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An Easter Execution

If you happen to walk past Westminster Abbey during the day it’s likely that you’ll see a long, snaking queue of tourists leading to the north door. Most of these tourists pay little attention to the smaller church of St Margaret’s that stands to the left of the Abbey entrance.

Seen by most as the Abbey’s dowdy, dull little sibling, most of the tourists lining up for Abbey tickets won’t bother venturing in to St Margaret’s. That’s a shame, as it is a fascinating building. Samuel Pepys was married there, as was John Milton and Winston Churchill. Sir Walter Raleigh is buried in St Margaret’s in the chancel. Raleigh had been beheaded in Old Palace Yard just outside in 1618, charged with plotting with the French. His widow, Elizabeth Throckmorton, carried his severed, embalmed head with her in a red velvet bag for the rest of her life. Tradition states that the head was interred with the rest of the body when their son, Carew, died and was buried next to Walter.

Quite a few London guidebooks mention Raleigh and his execution, along with other executions that took place outside Parliament. Few mention that St Margaret’s is the site of a religious martyrdom. I’ve previously written about how a bloody fight in the Abbey resulted in the death of a monk, but that was not to be the last time that Abbey clergy were to be attacked.

During the reign of Henry VIII England had undergone a religious upheaval, breaking away from Roman Catholicism. The Abbey was dissolved in 1540 along with other monasteries up and down the country. The building was saved from destruction thanks to the ties between to Abbey and royalty with Henry announcing that the Abbey was now a cathedral. When Henry died his youngest child and only son Edward became king and carried on the momentum of the Reformation, pushing further towards Protestantism. Edward died of a horrible illness aged only fifteen. He was unmarried and childless, and despite his best efforts his plan to install his very Protestant cousin Lady Jane Grey as his successor failed when his furious and incredibly Catholic older sister Mary marched upon London. Mary claimed her throne and eventually had Jane executed. Mary wasted no time in restoring Roman Catholicism as the official religion of the nation, earning the moniker ‘Bloody Mary’ for her eager execution of Protestant ‘heretics.’

The sudden swing back to the ‘old’ ways made life very difficult for those who had embraced the Reformation.

William Flower was born in Cambridgeshire and had become a monk as a youth at the monastery in Ely. He later left, aged 21, eschewing Catholicism for radical Protestantism. He married a woman named Alice Pulton and the couple went on to have two children. They moved frequently with Flower alternating between working as a schoolmaster and physician/surgeon alongside his radical ministry. The family settled in Lambeth, across the river from Westminster. On 14th April 1555, Easter Sunday, William Flower left Lambeth to go to the service taking place in St Margaret’s. Mary I had been on the throne for nearly two years, masses in London churches were now decidedly Catholic. Flower was so overcome with religious zeal when he watched the sacrament being distributed among the congregation that he took his large wood knife and hacked at the head and hands of one of the priests, John Cheltham/Shelton. Cheltham was seriously injured but members of the congregation tore Flower off of him before the attack became fatal. Cheltham’s blood dropped into the sacred wine, tainting it so much that the congregation were forced to leave the church and celebrate the Eucharist elsewhere. The entire church also had to be reconsecrated following the bloodshed. Flower was taken to the gatehouse in Westminster and put in chains.

Such a frenzied attack may be seen as a crime of passion, yet there are aspects of the attack that point to a premeditated suicide mission. Flower had entered the church wearing a placard that read “Fear God, flee from the idol” in Latin. He also had a religious manifesto in his pocket, later admitting that if the congregation had lynched him before he could be arrested, someone could at least read it and understand his motives. Whilst imprisoned he corresponded with his friend, Robert Smith, a fellow radical who was at the time himself incarcerated in Newgate Prison. Flower wrote that he had not previously met Cheltham and had no personal vendetta,¬†and would have attacked any priest distributing the communion that day. He also told Smith that he had been to St Paul’s that morning and could not bring himself to attack anyone, but had felt compelled by the Spirit later that day to go to St Margaret’s with violent intentions, fully expecting to lose his own life in the process. Flower stated that he wasn’t repentant, telling Smith that God has chosen him to carry out his will.

