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"...The church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth."
I Timothy 3:15

Joan Boucher: Martyred in 1550

J. Newton Brown

Memorials of Baptist Martyrs, 1854

Joan Boucher, or as she is more frequently called, Joan of Kent, of high parentage, and engaged in the court of Henry VIII., was unquestionably a Baptist. Uninterrupted and uncontradicted tradition reports her as a member of the Baptist church, then meeting at Canterbury and Eythorne, and which still flourishes in the latter village, near the south-eastern extremity of England, a few miles from Dover, and about sixteen miles from Canterbury, where not a few of her friends endured the fire of martyrdom.

Strange as it may appear to some of our readers, in 1547 was established a Protestant inquisition, of which Cranmer and Latimer, who were themselves in after years martyrs, and other men of great eminence, were commissioners. Only eighteen days after the commission was issued, Joan Boucher was arraigned for heresy before this body, and her sentence formally pronounced. From Cranmer’s own archiepiscopal register we learn that he himself sat as principal judge on this sad occasion, assisted by Latimer and three others, as the king’s “proctors, inquisitors, judges, and commissaries.”

Joan Boucher had been an active distributor of the proscribed translation of the New Testament by Tyndale. The court of Henry was the scene of her zealous labors, where she often introduced the sacred volumes unsuspected, tying, as Strype tells us, the precious books by strings to her apparel. Although well acquainted with the Scriptures, she could not read them; no uncommon calamity in that day, even among people of rank. Much of her time, Foxe tells us, was occupied in visiting the prisons, wherein were incarcerated her companions in tribulation, whom it was, her custom perpetually and bountifully to assist.

But there was one supposed error which was sufficient to expose her to the poisonous breath of calumny, and to the burning flame. For this she had to appear before the inquisitors, “in the chapel of the blessed Mary in St-Paul’s.” The examinations were long, the judges learned, and apparently desirous to save her from the stake; but she could not, she would not be convinced that she held any heresy, or anything in opposition to the truth.

Neither threatenings nor entreaties moved her; but a good conscience made her bold. At length she uttered language which it grieved her judges to hear, but which smote their consciences with its telling truth. “It is,” said she, “a goodly matter to consider your ignorance. It is not long ago since you burned Anne Askew for a piece of bread, and yet you came yourselves, soon after to believe and profess the same doctrine for which you burned her. And now, forsooth, you will burn me for a piece of flesh, and in the end you will come to believe this also, when you have read the Scriptures, and understood them.”

With, professedly, “the fear of God before his eyes,” and with invocation of the name of Christ, the “reverend father in Christ, Thomas, archbishop of Canterbury,” with the full approbation of his colleagues, proceeded to pronounce her doom. The sentence contained her crime and its punishment:

“You believe that the Word was made flesh in the virgin, but that Christ took flesh of the virgin you believe not; because the flesh of the virgin being the outward man sinfully gotten, and born in sin, but the Word by the consent of the inward man of the virgin was made flesh. This dogma, with obstinate, obdurate, and pertinacious mind, you affirm, and not without much haughtiness of mien. With wonderful blindness of heart, to this you hold; therefore, for your demerits, obstinacy, and contumacy, aggravated by a wicked and damnable pertinacity, being also unwilling to return to the faith of the church, you are, adjudged a heretic, to be handed to the secular power, to suffer in due course of law, and finally the ban of the great excommunication is upon you.”

The inquisitors completed the labors of the day, by announcing to Edward, the youthful sovereign, through their president, that they had decreed her separation from the Lord’s flock as a diseased sheep. “And since said they, “our holy mother, the church, hath nought else that she can do on this behalf, we leave the said heretic to your royal highness, and to the secular arm, to suffer her deserved punishment.”

Considerable delay, however, occurred before the execution of the sentence. We may give the reformers credit for an earnest desire to lead Joan Boucher to more correct views; but must not withhold an expression of just abhorrence at the bloody deed, and at the hateful principle on which they acted.

They had adopted an unsound basis for their reformation, and its necessary result was oppression of conscience. The exercise of freedom of thought and judgment upon Scripture truth was impossible. Ridley, of London, and Goodrich, of Ely, were specially active in their endeavors to reclaim her to whom must be added, Cranmer, Latimer, Lever, Whitehead, and Hutchinson.

A year within three days was passed in these unavailing efforts. Her constancy remained unshaken. On the 27th of April, the council issued their warrant to the Lord Chancellor to make out a writ for her execution; and Cranmer is said, by Foxe, to have been most urgent, with the young king to affix the sign manual to the cruel document.

The youthful king hesitated. Cranmer argued from the law of Moses, by which blasphemers were to be stoned to death; this woman, he said, was guilty of impiety in the sight of God, which a prince, as God’s deputy, ought to punish. The youthful king said to Cranmer, “My lord, will you send her soul to hell?” But his majesty was compelled to yield, and saying, “If it be an error, you, my lord, shall answer it to God.”

With tears, the royal signature was appended. Rogers, the first martyr of Mary’s reign, also thought that she ought to be put to death, and when urged with the cruelty of the deed, replied, that burning alive was no cruel death, but easy enough. He was the first man called in the reign of Mary to test the truth of his own remark.

The bishops had resolved that Joan Boucher should die, and on the 2nd of May, 1550, she appeared at the stake in Smithfield. Here further efforts were made to shake her confidence. To Bishop Scory was allotted the duty of preaching to the sufferer, and to the people on the occasion. “He tried,” says Strype, “to convert her; she scoffed, and said he lied like a rogue, and bade him, I go read the Scriptures.”

By this language we understand an indignant rejection of the shameful misrepresentations which in that hour of trial were made of her faith. She closely adhered to those words of truth which were her joy and strength, in the moments of her dying agony. She loved and adored the holy and immaculate Lamb of God.

Were it desirable, it might easily be shown that Joan Boucher did not believe or teach the errors laid to her charge. She differed from the Catholics chiefly in believing that the mother of Jesus, like all other merely human beings, was tainted with sin.