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Martyrs’ Tales

  • Mark Kishlansky


This article recounts the legal proceedings against those Puritan activists who challenged the government of Charles I in the 1630s. It demonstrates that most of our knowledge of these events has come from the highly colored accounts written by the defendants themselves. Closer examination demonstrates that Leighton, Prynne, Bastwick, Burton, and Lilburne set out to challenge the government, first by writing incendiary tracts about religion and then by refusing to recognize the jurisdiction of the courts into which they were brought. While they saw their causes as cases of conscience, Caroline officials saw them as attacks upon the legal and political system. They were convicted in formal legal proceedings, and while the penalties they received appear barbaric to our sensibilities, they were typical in such cases.



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1 Anon., England's Rejoicing at the Prelate's Downfall (1641), [E3023], B2. Publication dates are given with the year reckoned to begin on 1 January. All places of publication are London unless otherwise specified. Spelling and punctuation have been modernized in titles and quotations. Printed books are identified by their catalog numbers: Short Title Catalogue (STC) (number only); Wing (capital letter and number); Thomason Tracts (E.).

2 Lilburne, John, The Poor Man's Cry (Amsterdam, 1639), [15598], 10.

3 Lilburne, who may not have known his age (or exaggerated his youth for effect), gave it as “about 20 years” in his first examination in 1637. Lilburne, John, The Christian Man's Trial (1641), [E. 181 (7)], 6. His engraved portrait published in 1641 as a frontispiece to both Christian Man's Trial and Lilburne, John, A Light for the Innocent (1641), [L 2138], gives it as 23. Modern scholarship makes him three years older, born in 1615. Sharpe, Andrew, “John Lilburne (1615?–1657),” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, ed. Colin, H., Matthew, G., and Harrison, Brian (Oxford, 2004), (hereafter ODNB).

4 The list of their tracts is extensive because they wrote copiously and reprinted often. The central works are Leighton, Alexander, An Appeal to the Parliament (1640), [L1022]; An Epitome . . . of the many great troubles that Dr. Leighton Suffered (1646), [E. 354 (2)]; Bastwick, John, The answer of John Bastwick, Doctor of Physic, to the information of Sir John Banks Knight (Amsterdam, 1637), [1568]; Burton, Henry, An Apology of an Appeal (Amsterdam, 1636), [4135]; [Burton, Henry], A Divine Tragedy (1636), [4140], 4344; Burton, Henry, A Narration of the Life of Mr. Henry Burton (1643), [E. 94 (10)]; Prynne, William, A New Discovery of the Prelate's Tyranny (1641), [E. 162 (1)]; Prynne, William, A Brief Relation of Certain Special and Most Material Passages (1641), [E. 162 (2)]; Lilburne, Christian Man's Trial [E. 181 (7)]; Lilburne, John, The Work of the Beast (Amsterdam?, 1638), [15599].

5 The Foxian strains of some of these writings have been analyzed in Knott, John, Discourses of Martyrdom in English Literature (Cambridge, 1993). The similarities were more than echoes. As Lilburne wrote: “I have read a great part of the Book of Martyrs, with some histories of the like kind.” Lilburne, Poor Man's Cry [15598], 5.

6 Anon., England's Rejoicing [E3023], B2 (unpaginated 4).

7 A Relation of a Strange Apparition in an Ale-house Next Door to the White Horse (1641), [R795], 5.

8 Walker, Henry, A Terrible Out-cry Against the Loitering Exalted Prelates (1641), [W389]; Anon., Comfortable Cordials Against Discomfortable Fears of Imprisonment (1641), [P3927].

9 Burton, Divine Tragedy (1642), [E. 176 (1)]; Leighton, Alexander, A Decade of Grievances Presented and Approved (1641), [L1023].

10 For the details of Leighton's life, see Frances Condick, “Alexander Leighton (c.1570–649),” ODNB,

11 Kishlansky, Mark, “A Whipper Whipped: The Sedition of William Prynne,” Historical Journal 56, no. 3 (2013): 12. An information was the equivalent of an indictment.

12 Kenneth Gibson, “Henry Burton (1578–1647/48),” ODNB,; Burton, Henry [and Prynne, William], A Divine Tragedy (1636), [41407].

