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Heritage - 60: The Stony Path To Conversion

Updated on December 2, 2019

The Reformation in England was dealt a body blow by Henry VIII's daughter Mary, loyal to her mother Catherine of Aragon...

On Henry's death in 1547, his sickly son Edward - by his father's ill-fated third wife Jane Seymour, who died after giving birth in 1537 - came to the throne...
On Henry's death in 1547, his sickly son Edward - by his father's ill-fated third wife Jane Seymour, who died after giving birth in 1537 - came to the throne... | Source
His older half-sister Mary was patient. She would bide her time until the day came in 1553 when he succumbed to poisoning, reputedly by the Dudleys to install cousin Lady Jane Grey on the throne
His older half-sister Mary was patient. She would bide her time until the day came in 1553 when he succumbed to poisoning, reputedly by the Dudleys to install cousin Lady Jane Grey on the throne | Source

The one and only man in Yorkshire to be burnt at the stake late in the reign of of Mary Tudor

was Richard Snell of Bedale. He would not go quietly. What brought about such a turn of events.in this quiet corner of England?

Let's go back in time a little, to the reign of Henry VIII. Henry had been Duke of York, his older brother Arthur groomed for the throne by Henry, pretender to the throne and by a quirk of fate victor of Bosworth Field in Leicestershire in 1485.

Arthur had wedded the older Catherine of Aragon, and died suddenly without consummating the marriage . The ailing king prevailed on his younger son to marry the widowed Catherine and produce an heir to stave off insurrection by supporters of the Plantagenet dynasty. Catherine would not bear a son for her husband. A daughter, Mary was born and the queen was unlikely to bear more offspring for Henry. The king tried through Cardinal Wolsey and papal legates to persuade the Pontiff in Rome to annul the marriage. The pontiff would not be swayed. Marriage was a holy institution, and was for life.

We know the rest. After six wives Henry had a son, Edward, and two daughters. Mary and Elizabeth, and ideologically there was little or no common ground between Edward and Mary, or between Elizabeth and Mary. On Henry's death in 1547 the young Edward became the sixth by that name to become king. Mary would bide her time... and it would not be too long before her reign began. Rumour abounded that the Dudley family had poisoned him slowly in order to put the young Lady Jane Gray on the throne... Rumour no doubt put about by Edward's successor, who also no doubt fed the poison to the young king herself.. Mary would put paid to any hopes the Dudleys nursed on becoming a new dynasty to replace the Tudors. Lady Jane would be executed without ceremony on Tower Hill on a trumped-up charge of treason. And thus would begin five years of hell for forward-thinking Anglican Protestants.

The stage is set. Now read on.

Richmond becomes the centre of a Northern Catholic controversy

Tudor England, considered a prize for rival European  monarchs who wished to bring the 'errant' English back to the Catholic fold
Tudor England, considered a prize for rival European monarchs who wished to bring the 'errant' English back to the Catholic fold | Source
The scene of a tragedy, Richmond in Yorkshire, the seat of the Stanley clan. Lord Stanley was Henry VII's stepfather
The scene of a tragedy, Richmond in Yorkshire, the seat of the Stanley clan. Lord Stanley was Henry VII's stepfather | Source
Richmond from the north, with the famous castle keep that punctuates the landscape
Richmond from the north, with the famous castle keep that punctuates the landscape | Source

With the grey light of dawn reaching westward over the northern Dales...

Four butchers toiled hard on the west side of Richmond in the North Riding of the County of Yorkshire.

A ten-foot oak stake was embedded deep into the cobbled ground at Newbiggin and work was started on the final preparations for an execution by burning. Straw and twigs were piled deep around the base of the stake. Over the kindling gunpowder was sprinkled and to finish tar was generously dribbled onto the disagreeable mixture.

The reign of the Tudors was not straightforward for many, not least in the largely Roman Catholic north of England. First King Henry VIII ruled that the nation should no longer look to far-off Rome for spiritual leadership. Fairly early in his reign the abbeys were rendered uninhabitable, their lands given to secular lords and the fabric of the establishments used by landowners as building material. His successor Edward VI was broadly like-minded, although fairer to his subjects. Mary, on the other hand, was vengeful. She vented her fury on those who had followed her father's path. The kingdom once more looked to Rome and its emperor Charles V for guidance, and Mary would soon wed Philip of Spain in secret.

In the North the Archdeacon of the North Riding of Yorkshire John Dakyn was also rector of Kirkby Hill to the west of Richmond. He took his charge to heart, of making certain his flock were fully behind their queen. There were dissenters, however..