On the 19th of April Flower was brought before Bishop Bonner for interrogation. Flower remained unrepentant and reiterated his belief that, as a Protestant, he did not believe in transubstantiation and that he believed he was doing holy work. Bonner then tried to convince Flower to come back to the Catholic faith, but Flower thanked him and refused. He told Bonner that if he was aware that Bonner had the power  to decide whether he lived or died, but that Bonner could never have power over his soul and that God alone could judge him.

Witnesses to the attack gave statements at a deposition and Bonner charged Flower with heresy, excommunicating him. On the 24th April William Flower was brought to the spot where he was to be executed, outside St Margaret’s church. He addressed the crowd:

O eternal God, most mighty and merciful Father, who hast sent down thy Son upon the earth, to save me and all mankind, who ascended up into heaven again, and left his blood upon the earth behind him, for the redemption of our sins, have mercy upon me, have mercy upon me, for thy dear Son our Saviour Jesus Christ’s sake, in whom I confess only to be all salvation and justification, and that there is none other mean, nor way, nor holiness, in which or by which any man can be saved in this world.– This is my faith, which I beseech all men here to bear witness of.

After then reciting the Lord’s Prayer, Flower was given one last chance to recant. He refused. His right arm, with which he had attacked the priest, was chopped off and his left was tied behind him to the stake on which he was to be burned. The faggots provided for the execution were insufficient to provide a large enough fire to kill Flower quickly. Holding up his severed arm for as long as he could, he prayed for God to receive his soul. The executioners had to prod him with bills into the hottest part of the fire, eventually pulling him down to a lying position into the embers. Even so, the fire still only reached his navel. Still conscious, spectators could still see his tongue move in his mouth as the bottom half of his body was consumed. It took a long time for William Flower to die.

The botched execution gave William Flower an unnecessarily cruel and prolonged death. He was the sixteenth person to die for his faith under the reign of Bloody Mary. His friend Robert Smith later would use their letters to shift public perceptions of Flower from crazed lunatic to religious martyr before himself falling victim of the Marian persecutions and being executed in August that same year, the fortyfirst to die.

284 people were executed for their faith during the 5 year reign of Bloody Mary, the last a mere 2 days before Mary herself died in 1558.Upon her death, Mary’s sister Elizabeth became Queen and quickly set about once again moving the country away from Catholicism. Bishop Bonner, a man who had been ruthlessly efficient in executing heretics, was imprisoned and died in the Marshalsea in 1569, still trying to convert others to his Catholic faith. He too has earned the moniker ‘Bloody.’ Westminster Abbey and, by extension, St Margaret’s, were once more converted into Anglican churches and have remained so ever since. Despite this, William Flower and his attack on John Cheltham are conspicuously missing from the official Westminster Abbey website and his story is not included on the audioguide. His name doesn’t feature on any memorial or monument. William Flower does live on, however, in John Foxe’s Book of of Actes and Monuments, AKA Book of Martyrs, first published in 1563.







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Syon House – When Can I Move In?

When a friend asked me to cat-sit for a week, my immediate thought was “where is the nearest stately home?” That thought was closely followed by “how do I get cats to like me?” A quick google came up with a)Syon House and b)give them food.

Which brings me to today. After being woken up by a hungry cat jumping onto my bum at 6am, I charged up my camera and got myself ready for a morning of columns and cornices.

I’ve been wanting to visit Syon for a while as it has served as the backdrop for some major events in British history.

Henry V founded Syon Abbey in 1426 and it was a successful convent right up until Henry VIII decided to have a strop. Syon Abbey had been home to two people who had really got Henry in a tizz. Elizabeth Barton got right on the royal tits when she decided to publicly show her opposition to Henry dumping Catherine of Aragon so that he could bonk Anne Boleyn.

Barton, being a Catholic nun, was funnily enough in favour of keeping the Catholic Catherine as Queen. She frequently met with Sir Thomas More, another Catherine supporter, at Syon Abbey to bond over their opposition to the Reformation. Barton had become famous as the Holy Maid of Kent, spouting ‘prophecies’ that warned of dire consequences for anyone who did anything to annoy the Pope.¬†As the Pope was apoplectic at the plans to give Catherine the boot, Barton dutifully fired off one of her famous prophecies. She loudly proclaimed that if Henry married Anne Boleyn he’d be dead soon after the wedding.

