Memoirs of the Reformers - Rowland Taylor (1510-1555)

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He is said to have possessed the piety of Calvin, with the intrepidity of Luther, and all that was orthodox in both these great men.

HADLEY, in Suffolk, was one of the first towns in England that received the doctrines of the reformation. Mr. Thomas Bilney, who suffered in the reign of Henry VIII, had for some time been engaged in preaching the gospel in this town and neighborhood, where, by the blessing of God on his indefatigable labors, the truths of Christ took such hold of the consciences of men, that an astonishing alteration was soon effected throughout that parish, both with regard to faith and manners. The people became exceedingly well acquainted with, the scriptures, women and men, and had their children and servants brought up with such care, and so diligently instructed in the truths of the gospel, that in a short time the whole town seemed rather an university of learned men, than a town of industrious mechanics.

Rowland Taylor, the subject of the present memoir, a doctor both in civil and canon law, was rector of this parish. He is said to have possessed the piety of Calvin, with the intrepidity of Luther, and all that was orthodox in both these great men. The doctor was no sooner presented to the benefice of Hadley, than he repaired to his post, and resided amongst his parishioners, notwithstanding that he had the happiness of living with archbishop Cranmer at Lambeth. In the exercise of his office as a pastor, he not only labored abundantly in the preaching of the word, but as becomes a shepherd of the flock of Christ, he was such an example to all, in word and conversation, in spirit, faith, and purity, that in a short time the people resorted to him in their difficulties, as children do to their father. To the poor who were blind,’ lame, sick, or aged and infirm, he acted the part of a tender father, a careful patron, and a diligent provider. The rich he stirred up to make a general provision for them, to which he made liberal contributions. He was naturally of a modest and unassuming disposition, but bold in reproving sin, without respecting the person of even the greatest and most powerful. In this way the doctor continued to discharge the duties of his office, and conduct his flock through the thorny thickets of this evil world, all the days of good king Edward. But Queen Mary having mounted the throne, and restored the catholic religion, one Foster and John Clark, of Hadley, had concerted between them a plan which they conceived would ingratiate them with the men in power. This was to erect an altar in Dr. Taylor’s church, for the purpose of publicly celebrating mass. With this view, they engaged John Averth, minister of Aldam, a dissembling papist, to bring the popish implements and garments, and a band of armed papists, as a protecting guard while he officiated as priest. They proceeded to Hadley church in a body and rang the bell; which Dr. Taylor hearing while sitting in his study, thought it some parish business that required his attendance, and accordingly went to church, where, to his utter astonishment, he saw Averth dressed off with all his popish habiliments, and a broad newly shaven crown, ready to commence his idolatrous sacrifice; whom the doctor thus addressed: “Thou devil, who made thee so bold to enter into this church to profane and defile it with this abominable idolatry? I command thee, thou popish wolf, in the name of God, to avoid hence, and not presume thus to poison Christ’s flock.” To which Foster replied, “Thou traitor, what doest thou here to let and disturb the queen’s proceedings?” After some farther altercation, the doctor was thrust out of the church, and a letter addressed to the chancellor, lodging in his court many false and grievous charges against this good man.

The chancellor had no sooner read these charges, than he sent letters missive to Dr. Taylor, commanding his appearance before him against a certain day, to answer, on his allegiance, to the complaints laid against him. On learning the critical situation of the doctor, his friends entreated him to fly for his life, as they had no reason to hope either for justice or mercy. To such friendly entreaties he replied, I know my cause to be so good, and the truth so strong on my behalf, that I shall, by the help of God, appear before them, and to their face resist their false doings; for I believe I shall never again have an opportunity of rendering God and his church so essential service, nor so glorious a call, to witness for the truth of the gospel; therefore pray for me, and I trust that God will so strengthen me by his Spirit, that mine enemies shall be ashamed of their evil proceedings. And when they farther urged him, that Christians were admonished by Christ, when persecuted in one city, to flee to another; and that, by preserving his life, he might reserve his usefulness for better times; he replied, I am old, and have already lived too long to see the abominations that have come upon us, the perjury, hypocrisy, and cruelty that overspreads the land of my nativity. You may act according to your consciences; for my own part, I am resolved not to fly, God shall hereafter raise up teachers who shall instruct the people with more diligence and greater success than I have done; for God will not forsake his church, though for the present he try and correct her, and not without cause.

