Flaming memory of martyrdom

By Steve George

The flaming crosses you see carried through the streets of Lewes on the Fifth each year represent the 17 martyrs, men and women who were burned at the stake in the town between 1555 and 1557 for their religious beliefs.

Not all of the martyrs were put on trial before they were condemned but, where records of trials exist, they show a resolute belief that is all the more remarkable for the sentence they knew they would face and the pressures under which many others buckled.

One of the martyrs, Richard Woodman, was an ironmaster, owning a forge in the village of Warbleton near Buxted. He was arrested after he challenged a preacher at the church in the village, accusing him of hypocrisy and saying one thing in the reign of King Edward and the complete opposite under Queen Mary.

The account of his subsequent questioning shows him sparring verbally with Bishops, defending his faith and proving them wrong. In one sequence they accuse Woodman of lying about a Bible passage he quotes, so he has them check and they find he is correct. The Bishops then claim it has been mistranslated into the English version they have looked at, so again he has them check their Latin and Greek Bibles and they admit it is there in those too.

Over the course of five separate questionings in London, some in front of hundreds of people, Woodman is resolute, learned and consistent. James Gage, the brother of Sir John Gage of Firle (Sherriff of Sussex), tries to persuade him to recant, but he too then gets caught up in a theological debate he can’t win, choosing instead to believe they are the arguments of a heretic despite the Bible often being quoted.

So it is that Richard Woodman is condemned to be burnt at Lewes, his name joining those of the other martyrs whom we commemorate.

Think then of his story and the stories of the other martyrs when you see the crosses on the Fifth.

We will remember them
One of the largest martyrdoms involved the burning at the stake of six men and four women on June 22 1557 outside the Star Inn (where the Town Hall is now). We remember:
Richard Woodman and George Stevens of Warbleton
William Maynard and Thomasina Wood of Mayfield
Alexander Hosman and Ann Ashdon of Rotherfield
Margery Morris and James Morris, her son, both from Heathfield
Denis Burges of Buxted and Mary Grove, believed to have been from Lewes.

Photo courtesy of Ian Cumming