There is a path in Amersham which takes you uphill through the field at the back of the Tesco Superstore. It leads to the woods, and you can enjoy the views of the Chiltern hills. But what many miss is that on the right edge of the field, behind a hedge, is a large stone memorial. This commemorates the Amersham martyrs. The memorial itself gives a brief but grim account of one martyr burned at the stake in 1511, and 6 more in 1521 – exactly 500 years ago. The cruelty of the authorities is highlighted, in that the children of two of the martyrs were compelled to light the faggots which would consume their parents.
Amersham was home to a number of Lollards, followers of John Wycliffe. They attracted the attention of the Roman Catholic authorities who sought to root out heretics. Those found guilty were publicly shamed, for example by being branded on the face or forced to wear a heretic’s badge. William Tylseworth was burned at the stake in 1511. However, this persecution did not halt the rise of Lollardy. Thomas Mann claimed that many in Amersham were subsequently converted, before he was himself burned at the stake in London in 1518. Further inquiries by the bishop revealed that perhaps a quarter of the population of Amersham held Lollard convictions. This led to the martyrdom of five men and one woman in 1521. The reason for execution of Lollards was often their insistence on the freedom to read the Bible in English.
We are reminded that the freedoms we enjoy today were bought at a price, and we should not take them for granted. There are many places in the world where believers still pay a very high price for their faithful testimony. However, the ultimate outcome is not in doubt. By the time the Amersham martyrs died in 1521, the reformation was already taking root in Germany. Soon England would become Protestant, and the Bible in English would appear in parish churches. Those who oppose the Gospel may have their day, but that day will be short. The Kingdom of Christ will endure, and ultimately triumph.