation; even if she did not entirely satisfy the evidence, what more could be expected of a poor woman in such agitation of mind…?
Amusquiar … states that there was no record that she was notified of the sentence; that the book of votes id not contain such a sentence and that, even if there was one, it was invalid in consequence of the absence of the Ordinary; moreover that, in spite of her confessions, no new consulta de fe was summoned to consider them. Altogether, if Amusquibar is to be believed, it was a cold-blooded judicial murder contrived, like the burning of Ulloa in effigy, for the purpose of rendering more impressive the spectacle of the auto de fe.
If the execution of the “Fourteen of Meaux” falls far short of the massacre of the Vaudois as regards the number of its victims, its strictly judicial character makes it more instructive as an example of the treatment of heretics.
In the year 1546 the Reformers of Meaux organised themselves into a Church after the pattern of that set up by the French refugees at Strassburg eight years before. They chose as their first pastor, a wool-carder, named Pierre Leclerc, a brother of the man who was burnt at Metz.
Their number increased under his ministry, and the matter soon came to the ear of the authorities. On September 8 a sudden descent was made on the congregation, and sixty persons were arrested and sent to Paris to be tried by the Parliament. Their greatest crime was that they had celebrated the Holy Communion.
On October 4 sentence was pronounced. Fourteen were sentenced to be tortured and burned, five to be flogged and banished; ten, all women, were set free, while the remainder were to undergo graduated forms of penance. The sentences were carried out at Meaux on October 7.*
Etienne Mangin, in whose house the services had always been held, and Leclerc, were carried to the stake on hurdles, the rest on tumbrils. They had all previously undergone what was known as “extraordinary” torture, and all had refused to reveal the names of other Reformers at Meaux. At the stake six yielded so far as to confess to a priest, thereby escaping the penalty of having their tongues cut out; the others who remained firm suffered this additional barbarity, which it was the custom to inflict on those who died impenitent. The congregation at Meaux was thus broken up, but the survivors carried the evangelical seeds to other towns in France.
The “Fourteen of Meaux” were not the only victims of the year 1546. Five others had already been burned at Paris, including the scholar and printer Etienne Dolet. Others were burned in the provinces. The next year, 1547, opened with fresh executions; and on January 14 the mutilation of a statue of the Virgin was expiated by a solemn procession at Paris.
Such was the policy which Francis I began definitely to adopt towards Protestantism after the affair of the placards, and which he put into active execution during the last seven years of his life. How far was it successful? As we have seen, it drove a large number of persons into exile; and these consisted chiefly of the better-born and better-educated among the Reformers.
It intimidated many into outward conformity with the Church. It prevented all public exercise of the Reformed religion, and all open propaganda. Religious meetings were held by night or in cellars; doctrines were spread by secret house-to-house teaching, or by treatises concealed amongst the wares of pretended pedlars.
On the other hand the frequent executions helped to spread the evil they were meant to repress. The firm courage with which the victims faced death did as much as the purity of their lives to convert others to their faith. Moreover, the influence of the exiles reacted on their old homes. From Geneva to the other Swiss centres of Protestantism missionaries came to evangelise France.
* There are some sources that aver Oct. 6, and it appears that the primary documents are not explicit on the exact date of execution. This Proceedings of the Huguenot Society collects a great deal of information about the Fourteen of Meaux and settles on Thursday, Oct. 7 (see fn 54, page 101 and fn 64, page 103) — in part because the Parlement also demanded that the heretical house be razed, with Catholic services to be held there every Thursday.
On this date in 1573, Antwerp burned a clutch of Anabaptists, including the martr Maeykens Wens.
Thereupon on the next day, which was the 6th of October, this pious and God-fearing heroine of Jesus Christ, as also her other fellow believers, who in like manner had been condemned, were with their tongues screwed fast, like innocent sheep brought forward, and after each was tied to a stake in the market place, were robbed of life and body by a dreadful and horrible fire, and in a short time were burned to ashes. The oldest son of this aforementioned martyr, called Adrian Wens, about fifteen yars old, upon the day on which his dear mother was sacrificed, could not stay away from the place of execution, so he took his youngest brother, called Hans Matthias Wens, about three years old, on his arm, and stood on a bench not far from the burning-stake to witness his mother’s death. But when she was brought to the stake he fainted, fell down, and lay unconscious until his mother and the others were burned. Afterward, when the people had gone away and he came to himself, he went to the place where his mother was burnt, and hunted in the ashes until he found the screw with which her tongue had been screwed fast, and he kept it for a memento. There are now, 1659, still many descendants of this pious martyr living well known to us, who, after her name, are called Maeyken Wens.
