During the short reign of Bloody Mary, 1553-1558, 283 Protestants were burnt for their faith and for their refusal to attend the superstitious and idolatrous mass. 62 Protestants were put to death in Kent, and there are a number of memorials to them. Aswell as the Martyrs of Rochester, (mentioned on our Introduction page) the following are also in place across the County:
A memorial to the Dartford Protestant Martyrs, Christopher Waid, Nicholas Hall and Margaret Polley, was first erected in 1850 by the then Vicar of Dartford, Rev Gilmour, in the old burying ground on East Hill, overlooking the town. The monument was made of Bath stone and soon fell into disrepair.
In 1885 a fund was established to build a new memorial. After two years sufficient funds had been raised and despite the local Roman Catholic priest preaching a series of sermons against the proposed monument, it was unveiled in 1888.
On 31 October 1888 in front of a crowd of three thousand, Colonel Sandys MP who was the Chairman of the Protestant Alliance, and who went on to become Grand Master of the Loyal Orange Institution of England from 1903-1911, unveiled the monument.
The Protestant Alliance magazine wrote that: ‘The bells of the Parish Church, before and after the ceremony, rang out merry peals; the town wore a holiday look, flags floated from many houses – the day fittingly closing with a large and enthusiastic Protestant gathering, over which Colonel Sandys again presided; thus came to a close one of the most memorable days in the annals of Dartford’.
Canterbury saw more Martyrdoms than any place except Smithfield in London. John Bland, the Vicar of Adisham was often thrown into prison for preaching the Gospel. In November 1554 when he objected to a Roman Catholic Priest celebrating mass at Adisham he was arrested and imprisoned. When he refused to submit to the authority of the Pope, he was sentenced to death by the Bishop of Dover, and he was burned in Canterbury on 12 July 1555.
Three men were burnt along with Bland. One of them was a local man, Nicholas Shetterden, who had been imprisoned for a number of months for preaching Protestant doctrines. In a farewell letter to his Mother, written the day before he was burnt, he pleaded with her to ‘beware of the great idolatry and the blasphemous mass’, and to follow God’s word, trusting in Christ for salvation.
The memorial erected at the Martyrs’ Field Road, Canterbury to the memory of the forty-one Kentish martyrs was unveiled on Saturday 10 June 1899 by Lord George Hamilton MP. The proceedings were chaired by the Dean of Canterbury, Dean Farrar, in the presence of the mayor and a large attendance of the public, including a number of MPs and clergy. The Protestant Alliance was represented by Mr Henry Fowler and Mr D S Hyslop of the Parent Society, and by representatives from the Dover, Margate, Ramsgate, Sittingbourne and Whitstable branches.
The inscription on the monument reads:
‘In memory of forty-one Kentish martyrs, who were burned at the stake on this spot, A.D. 1555-1558. For themselves they earned the Martyr’s crown, and by their heroic fidelity they helped to secure for succeeding generations the priceless blessing of religious freedom. ‘Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints’.
The site was secured and the monument was erected by public subscription, A.D. 1899 ‘Lest we forget’.
Margery Polley of Pembury was burnt at Tonbridge in July 1555, she was the first woman Martyr of Mary’s reign. She had been arrested and was brought before the Bishop of Rochester early in June 1555 to answer five charges that were brought against her. She told the Bishop that she refused to acknowledge the deity of the sacrament and that she repudiated the absurdity of the mass. She was condemned to death by the bishop and was burnt at Dartford.
A drinking trough was erected in her memory in the village of Pembury, paid for by public subscription at the instigation of Maria Betts in July 1909.
Alice Benden of Staplehurst was sent to prison for two weeks for refusing to attend mass in her local church, describing it as ‘idolatry committed against the glory of God’. Her husband tried to force her to attend mass but she refused and he offered to pay for his wife to be taken back to prison. She gave herself up and was condemned to death by the Bishop of Dover. She was burnt at Canterbury.
Alice Potkins of Staplehurst, when interrogated said: ‘I am resolved never to confess to a priest, nor pray to a saint, nor creep to the cross’. She was sentenced to death, but before she could be burnt, she died of starvation, imprisoned in Canterbury Castle. Joan Bradbridge was burnt at Maidstone on 18 June 1557.
Early in 1900 a Mr E Bailey of Croydon put forward the idea of erecting a monument to the Protestant martyrs from Staplehurst. The Staplehurst Martyr’s Memorial Fund was established in 1903, and it was originally intended to place the memorial at the edge of the lawn in front of Staplehurst School, however Kent County Council Education Committee refused permission to use this site. A new site was donated by a Mr W Brooks. The monument was erected by public subscription and was unveiled on 26 April 1905 by General Sir William Stirling.
The memorial is situated at Cuckold’s Corner and is built of Aberdeen granite. The decorative bronze tablet has the following inscription: ‘The Noble Army of Martyrs Praise Thee, This monument is dedicated to the Memory of Alice Potkins, Joan Bradbridge and Alice Benden of Staplehurst, also of Edmund Allen and his Wife, who for their faith suffered death, 1556-1557, during the Marian Persecution. We shall by God’s Grace light such a candle in England as shall never be put out’ Erected 1904 of the Protestants of Staplehurst and District. Thy Word is Truth’.
Many thanks again to Brother Jack Greenald for the provision of the above information.