In my time, I have worked as a Sunday School teacher, sung in a church choir, and even been a bell-ringer. No-one who knows me now believes any of that; but, it’s true. Church-going was a regular, weekly, part of my up-bringing. I am no longer a religious person, but the sermons to which I listened certainly made one think about ways of living, and to question authority. At this time of massive national and international political turmoil, we all seem to be thinking about these issues (except, perhaps, the bell-ringing).
In Ashford, it was ever thus. From the 16th and 17th centuries, if not before, Ashford had gained a reputation for having a significant nonconformist population, fighting for religious freedoms, equality between the sexes and so on; still important topics today.
In 1511, two years after coming to the throne, Henry VIII had not yet broken from Catholic Rome and the Pope’s authority, and so was still keenly instigating the persecutions and executions of ‘heretic’ protestants.
One such Ashford Protestant was John Brown. He was travelling on a Gravesend barge and happened to sit next to a priest – perhaps rather too closely. The priest, affronted, asked him:
“Do you know who I am?”
John Brown replied that he did not.
“I tell you I am a priest; I sing for souls.”
John Brown asked where the priest found the souls when he went to Mass and the priest responded that he could not tell him.
John Brown asked: “If you cannot tell me, then how can you save the souls?”
Fighting talk. Upon landing, the priest informed Bishop Warham, Archbishop of Canterbury, of the heretic with whom he had travelled and, two days later, Brown was arrested, tied to his horse and taken to Canterbury, without his wife or supporters having any idea what had happened to him.
For forty days and nights, Brown was imprisoned and tortured. His bare feet were placed on burning coals to try and force him to recant. Yet, he was steadfast.
At last, he was returned to Ashford to be burned. His wife heard that he was back, and went to visit Brown in the town stocks. She stayed the whole night with him, ‘cheering him and being cheered by him’.
Finally, he was burned to death on Martyrs’ Field, by the River Stour, on Whitsunday evening 1517.
By 1556, Queen Mary had been on the throne for three years and had returned the country to Catholicism. During that year a ‘number of Kentish people’ were executed by burning at Ashford, in a renewed purge of Protestants. Not all of their names are known, but the following year, 1557, two men from Tenterden: Matthew Bradbridge and Nicholas Final, having been severely starved at Canterbury, were burned at the stake at Martyrs’ Field in Ashford. Their widows were later burned to death in Canterbury, as were five men known to have come from Canterbury: Humphrey Middleton, Richard Colliar, William Stere, Richard Wright and John Herst. John Brown’s son, Richard, was saved from the same fate as his father by the death of Queen Mary.
Martyr’s Field is now a small, anonymous patch of green on Henwood Business Park. With the Ashford traffic roaring past, going into town, or perhaps to Ashford International, it is hard to evoke the high emotional drama of loved ones being slowly put to death for a cause in which they believed. But, still, people, such as Mrs Lucy Fagg, wanted the site to be remembered in some way. There is a plaque to her funding a bench on Martyrs’ Field, and a little further away, an engraved headstone giving details of those who fought for ‘Protestant truth’.
In the modern building adjacent to Martyrs’ Field is a charity, the Mission Aid Foundation, dedicated to spreading Christian ministry and aid to deprived countries. Their mission statement declares: “We believe everyone deserves access to hope, including the isolated. That’s why we fly relief, healthcare, education and God’s love to those most unreachable.” On precisely that spot, the Ashford Martyrs died for MAF’s right so to do. That is Ashford’s non-conformist Christian heritage continuing through more than 500 years, into the 21st century.