The Lewes Martyrs
by Hanna Lindon
The 17 martyrs who were executed in Lewes during the reign of Mary I are the stuff of local legend – but who were they, and how did their tragedy unfold?
Few events have had such an impact on the cultural memory of Lewes as the burning of 17 protestant martyrs outside the present-day town hall. Their deaths may have occurred nearly 450 years ago, but the Lewes Martyrs are still commemorated in memorials scattered across the town and through a procession of crosses on Lewes Bonfire Night.
The story of the martyrs begins in July 1553, when Mary I became Queen of England. Daughter of Henry VIII’s long suffering first wife, Catherine of Aragon, she refused to recognise her father as head of the church and remained a staunch Catholic. Henry had persecuted Catholics who refused to renounce their face – Mary did the same to protestants. She executed 284 people during her reign, going down in history as ‘Bloody Mary’ in consequence.
It was a year after Mary came to power that several protestants gathered at the home of Brighton brewer Dirick Carver for a prayer meeting. The service was being read in English when the Sheriff of Sussex broke into Carver’s house and arrested the whole group. Some were taken to Newgate prison, where they refused to deny their faith and were sentenced to burn. Among them was Carver himself, who was to become the first of the Lewes martyrs. He was marched to his death on 22nd July, 1555, and he remained defiant to the last.
“Dear brethren and sisters,” he shouted to the crowd as the faggots were being lit, “witness to you all that I am come to seal with my blood Christ’s Gospel, because I know that it is true.”
Nearly a year after Carver’s death, a further four Protestants were burned at the stake in the same place. Their deaths were followed a few weeks later by the execution of minister Thomas Wood and Thomas Miles of Hellingly, but the worst was still to come. On 22nd June 1557, a group of ten men and women were led up the steps from their prison in the basement of the Star Inn (now the Town Hall) and burned at the stake in a terrifying auto-da-fe. It was the largest human bonfire that Britain has ever seen and did much to turn the country against Queen Mary.
There were 36 martyrs burned across Sussex during Mary’s reign, but the 17 men and women who died in Lewes have made the greatest mark on history. The steps they walked up have been preserved beneath glass outside Lewes Town Hall, an obelisk on Cliffe Hill lists their names, and 17 burning crosses are carried through the streets every Bonfire Night. The martyrs’ bravery has kept their memories alive for centuries after their tragic deaths.