to imagine when you pass the pretty white thatched cottage
in East Dereham known as Bonners
Cottage (pictured left) that it used to belong to one of
the most hated men in England. Yet this was the case.
During Tudor England from 1534 to 1538 Bishop Bonner was
the Rector for Dereham. This timber framed building close
to the church. With walls of brick, flint, wattle
and daub decorated with a coloured frieze of flowers and
fruit on its external walls was his residence.
This is the Bishop Bonner who is said to have been the man responsible for burning over two hundred heretics during the blood thirsty reign of Queen Mary, first daughter of Henry the 8th. Edmund Bonner was born in the year 1500, he was educated at Oxford and ordained as a priest in 1519. In 1525 he entered the service of Cardinal Wolsey. After Wolsey fall from grace and subsequent execution, it was Bonner who was employed by the King as his ambassador to undertake delicate missions to Rome and other places. Pleased with his service Bonner was eventually given the position of Bishop of London.
Edmund Bonner was most unpopular particularly in London even before the days that the 'fires' began, an accusation of excessive cruelty were often leveled at his door.
After the death of the King Henry in 1547 he fell out of favour with Protector Somerset and Archbishop Cranmer and was imprisoned in Marshalsea until the accession of Tudor Mary in 1553. Where upon he was released and once again took up the position of Bishop of London. He immediately set about enthusiastically restoring the old Catholic worship to the people of England under Marys instruction.
During 'Bloody Marys' reign over two hundred and seventy people were burnt at the stake for heresy against the Catholic Church. Some say that of these, Bonner was responsible for burning two hundred of them, though some accounts put the figure as lower. In the Book of Martyrs by Foxe, Bishop Bonner was summed up as
"This cannibal in three years space three hundred martyrs slew They were his food, he loved so blood, he spared none he knew."
On record there is a letter from Queen Mary and her husband King Philip of Spain to Bonner, encouraging Bonner to even greater zeal in his quest to rid the country of so called heretics. The Queen even ensured that she killed these people legally by getting her government to re-introduce the heresy Act of 1401 giving her the powers to order anyone condemned as a heretic to the fire.
Heretics were burnt in public, normally on market days when the grizzly scene would be witnessed by the largest number of people. The condemned person, be it man woman or even child was led to a wooden stake in the market square. Records do show that a small number of children were indeed condemned to burn during this fiery time. If they were unable to walk to the stake, having already endured torture, which rendered their limbs in operative, they were then carried or dragged to it.
Then bundles of sticks were heaped around the victims body, called faggots. In some instances these faggots were not made from dry wood which mean't that they would be slow to burn resulting in a yet slower death. Records show that it could sometimes take as long as an hour and a half for a person to die by this blazing method. Normally only a single person was burned at a time but on other occasions a larger number were burnt together. Larger burnings became even more common as the fanaticism of Queen Mary and her husband Philip of Spain encouraged their Bishops to greater zeal.
The size of the fire would also determine if the person died from carbon monoxide poisoning before the flames did their work. In some instances the instructions to the executioner were to keep the fires small in order to prolong the agony. So that the feet and then the legs were slowly roasted, hopefully resulting in the victim passing out and not regaining consciousness. In many instances the crowd took pity on the victims and would hurl bundles of wood at the stake hoping to encourage the blaze and end the torture. That is if they managed to get past the guards who attended all burnings and had orders to repel these would be interveners.
In the year 1558 Queen Elizabeth 1 the second daugher of Henry the 8th ascended the throne of England. When Bishop Bonner was presented to her it is said that she would not allow him to kiss her hand. Perhaps because the stench of burnt flesh still hung about him like a miasma. With Elizabeth the Mass was forbidden in 1559 but Bonner defied orders and continued to celebrate it. The Council wrote to him often, ordering him to remove the Mass service but Bonner wrote back 'I possess three things soul, body, and property. Of the two latter, you can dispose at your pleasure, but as to the soul, God alone can command me.'
He was eventually deprived of his office and latter sent to prison where he died in 1569. His ghost is said to be seen riding around in a black coach. Bonner's residence in Dereham, ironically survived two town fires during the 16th and 17th centuries and now houses a small museum.
In Bishop Bonners defence I have read that over the last decade there has been much discussion as to whether Bonner was the wicked man so often portrayed by various accounts of his life. Some have pointed out that he was only acting on the instructions of his Queen and that he himself patiently dealt with many of the Protestants, and did his best to get them to renounce and see the errors of their faith.
Many scholars believe that the nursery rhyme "Mary, Mary, quite contrary" was a reference to Blood Marys reign and her attempt to bring England back to the Roman Church. The silver bells and cockle shells are said to be colloquialisms for instruments of torture and the "pretty maids all in a row" nuns.
The garden referred to is an allusion to the graveyards which were increasing in size with those who dared to continue to adhere to the Protestant faith.