Richard and John Snell, weavers of Bedale to the south of Richmond were not convinced, and for their defiance Dakyn had them imprisoned in Richmond gaol. So foul was their cell accommodation their toes rotted on the dank, cold floor. After a year and a half Dr Dakyn deemed the lesson was learned and he held a special mass at St Mary's church on the edge of the town, where they might publicly acknowledge the error of their ways,

John yielded, but Richard shouted "Sacrilege!" and "Blasphemy!" all through the assembly. He was taken back to the gaol and John was aided by a priest, who fashioned a walking stick from an elm outside the church. He helped the younger brother to the market place, where rooms were found for him adjacent to Trinity Tower. John was not happy, though, during the three days he stayed there. In the belief he had betrayed his maker and his brother he made his way down Cornforth Hill and somehow managed to launch himself into the turbulent River Swale, swollen from autumn rain on the hills in the west. Four days later his corpse was found by Catterick Bridge near the Great North Road.

A martyrdom in the making

Richmond Castle postern gate, view down to the River Swale
Richmond Castle postern gate, view down to the River Swale
Cornforth Hill, where John Snell descended to the River Swale in a crisis of conscience
Cornforth Hill, where John Snell descended to the River Swale in a crisis of conscience
The plaque to the Snell brothers' memory
The plaque to the Snell brothers' memory | Source
The old police station, Newbiggin. site of the earlier Richmond gaol - now a dentist's surgery
The old police station, Newbiggin. site of the earlier Richmond gaol - now a dentist's surgery | Source

The feared and powerful Dr Dakyn called Richard to an excommunication hearing, to hear his final confession.

"I would sooner confess to a cur than to a priest!"came the snarled answer. He was sentenced to be burnt at the stake for his continued defiance .

At the stroke of ten in the morning, by the bell at nearby St Mary's church the butchers finished their work, bringing a wagon load of green wood that when burned would choke the condemned and - hopefully, the executioners thought - stop their screams of pain or curses.

Richard Snell was brought from the gaol, chained and fettereo the stake outside . the cell he had been 'accommodated' in for the past year and a half. Dr Dakyn rambled on for almost and hour, citing the condemned man's crime, his heresy and his defiance of the queen's law. The large crowd of townsfolk and villagers from surrounding districts who had been summoned to watch the grisly event. Street vendors, hoping to sell their wares did little business. as this would be a sombre hour.

Richard was still defiant, and when a prebendary* thrust a crucifix in his face he yelled, "Do your worst, false priest!" His speech over, Dr Dakyn nodded and the butchers solemnly lit the four corners of the pyre. When the flames gripped, greenery was piled on, muffling Richard's cries and cursing in the dense, suffocating smoke. Yet he could still be heard by the crowd, to gasp, "Christ help me!" As the flames grew his calls became delirious until he shrieked one last oath.

He fell silent. "A low, angry moan arose from the onlookers", a contemporary account records, "one - fellow weaver Richard Atkinson - called out loudly, 'Hold fast there and we will all pray for thee'. Many of the crowd sank to their knees at these words".

* A prebender is/was the Roman Catholic equivalent of an Anglican curate

A redress of Protestant priorities

The newly crowned young queen, antidote to Mary's poisoned' reign
The newly crowned young queen, antidote to Mary's poisoned' reign
Foxe's Book of Martyrs - the extent of Mary's folly
Foxe's Book of Martyrs - the extent of Mary's folly

Richard Snell, as I mentioned earlier, was the only dissident to be burnt at the stake in the Roman Catholic-inclined Yorkshire.

South of the River Trent almost 300 fell foul of Mary's edicts, some of them senior Anglican church men, bishops Hugh Latimer and Thomas Cranmer amongst many.

The.day after the execution Dr Dakyn took to his bed, dying two months to the day the smoke from Snell's pyre entered his lungs. Queen Mary died a week later, on November 17th, 1558. Half-sister Elizabeth succeeded her, and the kingdom reverted to the Protestant faith. All symbols of Roman Catholicism were to be publicly burnt. Those who refused would be humiliated before their fellows and neighbours.

In Aysgarth, south-west from Richmond in neighbouring Uredale (now Wensleydale) nine men were made to walk to the parish church wearing just a sheet to serve penance. The vicar and churchwarden at nearby Manfield were ordered to serve penance in the market place at Richmond because their parishioners merely hid theirs.


See also Heritage - 59: A Northern Rising Crushed

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