13 Bastwick, John, A Just Defense of John Bastwick (1645), [E. 265 (2)], 1131 (mispaginated).

14 John Bastwick, The Answer of John Bastwick [1568], 5.

15 Birch, Thomas, ed., The Court and Times of Charles I, 2 vols. (1848), 2:61.

16 Houghton Library, Harvard University, Eng. MSS 1359, f. 233r. This was recalled by Laud during Prynne's 1634 trial. See Mead's remarkable gloss of the phrase “a daughter of Heth.” Birch, Court and Times, 2:62–63.

17 Alexander Leighton, An Epitome or Brief Discovery [E. 354 (2)], 3–4.

18 Gardiner, S. R., ed., “The Speech of Sir Robert Heath, Attorney-General in the Case of Alexander Leighton,” Camden Miscellany 7 (1875): 1.

19 Condick, “Alexander Leighton,” ODNB,

20 Leighton, An Epitome or Brief Discovery [E. 354 (2)], 16–29; Gardiner, “Speech of Sir Robert Heath,” 3.

21 Gardiner, “Speech of Sir Robert Heath,” xi.

22 For an account of Prynne's 1634 cause, see Kishlansky, “Whipper Whipped,” 1–25.

23 Houghton Library, Harvard University, Eng. MSS 835, f. 18v–19r.

24 For Bastwick, see Frances Condick, “John Bastwick (1595?–1654),” ODNB,

25 Bastwick, John, A More Full Answer of John Bastwick (1637), [1575], 5.

26 Burton, Henry, A Narration of the Life of Mr. Henry Burton (1643), [B6169], 710. For the details of Burton's life, see Gibson, “Henry Burton,” ODNB,

27 There seems to be little doubt that he was coauthor of A Divine Tragedy, but his role in penning News from Ipswich remains contested.

28 Howell, T. B., ed., A Complete Collection of State Trials, 21 vols. (1816), 3:1338. For the details of Lilburne's life, see Andrew Sharpe, “John Lilburne (1615?–1657),” ODNB,

29 Bastwick, Just Defense [E. 265 (2)], 10.

30 Ibid., 11 (mispaginated as 31).

31 Lilburne, Christian Man's Trial [E. 181 (7)], 7–8.

32 Howell, State Trials, 3:1327. Lilburne's codefendant was John Wharton, whom it was believed had financed his original venture.

33 Prynne, William, The Antipathy of the English Lordly Prelacy (1641), [P3891A], i, 224.

34 A notable exception is Sharpe, Kevin, The Personal Rule of Charles I (New Haven, 1992), 758–65. Sharpe's interpretive perspective is similar to the one presented here.

35 Foster, Stephen, Notes from the Caroline Underground (Hamden, CT, 1978), 45.

36 Lamont, William, Marginal Prynne (1963), 2848, and William Lamont, “William Prynne (1600–1669),” ODNB

37 Clegg, Cyndia, Press Censorship in Caroline England (Cambridge, 2008), 166.

38 Gardiner, S. R., History of England, 1603–1642, 10 vols. (1884), 7:333.

39 Prynne awaited his punishment until the Society of Lincoln's Inn could cast him from the bar on 24 April 1634 and the University of Oxford could strip him of his degree three months later. Both did so unanimously. This was no formality. The Privy Council was sensitive to the privileges of these professions and in Leighton's case stated “and this court for reverence of that calling doth not use to inflict any corporal or ignominious punishment upon any person so long as they remain in orders.” Gardiner, “The Speech of Sir Robert Heath,” xi. Bruce, John, ed., Calendar of State Papers Domestic Series of the Reign of Charles I, 1633–34 (1863), 575 (hereafter CSPD); Baildon, W. P., ed., Records of the Honourable Society of Lincoln's Inn: The Black Books (1897–1902), 2:318. Burton was defrocked by the High Commission on 27 June. Folger Library, MSS V.a.248, f. 51r. I owe this reference to Noah Millstone. Bastwick's case was more complicated because his medical degree came from abroad. He was stripped of his license and suspended from the practice of medicine after his first conviction in 1635. Francis Condick, “John Bastwick,” ODNB,

40 Birch, Court and Times, 2:219; Bastwick, The Answer of John Bastwick [1568], 25.“What he himself hath done, he is ever resolved to seal with his best blood and to justify and make good whatsoever he shall accuse the Prelates of.”

