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.