On this date in 1567, four Anabaptists were burned at Antwerp as heretics.
Their sect furnishes many martyrs for these pages. That Christian Langedul, Cornelis Claess, Mattheus de Vick, and Hans Symons were sniffed out and clapped in prison for their faith is no surprise for the time and place they lived, and that they withstood torture and went joyfully to the stake is the script demanded for historical remembrance.
Letters in the hands of three of these men (all save Mattheus de Vick) were retained by their comrades and eventually published in the Martyrs Mirror chronicle of Protestant (especially Anabaptist) martyrs during the Reformation.
Hans Symons and Cornelis Claess wrote words of exhortation to faithfulness and steadfastness. Christian Langedul’s letter, however, catches our eye for its very direct exposition of the nature of the torture that he and the others were put to. In a letter to his wife, Langedul doesn’t sugar-coat his situation in the least — and she must have known full well what their arrest would entail. Centuries later, it’s a discomfiting first-person account of what a man suffers on and after the rack.
we were all examined today before the margrave, and of us six we four freely confessed our faith, for it had to be; either the soul or the body had to be sacrificed; the Lord had to be either forsaken or confessed. Thus, Hans Symons, Cornelis the shoemaker, and Mattheus, confessed as also, I unworthy one, and I hope to keep it to the praise of the Lord, but not through my own power or merit, but by the power and grace of God; for through weakness we are made strong, this I must confess. Eph. 1:19; II Cor. 12:9.
Hence be of good cheer in the Lord, and do the best with the children, of whom I dare not think, for they lie heavily on my heart.
When the margrave examined me today, concerning my faith he asked me about nothing but baptism, and I held out against him as long as I could, by saying that I knew but one baptism according to the Gospel and Christ’s own command and injunction; but his constant question was, “Say yes or no, whether you are satisfied with the baptism you received in your infancy, or whether you have received another?”
I replied that I knew nothing to say about infant baptism; but this did not suffice, I had to confess that I had received another, and thus I confessed it, the Lord be praised, and I have not regretted it yet, and I hope that I shall not regret it unto the end, for it is the truth.
Know, my beloved wife, that yesterday about three o’clock I had written you a letter, which I now send you. I could not send it then, for soon afterwards the margrave came here to torture us; hence I was not able to send the letter, for then all four of us were one after another severely tortured, so that we have now but little inclination to write; however, we cannot forbear, we must write to you.
Cornelis the shoemaker was the first; then came Hans Symons, with whom also the captain went down into the torture chamber. Then thought I, “We shall have a hard time of it; to satisfy him.” My turn came next — you may think how I felt. When I came to the rack, where were the lords, the order was, “Strip yourself, or tell where you live.” I looked distressed, as may be imagined. I then said, “Will you ask me nothing further then?” They were silent.
Then thought I, “I see well enough what it means, it would not exempt me from the torture,” hence I undressed, and fully resigned myself to the Lord: to die. Then they racked me dreadfully, twisting off two cords, I believe, on my thighs and shins; they stretched me out, and poured much water into my body and my nose, and also on my heart. Then they released me, and asked, “Will you not yet tell it?” They entreated me, and again they spoke harshly to me; but I did not open my mouth, so firmly had God closed it.
Then they said, “Go at him again, and this with a vengeance.” This they also did, and cried, “Go on, go on, stretch him another foot.” Then thought I, “You can only kill me.” And thus stretched out, with cords twisted around my head, chin, thighs, and shins, they left me lie, and said, “Tell, tell.” … Again I was asked, “Will you not tell it?” I did not open my mouth. Then they said, “Tell us where you live; your wife and children, at all events, are all gone away.” In short, I said not a word.”What a dreadful thing,” they said. Thus the Lord kept my lips, so that I did not open them; and they released me, when they had long tried to make me speak.