As furious as Henry was, he couldn’t arrest her for mere talking, yet. So instead he started a whisper campaign that Barton was bonkers and frequently¬†had rampant sex with priests. He then made it legal to prosecute people for past actions even if those actions had been within the law at the time. Barton was arrested¬†on charges of treason and hanged at Tyburn without trial in 1534. She also has the dubious honour of being the only woman whose head was mounted on a spike on London Bridge.

Another Syon resident and friend of More and Barton was a monk named Richard Reynolds. With his bezzie¬†mate Thomas More in the Royal doghouse for snubbing the coronation ceremony of Anne Boleyn, Reynolds decided to also take a stand. He refused to take the oath that proclaimed Henry as head of the Church in England. Henry, by now, was losing his patience and acted swiftly. Reynolds was hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn, where Barton had been executed¬†little over a year previously. He’s now a Catholic saint.

By now Henry was not the biggest fan of Syon Abbey and it’s inhabitants. They were evicted and fled to the continent. Henry then seized the property for the Crown, as was his habit.

By the time he was on wifey¬†number 5, Catherine Howard, Henry was even grumpier¬†and even more vindictive.¬†The marriage was doomed. Surprisingly, the very young, very flirtatious Catherine found young men her own age rather more¬†attractive than her morbidly obese, ageing, permanently cantankerous hubby.¬†Upon the discovery that his ‘rose without a thorn’ was actually a bit of a tart, Henry decided that perhaps he didn’t want to be married to a brazen little hussy any more and that perhaps he should get rid of her. Cue the famous story of Catherine screaming Hampton Court Palace down after being charged with treason.

After being stripped of her queenship Henry imprisoned Catherine at Syon Abbey, making sure that two rooms were “furnished moderately as her life and condition hath deserved.” Having become rather used to piles of jewellery and fabulous interior decor, Catherine found the drab rooms rather depressing. They didn’t even have tapestries. Despite this, apparently Catherine spent her time at Syon behaving as imperiously as she ever did as Queen. Eventually the time came for Catherine to be¬†taken to the Tower for execution. She had to be dragged, screaming, into the boat at Syon Abbey that would take her to her death.

The Abbey would have¬† revenge on Henry for bringing such misery and tragedy to its doors. When he died in 1547 his funeral procession stopped off at Syon overnight on the trip to Windsor. By this time he’d been dead a while, and Tudor morticians weren’t exactly wonderfully talented. The hugely corpulent King had begun to decompose. Whilst at Syon Abbey the coffin began to leak¬†the putrefied King all over the floor, where the resident dogs gleefully started feasting on it.¬†A very undignified end for one who had caused undignified ends for so many others.

Soon afterwards the Edward Seymour, the Duke of Somerset moved in. His sister Jane had been wifey number three to old Henry and had died soon after giving birth to the long awaited male heir, also named Edward. Still a sprog when daddy died, Edward VI had Uncle Eddie working as Lord Protector until he was old enough to rule alone. Uncle Eddie needed a London pad close to court to suit his new rank and proceeded to build a grand Renaissance house on the old Abbey foundations. Unfortunately, Uncle Eddie got a bit too big for his boots, and so like so many Syon residents before him, Seymour was executed in 1552 for supposedly plotting against his nephew.

Edward VI, meanwhile, was growing up to be¬†a sickly youth who nevertheless had strong views about the future of his nation. The last thing he wanted was for his sister Mary to become Queen as she had a massive chip on her shoulder about the whole Reformation thing. So Edward went with an early version of his dad’s will, one that didn’t include his sisters inheriting. Henry had annulled his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, so essentially that made Mary illegitimate. And Henry had thoughtfully annulled his marriage to Anne Boleyn before lopping off her head, so that made Elizabeth a bastard too. Although there’s been much debate over which version of the will was the legal one, Edward decided to stick with the version that named his cousin, Lady Jane Grey, as the heir to the throne.