41 Birch, Court and Times, 2:61.

42 Barnes, Thomas, “Star Chamber Mythology,” American Journal of Legal History 5 (1961): 7.

43 Baildon, W. P., ed., John Hawarde, Les Reports del Cases in Camera Stellata, 1603–1609 (1894), 176–77. In the end, this sentence was commuted.

44 For Pickering, see Alastair Bellany, “Lewis Pickering (bap. 1571),” ODNB,

45 Baildon, Hawarde, Les Reports, 373.

46 Breton, Nicholas, The Mother's Blessing (1621), [3670], B8. This stanza is not in the original edition of 1604.

47 In Hugh Pyne's case (1627), the judges decided that words do not “of themselves make treason.” The National Archives (TNA): State Papers (SP) 16/86/50, Judgment in Star Chamber 22 November 1627; Howell, State Trials, 3:359–67; David Cressy, “Hugh Pyne (1569/70–1628),” ODNB, Nevertheless, both Sir Robert Heath, who delivered this opinion to Charles I, and Chief Justice Richardson, who was one of the judges deciding the case, explicitly said in 1634 that had Prynne been tried at common law, he would have been found guilty of treason. Houghton, Eng. MSS 1359, f. 276r, 279r.

48 Prynne, Antipathy of the English Lordly Prelacy [P3891A], i, 158.

49 William Prynne, A Brief Relation of Certain Special and Most Material Passages [E. 162 (2)], 139.

50 Burton, Henry, For God, and the King (1636), [4142].

51 He asserted that he had “no wicked purpose or design” or any intention to “traduce, defame, dishonor, or scandalize his Majesty.” Houghton, Eng. MSS 1359, f. 196v, 197v.

52 Bastwick, Answer of John Bastwick [1568], 2.

53 Towers, S. M., Control of Religious Printing in Early Stuart England (Woodbridge, Suffolk, 2003), 9.

54 Bastwick, John, The Letany of John Bastwick (1637), [1572], 15.

55 Examination of John Lilburne, May 17, 1639, Banks MSS 18/21, Bodleian Library, Oxford University. I am grateful to Noah Millstone for this reference. Lilburne, Christian Man's Trial [E. 181 (7)], 31.

56 Macray, W. D., ed., The History of the Rebellion and Civil Wars by Edward, earl of Clarendon 6 vols. (Oxford, 1888), 1:267.

57 Francis Condick, “Alexander Leighton,” ODNB,; Birch, Court and Time, 2:61; Leighton, An Epitome or Brief Discovery [E. 354 (2)], 3, in which he claims “they had almost killed my wife.”

58 Burton, Narration of the Life [E. 94 (10)], 11.

59 Lilburne, Christian Mans Trial [E. 181 (7)], 12.

60 That the High Commission preferred chastisement to punishment is evidenced by the fact that all of the martyrs had previously appeared there without being punished. See Ussher's account of the normal workings of the court in Ussher, R. G., The Rise and Fall of the High Commission (Oxford, 1913).

61 Leighton, An Epitome or Brief Discovery [E. 354 (2)], 3.

62 Ibid., 4.

63 Birch, Court and Times, 2:62, 80.

64 Heylyn, Peter, Cyprianus Anglicus (1671), 148.

65 Burton, Narration of the Life [E. 94 (10)], 8, 10.

66 Batswick, John, A More Full Answer of John Bastwick (Leiden, 1637), [1575], 7.

67 Bastwick, Answer of John Bastwick [1568], 11.

68 Leighton, An Epitome or Brief Discovery [E. 354 (2)], 81: “whose degrees (to let other things pass) did exempt him from any such punishment.”

69 A Proclamation for the establishing of the Peace and Quiet of the Church of England (1626), [8824]. This proclamation banned the expression of “new” opinions and empowered the use of ecclesiastical courts to suppress them. It is sometimes confused with the Declaration of 1628 that banned discussion of predestination.

70 Burton, Divine Tragedy [4140.7], 43–44. Prynne's contribution to the end of this work was excised in the edition published in 1642. Burton, Divine Tragedy (1642), [E. 176 (1)]. The question of whether Prynne was the author of News from Ipswich is aired by Plomer, Henry, “Michael Sparke, Puritan Bookseller,” Bibliographer 1 (1902): 415–16, but most modern authorities accept the attribution.