Thereupon two of them, the executioner and his assistant, bore me from the rack. Think how they dealt with us, and how we felt, and still feel. Then they half carried, half dragged me from the torture chamber up into the jailer’s room, where was a good fire of oak wood. There they, once or twice, gave me some Rhenish wine to drink, which revived me in a measure. And when I had warmed myself somewhat, they again half dragged me up over the porter’s room. There they had such commiseration for me; they gave me wine again; they gave me spices, and of everything you had sent me, all of which rendered me very good service. They had wine brought and helped me to bed. But the sheets were very coarse, and greatly hurt my shins and thighs; however, soon afterwards the sheets and pillow you sent me arrived, and there were also two or three pocket handkerchiefs. They then covered me with the sheets, which came very convenient to me, as did also the spices. Had the sheets not come, I know not how I should have passed the night; but so I slept tolerably well. But I am hardly able to stand yet, and the lower part of my legs is as though they were dead from racking; however, it is all well, as I trust by the grace of the Lord.
After me Mattheus was tortured; he named his house and the street in which we live, and said it was in a gate; however, I am of the opinion that there are no longer any gates in that street. Hence move away altogether, if you have not done so yet; for I think the lord will find his way there. Let therefore no one who stands in any danger go into the house. He also named R. T.’s house, and the street where F. V. St. lives. Do herein immediately the best you can. He is very sorry for it.
I wrote you yesterday that I hoped to write to you during the day, but I could not do it; Mattheus and I lay in bed until two o’clock, so greatly were we afraid, because the margrave came here to torture Cornelis again, and we feared that we should also be tortured a second time, of which we had a great dread, more than of death, for it is an excruciating pain. Cornelis was tortured and scourged to such a degree the second time, that three men had to carry him up, and they say that he could scarcely move a member, except his tongue. He sent word to us, that if they come again it is his opinion it will finish him. Thus the Margrave did not come yesterday, but we expect him today again; may the Lord help us, for it is a horrible pain.
On this date in 1430, the Breton visionary La Pierronne was handed over to the secular authorities and burnt for blasphemy.
Not much is known of La Pierronne, save that she was a companion and follower of Joan of Arc — one of several women, who all shared Joan’s confessor, an itinerant monk known as Friar Richard. (Not much is known of him, either.)
La Pierronne was captured by the English at Corbeil in the spring of 1430, along with a younger companion whose name is not known. Rumor had it that she and Joan had both taken communion multiple times the previous Christmas, which was an irregular activity but not technically an outlawed one.
Still, cavalier behavior with the Host plus a surfeit of fealty to the Maid put our seer squarely in the sights of the Grand Inquisitor Jean Graverent. It was a preview of the sort of interrogation Joan herself would soon face.*
Like Joan of Arc, La Pierronne maintained that God spoke to her — and not only spiritually but in the shape of a physical apparition. This was clear heresy in the Church’s eyes — a direct ticket to the fire in the absence of speedy abjuration.
On the third of September, both women were presented with their options in the form of a sermon presented in the presence of the stakes that would otherwise receive them. Joan herself would face this test of faith, and would fail it on her first encounter. Here, the younger woman recanted — but La Pierronne held to her visions at the cost of her life.
Two women, who about half a year before had been captured at Corbeil and brought to Paris, had a sermon preached over them in the court before Notre Dame. The elder of these was Pierronne, and she was from Bretagne speaking Breton. She asserted and maintained that dame Joan (the Maid), who fought for the Armagnacs, was a good woman, and that what she did was well done and according to God.
Also she admitted having received the precious Body of our Lord twice in one day. Also she asserted and swore that God often appeared to her in human form, and spoke to her as one friend speaks to another, and that the last time she had seen Him, He was clad in a long white robe with a crimson doublet under it; which is nothing short of blasphemy. And she would never retract this statement that she often sees God clothed in this form, for the which, on this same day, she was sentenced to be burned, and so it was done and she died on the Sunday named persisting in this assertion, but the other woman was set at liberty at the same time.
A horrible intra-Christian auto de fe in the Calabrian town Montalto marred this date in 1561.
The pre-Reformation Waldensian sect, dating back to the 12th century, managed to survive Catholic persecution in the hills and valleys of northwest Italy’s Piedmont — but not only there. Waldensians partook of the spiritual movements that emerged throughout Europe in this period challenging Church domination.