I have to admit I rather like Jane. She was a geeky bookworm who spoke in more languages than some of the male politicians of her time and was more widely read even as a teenager. I often wonder what our country would be like now if she’d have been given a chance¬†to reign. All accounts of her paint her as a very wise, level headed¬†young lady. Jane was staying at Syon when she received the news that¬† the fifteen year old Edward had passed away and that she was therefore Queen. Although apparently reluctant, even in the nine days she spent shoring up her throne at the Tower she proved herself to be a worthy monarch. For instance, she refused to proclaim her useless husband Guilford king as she knew that he was a feather brained lump. However, we all know what happened next. The curse of Syon struck again and Jane was beheaded.

As Queen, Mary tried to restore the Abbey to its former glory. After all, they had been loud and staunch supporters of her mum. However as soon as Mary kicked the Royal bucket her firmly Protestant sister Elizabeth promptly evicted everyone again and they fled to the continent again. The nuns did return to England, but not until Victoria was on the throne a few of centuries later.

The house, meanwhile, was snapped¬†up by Henry Percy, the 9th Earl of Northumberland and Elizabethan courtier. When Lizzie bit the big one, stuttering Percy found that relatives can be¬†a pain in the backside. His cousin Thomas was one of the Gunpowder Plotters, and in the days that followed the failed assassination Henry¬†became implicated in¬†the¬†plot¬†and consequently¬†spent the¬†next 15 years of his life¬†incarcerated in the Tower. Given the fates of previous¬†residents of the Syon estate, he must have been thanking¬†his lucky stars, especially as by all accounts he spent his time at the Tower in some style. Mercifully for the Percys their estates weren’t confiscated and Syon House has been the London residence of the Earls of Northumberland ever since.

During that time the house has been shot at (during the Battle of Brentford) and hosted a royal birth (although Prince George, son of Queen Anne, died within hours of his birth.)

If a history with more angst and tragedy than an episode of Eastenders isn’t enough to convince you to visit, the architecture should.

I am a classicist at heart, and anything Neo-Classical gets my heart skipping a beat. That meant that within minutes of entering Syon House I was constantly on the verge of needing a defibrillator.

By the 1760s the house needed a bit of TLC and John Adam was drafted¬†in to give the place a makeover. A lover of all things ancient, Adam started to turn Syon into a love letter to classical architecture and interior design. If, like me, you’ve worked in stately homes you may have suffered from an overdose of gilt, but here I didn’t get that feeling of being slapped in the face by a designer with a passion for gold leaf, despite it being used a lot on the ground floor. Adam filled the house with elegant scagliola¬†columns and antique statues. Although John Adam only finished a portion of¬†the ground floor, what he did create is visually stunning. The rest of the house is filled¬†to the rafters with beautiful portraits of famous past inhabitants and guests. I’m a Lely fan myself, but you can’t go wrong with Van Dyck.

Other highlights are the grounds which were landscaped by Capability Brown, crowned with a beautiful conservatory that Horrible Histories fans will immediately recognise as a stand in for the Crystal Palace.

On a professional level I was pleased¬†to note that nearly all of the¬†wardens initiated conversation. Hallelujah! No hesitating to engage here!¬†Only one, (male, tellingly) steadfastly refused¬†to talk to me. Perhaps it was because I was wearing trainers and not a twin set and pearls, because he was more than happy to follow some well heeled¬†middle aged¬†ladies¬†around for ten minutes talking at them. Just because I am in my twenties and I wear jeans does not mean I do not appreciate a nice Sevres¬†vase, Mr Warden. Tut tut. Go and de-fluff your ill fitting¬†tweed jacket and contemplate on your behaviour!¬†However, the less stuffy ladies¬†more than made up for his snobbery and I chatted with every single one¬†of them for quite¬†some time. I’ve always maintained that this makes the difference¬†between a good and a great visitor experience. Bravo, ladies of Syon!

In short, or actually, quite lengthy, you should visit Syon House. You definitely won’t regret it, and the ticket price in comparison to similar stately homes is practically a steal. Also, top marks for a very well written and presented guidebook, which is full of lovely photos and has that lovely, luxurious feel to the touch.

If you haven’t already started planning a day trip to Brentford, then what is keeping you!? In the meantime do peruse the Syon Park website for visitor information: http://www.syonpark.co.uk/index.asp

5 out of 5 stars and a huge, enthusiastic thumbs up!

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