71 Ussher, Rise and Fall of High Commission, 265.

72 Estimates differ about the length of the reply; Prynne claimed it was forty sheets; Bastwick, eighty. It was stated in court that it was “five skins and a half of parchment close written.” Prynne, New Discovery [E. 162 (1]), 42; Burton, Narration of the Life [E. 94 (10)], 11; Howell, State Trials, 3:715.

73 Gardiner, S. R., ed., Documents Relating to the Proceedings Against William Prynne in 1634 and 1637 (Camden Society, new series 18, 1877), 75. In an earlier examination, part of Bastwick's answer was disallowed for being “scandalous, frivolous, and impertinent.” CSPD, 1634–35, 547.

74 Howell, State Trials, 3:722.

75 Ibid., 3:716.

76 Ibid., 3:720. Prynne seemed to believe that he had a valid argument on this point and submitted a petition to the king asserting that “he had not been refractory in answering.” Gardiner, Documents Relating to William Prynne, 89.

77 Houghton, Eng. MSS 1359, f. 180r, 239r, 202v; Kishlansky, “Whipper Whipped,” 12.

78 Houghton, Eng. MSS 1359, f. 239r.

79 Howell, State Trials, 3:714.

80 Prynne, New Discovery [E. 162 (1)], 4.

81 Bastwick, Answer of John Bastwick [1568], 28.

82 Wickens, Nathaniel [Prynne, William], Woodstreet-compters-plea for its Prisoner (1638), [25587]. This tract was probably written by Prynne for the reasons specified by John Bruce. Gardiner, Documents Relating to William Prynne, 103.

83 Lilburne, Christian Man's Trial [E. 181 (7)], 14.

84 Rushworth, John, Historical Collections, 8 vols. (1721), 2:466.

85 Lilburne, John, The Work of the Beast (1638), [15599], 13.

86 Leighton, An Epitome or Brief Discovery [E. 354 (2)], 11, 16, 29, 81.

87 CSPD, 1633–34, 225; Burton, Divine Tragedy [4140.7], 43.

88 Prynne, Brief Relation [E. 162 (2)], 8.

89 Prynne, New Discovery [E. 162 (1)], 17.

90 Ibid., 43.

91 Bastwick, Answer of John Bastwick [1568], 10; Prynne, New Discovery [E. 162 (1)], 19–20.

92 Bastwick, Answer of John Bastwick [1568], 11; Kenneth Gibson, “Henry Burton,” ODNB,

93 Lilburne, Christian Man's Trial [E. 181 (7)], 5–13.

94 Ussher, High Commission, 265. “The regular practice was to fine heavily in terrorem, and then, at Mitigations, when some evidence of compliance with the Court's order had been shown, to reduce the fine by one-half, by three-fourths, or even to remit it altogether. In the same way deprivations, suspensions, excommunications were lightened for those who showed themselves amendable and repentant.”

95 Houghton, Eng. MSS 1359, f. 240v–241r, 293r.

96 Burton, Divine Tragedy [4140.7], 44. Leighton's sentence had included slitting his nose and branding his forehead, penalties recommended for Prynne by some judges but rejected. Prynne actually received the mildest penalty proposed by members of the court. See also Prynne, New Discovery [E. 162 (1)], 11.