The Waldensians are named for Peter Waldo, a Lyons merchant who translated the Bible into the vernacular so that common people could better adhere to it; one of their first appellations, alluding to their creed of voluntary poverty, was “the Poor of Lyons”. Others professed like notions, and Rome viewed them as part of a common heresy — as Pope Lucius III decreed in anathematizing the whole lot in 1184:
In order to eradicate the wickedness of various heresies that have begun to manifest themselves in many countries throughout the whole world, the power of ecclesiastical discipline must be called into requisition. Therefore … [we] set ourselves against the heretics, who from various errors have received various names, and by apostolical authority, through this our constitution, have condemned all heresies by whatever name they may be called. First, the Catharists, and the Patarini, and those who falsely and fictitiously call themselves Humiliati or Poor Men of Lyons; as well as the Passaginians, Josephists, Arnoldists; all these we lay under an everlasting curse.
As heavily as these movements and their cousins, offshoots, imitators, and successors were pressed by the authorities in the subsequent years, they were never fully extirpated. The Waldensians, in the end, survived by keeping their heads down: in their defensible mountainous haven in the Piedmont, and in an offshoot community of Piedmont refugees that settled in Calabria, the rural toe of Italy’s boot where towns like Guardia Piemontese still reflect in their names the cross-regional influence.* For generations before Luther, these exiles made their way with security by obscurity, participating superficially as Catholics while privately maintaining their outlaw doctrine.
With the onset of the Protestant Reformation, these heretical enclaves could no longer be ignored and drew renewed persecution. Conversely (and this surely cemented the end of the look-the-other-way policy) reformers and Waldensians recognized common identity and common interests between the dissident communities; the Calabrian Waldenses sought and received missionaries from Calvinist Geneva.
Taking a very dim view of a hellbound heresiarch establising a toehold in its very own boot, Rome — and specifically the cardinal who would soon become the Counter-Reformation stalwart Pope Pius V — dispatched inquisitors backed by armed men to uproot these Poor of Lyons. As their targets were isolated from any store of aid or support, Rome’s agents had a wide latitude to treat them all with heedless brutality. After all, how many divisions did the Calabrian Waldensians have?
In June of 1561, after the heretics had defied an order to start attending mass daily, troops began invading the Waldensian villages. Guardia Piemontese, mentioned earlier, was assaled on June 5; one of the town’s entrances is still named Porta del Sangue, Gate of Blood, for the gore that was supposed to have flowed through it on this infamous day.
Waldensian prisoners from Guardia and elsewhere were hauled to nearby Montalto Uffugo to undergo the rough hospitality of the Inquisition. A Catholic servant to one of the lords tasked with effecting this persecution wrote with horror about watching the culmination of that Passion for 88 Waldensians on June 11.
Most illustrious sir, I have now to inform you of the dreadful justice which began to be executed on these Lutherans early this morning, being the 11th of June.
And, to tell you the truth, I can compare it to nothing but the slaughter of so many sheep. They were all shut up in one house as in a sheep-fold.
The executioner went, and bringing out one of them, covered his face with a napkin, or benda, as we call it, led him out to a field near the house, and causing him to kneel down, cut his throat with a knife. Then, taking off the bloody napkin, he went and brought out another, whom he put to death after the same manner.
In this way the whole number, amounting to eighty-eight men, were butchered. I leave you to figure to yourself the lamentable spectacle, for I can scarcely refrain from tears while I write; nor was there any person, after witnessing the execution of one, could stand to look on a second.
The meekness and patience with which they went to martyrdom and death are incredible.
Some of them at their death professed themselves of the same faith with us, but the greater part died in their cursed obstinacy. All the old met their death with cheerfulness, but the young exhibited symptoms of fear.
I still shudder while I think of the executioner with the bloody knife in his teeth, the dripping napkin in his hand, and his arms besmeared with gore, going to the house, and taking out one victim after another, just as a butcher does the sheep which he means to kill.
This was not the end of it. The Archbishop of Reggio reported deploying the hacked-up remains like Spartacus’s crucified followers, “hanged on the road from Murano to Cosenza, along 46 miles, to make a frightening spectacle to all who pass by.” (Source) Over the months to come, numerous others would go to the stake, or if “lucky” the galleys.
Whatever remnant survived was laid under heavy communal punishment: “that all should wear the yellow habitello with the red cross; that all should hear mass every day … that for twenty-five years there should be no intermarriage between [Waldensians]; that all communication with Piedmont and Geneva should cease.” One can still find in Guardia the inward-looking spioncini, peepholes, that Waldensians were forced to install on their doors for the more convenient monitoring of their behavior behind closed doors.
* The emigre Waldensians brought their tongue, Occitan, with them, and a linguistic
Here’s a Guardia Piemontese Occitan speaker describing the slaughter of the Waldensians: