Tuesday, 14 July 2009

The Hooper Stake

I grew up near a number of Tudor-related places in South Gloucestershire. Fortunately several of these places have a connection to Mary I, primarily by her visit through parts of this region in 1525. The city of Gloucester is one such place. She stayed there, aged nine-years old, for several days in September 1525. [1] But Mary’s connection to the city is today remembered in another way. On 9th February 1555, Bishop John Hooper was burnt at the stake on St Mary’s street. Mary sent specific instructions regarding his death, stating he was to be burnt in his diocese, ‘for the example and terror of suche as he hath caused there seduced and mistaught, and bycause he hath done moste harme there’. [2] He was the first of the Protestant bishops to die, and unfortunately his demise was not quick. On the 5th February he was sent from London to Gloucester, having been officially condemned for heresy. About nine o’clock in the morning of the 9th he was led to the stake with, John Foxe alleged, 7000 persons watching. The number is extravagant, but the emphasis on the large crowds may have been accurate as Foxe notes that Hooper’s entry into the city had been witnessed by many. If the crowds wanted a spectacle then they could not have wished for a bloodier one. Apparently not enough wood have been set about him, and the wind blew the flames from Hooper. Foxe recorded that,

Within a space after, a fewe drie faggots wer brought, & a new fire kindled wt faggots, (for ther wer no more redes): & that burned at the nether partes, but had smal power aboue bicause of the winde, sauing þt it did burne his heare & swel his skin a litle. In the time of the which fire, euē as at the first flame he prayed, saying mildely and not very loud (but as one without paines:) O Iesus the sonne of Dauid haue mercy vpon me, and receaue my soule. After the second was spent he dyd wype both his eyes with his handes, and beholding the people he said with an indifferent loude voice: For gods loue (good people) let me haue more fire: and all this while his nether partes did burne. For the faggots were so fewe, that the flame did not burn strongly at his vpper partes. The third fyre was kindled within a while after, which was more extreme thē the other two: and then the bledders of gonnepowder brake, which did him small good, they were so put, and the wind had such power. In the which fire he praied, with somwhat a loud voice: Lord Iesu haue mercy vpon me: Lorde Iesu haue mercy vpō me. Lord Iesus receaue my spirite. And they were the last wordes he was herd to sound: but when he was blacke in the mouth, and his tonge swollen, that he could not speake: yet his lippes went, till they wer shrounke to the gommes: & he did knocke his brest with his hands vntill one of his armes fel of, and then knocked still with the other, what time the fat, water, and bloud dropped out at his fingers endes, vntil by renewing of the fire, his strength was gonne, and his hand did cleaue fast in knocking, to the the yron vpon his brest. So immediatly bowing forwardes, he yelded vp his spirite.

Thus was he thre quarters of an hower or more in the fire, euen as a lambe: patiently he abode the extremity therof, neither mouing forwards, backwardes, or to any of the sides: but hauing his nether partes burned, and his bowels fallen out, he died as quietly as a child in his bed...

Today a monument stands in memory of Hooper, built in 1862. It is one of several nineteenth-century monuments built to the Protestant martyrs. The creation of this memorial comes with an interesting story. During excavation to build the base of the monument, an item was found lodged in the ground. It was a stump of a charred stake.

The charred piece of wood is normally housed in the Folk Museum on nearby Westgate Street. The museum is situated in the sixteenth-century building in which Hooper is alleged to have been held the night before his execution..Access to the museum is free and the alleged piece of stake, along with other artefacts connected to Hooper, are usually on display. However when I last visited, the items had been moved to storage to make way for an exhibit on Gloucester during the English civil war. Fortunately the people who worked at the museum were extremely helpful and one employee allowed me into the storage room. I assumed that the stake was held in a glass cabinet but it was rather unceremoniously placed on someone’s desk!

The piece of wood has a plaque attached to it, stating:

This is a portion of the stake to which bishop Hooper was chained when he was burned to death in Gloucestershire in 1555. It is indentified by the position in which it was found, rammed round with stone below the surface on the spot described in Foxe’s Martyrology as that on which Hooper suffered and on which the Monument to him now stands. Its history from the time of its discovery being known, it has been purchased for presentation to the Museum at Gloucester at the joint expense of

W. P. Price. Commissioner of railways for the United Kingdom, and formerly M.P. for Gloucester
W.K. Wait. M.P. for Gloucester
C.J. Monk. Chancellor of the Diocese of Gloucester and Bristol and M.P. for Gloucester
Charles H. Hooper. Manufacturer Eastington. Stonehouse

It is impossible to determine whether the stake was actually used at Hooper’s execution, particularly as the same site was used for two subsequent burnings. If genuine, then it is certainly one of the most unusual, disturbing and poignant artefacts connected to Mary’s reign that I have ever seen.


[1] Mary probably stayed in St. Peter’s abbey (now the Cathedral) for an unknown number of days. W.R.B. Robinson, ‘Princess Mary’s Itinerary in the Marches of Wales 1525-1527: a Provisional Record’, Historical Research, 71, 175 (June 1998), p. 244.

[2] Eamon Duffy, Fires of Faith: Catholic England under Mary Tudor (New Haven and London, 2009), p. 115.

[3] Full text can be read here: http://www.hrionline.ac.uk/johnfoxe/main/11_1563_1062.jsp

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