97 Leighton, An Epitome or Brief Discovery [E. 354 (2)], 81.

98 Condick, “Alexander Leighton,” ODNB,; Birch, Court and Times, 2:83.

99 Leighton, An Epitome or Brief Discovery [E. 354 (2)], 85.

100 Ibid., 17.

101 Ibid., 14.

102 Ibid., 89.

103 Ibid., 85.

104 Ibid., 89.

105 Bastwick, Letany [1572], 12.

106 John Bastwick, Just Defense [E. 265 (2)], 9–10.

107 Burton, Narration of the Life [E. 94 (10)], 5–17.

108 Ibid., 20.

109 The Several Humble Petitions of D. Bastwick, M. Burton [and] M. Prynne (1641), [E. 207 (4)], 910.

110 Lilburne, Christian Man's Trial [E. 181 (7)], 20.

111 Lilburne, John, Come Out of Her my People (Amsterdam, 1639), [15596], 30.

112 Lilburne, Christian Man's Trial [E. 181 (7)], 34.

113 Ibid., 37.

114 Lilburne, Poor Mans Cry [15598], 5.

115 Burton, Narration of the Life [E. 94 (10)], 17.

116 Ibid., 13, 20.

117 Bastwick, Letany [1572], 19.

118 John Lilburne, Come Out of Her my People [15596], 7.

119 Leighton, An Epitome or Brief Discovery [E. 354 (2)], 86.

120 Birch, Court and Times, 2:81, 83.

121 Burton, Narration of the Life [E. 94 (10)], 12.

122 Lilburne, Christian Man's Trial [E. 181 (7)], 18.

123 Ibid., 19.

124 Prynne, Brief Relation [E. 162 (2)], 54: “for this is my wedding day”; Lilburne, Christian Man's Trial [E. 181 (7)], 21.

125 Birch, Court and Times, 2:80.

126 Bruce, John, ed., Letters and Papers of the Verney Family (Camden Society, old series, 56, 1853), 157–58; Knowler, William, ed., The Earl of Strafforde's Letters and Dispatches, 2 vols. (1739), 1:261; Halliwell, J. O., The Autobiography and Correspondence of Sir Symonds D'Ewes, 2 vols. (1845), 2:105. Cf. Cressy, David, Travesties and Transgressions (Oxford, 2000), 221. Cressy's citations of the reactions of Henry Burton and Nehemiah Wallington are unwittingly quotations from Prynne himself.

127 Anon., [Prynne, William], A Brief Relation of Certain Special and Remarkable Passages (Amsterdam, 1637), [1569], 30. This tract, much enlarged, was reprinted in 1641. Sharpe attributes it to Bastwick without explanation. Sharpe, Personal Rule, 761, n.199.

128 CSPD, 1637, 332. Digby was a recent Catholic convert.

129 Peacey, Jason, “The Paranoid Prelate: Archbishop Laud and the Puritan Plot,” in Conspiracies and Conspiracy Theory in Early Modern Europe, ed. Coward, Barry and Swann, Julian (Aldershot, 2004), 125.

130 Newsletter of Rossingham, 6 July 1637, The National Archives: State Papers 16/363/80.

131 Lilburne, Christian Man's Trial [E. 181 (7)], 37.

132 Sharpe, Personal Rule, 760.

133 Gardiner, “Speech of Sir Robert Heath,” xx.

134 Patterson, Annabel, Censorship and Interpretation (Madison, WI, 1984), 115.

135 Cressy, Travesties and Transgression, 219. See also Clegg, Press Censorship, 122, 164; Hawkins, Michael, “The Government: Its Role and Its Aims,” in The Origins of the English Civil War, ed. Russell, Conrad (1973), 61; Lamont, William, Puritanism and Historical Controversy (1996), 20; Skerpan-Wheeler, Elizabeth, The Rhetoric of Politics in the English Revolution, 1642–60 (Columbia, MO, 1992), 125; Cust, Richard, Charles I: A Political Life (Harlow, 2005), 169.

136 McRea, Andrew, “Stigmatizing Prynne: Seditious Libel, Political Satire, and the Construction of Political Opposition,” in The 1630s: Interdisciplinary Essays on Culture and Politics in the Caroline Era, ed. Atherton, I. and Sanders, J. (Manchester, 2006), 178. See especially Reverend Canon Blomefield, Puritanism in Chester,” Journal of the Architectural, Archaeological, and Historic Society for the County and the City of Chester and North Wales 3 (1885): 271–88.

137 Kishlansky, “Whipper Whipped,” 12–13, 17–18.

138 Gardiner, “Speech of Sir Robert Heath,” 4.

139 See, for example, Tyacke, Nicholas, The Fortunes of Puritanism (1990), 4: “How far the Puritan majority was at this time truly moderate remains open to question.” See also Tyacke, “The Puritan Paradigm of English Politics, 1558–1642,” Historical Journal 53, no. 3 (2010): 527–50; Como, David, “Radical Puritanism, 1558–1660,” in The Cambridge Companion to Puritanism, ed. Coffey, John, Lim, Paul, and Paul, Chang-Ha (Cambridge, 2008), 241–58; Winship, Michael, “Freeborn (Puritan) Englishman,” English Historical Review 124, no. 510 (2009): 1050–74.

Martyrs’ Tales

  • Mark Kishlansky


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