Accordingly Dr. Taylor set out for London, attended by John Hull his servant, who, by the way, labored to persuade his master to save himself from the impending storm, at the same time proffering him his service, though it was at the hazard of his life. Oh, John, said the good old man, shall I give way to thy counsel, and leave my flock in this danger. Remember the good Shepherd, Christ, not only fed his flock, but laid down his life for his sheep. Him I must, and by the strength of his grace, will follow; therefore, John, pray for me; and if at any time thou seest me weak, comfort me; but discourage me not in this my godly enterprise.

The doctor, on his arrival at London, waited on the chancellor, who, in his brutal manner, saluted him with knave, traitor, heretic, and abundance more of similar epithets. The doctor listened with patience till he had drained his resources of abuse, and then replied, Please your lordship, I am neither a traitor nor heretic, but a true subject, and faithful Christian man; and I am come, according to your orders, to learn what is your lordship’s pleasure. Art thou come, thou villain? How darest thou look me in the face for shame, after what thou hast done? Knowest thou not who I am? Yes, said the doctor, I know you well, you are Stephen Gardiner, bishop of Winchester, and lord chancellor, and but a man for all. If you expect that I should be afraid of your lordly looks, why is it that you are not afraid of God, so infinitely superior to your lordship. How dare you look in the face of any Christian for very shame, having denied Christ your Saviour, and his word, and violated your own hand writing and oath, taken first to Henry VIII., and afterward to Edward his son? With what countenance will you appear before the tribunal of him whom thou hast betrayed, when he comes to judge the world, and do justice to his injured servants? Tush! Tush! cried the bishop, that was a Herod’s oath, unlawful, and therefore deserving to he broken. I have done well in breaking it; and I thank God I am come home to our mother, the catholic church of Rome, and would that thou shouldst do so likewise. But, said the doctor, Christ will assuredly require it at your hands, as a lawful oath made to our liege lord the king, from which the pope, nor any power on earth, cannot absolve you. I see, said the bishop, thou art an arrogant knave, and a very fool; besides, thou art a married man, and hast, moreover, resisted the queen’s orders, in not suffering the minister of Aldam to say mass in Hadley. It is true, my lord, I am a married man, and have nine children, all born in lawful matrimony, for which I am thankful to God, that has ordained wedlock, that every man may have his own wife, and not live in whoredom and adultery. As respecting the resisting of the queen’s proceedings, know, my lord, that I am the minister of Hadley; and it is out of all right or conscience or law that any man should come into my charge without my knowledge or consent, and presume to infect my flock with the venom of this idolatrous mass. The bishop grew angry, and said, Thou art a blasphemous heretic indeed, that blasphemes the blessed sacrament (putting off his cap), and speakest against the holy mass, which is made a sacrifice for the living and the dead. Nay, said the doctor, I reverence the blessed sacrament, as a Christian ought to reverence it, yet boldly assert, that Christ ordained the holy communion as a memorial of his death and passion, which, when we keep according to his institution, we by faith are made partakers of his body and blood, giving thanks for our redemption. That sacrifice which Christ offered up once for all, was of itself so full and perfect, that it was sufficient for all that believe on his name; and therefore no priest can offer him again, nor is there room left for any more propitiatory sacrifices, only a thankful remembrance of him whose blood was shed for our salvation. True, said the bishop, it is called a thanksgiving; but it is also a sacrifice propitiatory for the quick and dead, and that you shall confess ere you and I have done; and calling to his men, said, have this fellow hence, and carry Mm to the king’s bench, and charge the keeper to have him close confined.

Thus sent to prison, the doctor was held in custody almost two years, during which he was frequently examined respecting his faith, and as often witnessed a good confession before his adversaries. On the last day of January Dr. Taylor was examined, for the last time, before the bishops of London, Winchester, Norwich, Salisbury, and Durham, who charged him with heresy and schism, requiring, at the same time, a determinate answer, whether he would submit himself to the Roman bishop, and recant his errors, otherwise they would proceed against him by their laws, made since his imprisonment. The doctor told them, with a great deal of modest and becoming fortitude, that he would not depart from the truths he had preached in the days of king Edward, nor submit himself to the Roman antichrist; but thanked God, who had counted him worthy to suffer for his truth and name’s sake. When the bishops found him so hold, steadfast, and inflexible, they pronounced the sentence of death upon him. To which he only replied, My lord, I doubt not but God will require my blood at your hands, and that the proudest of you all shall yet repent your falling off from Christ to antichrist, the tyranny you now exercise against the harmless flock of Christ, and the blood you have so wantonly shed throughout the land. He was remanded to prison, and the keeper ordered to confine him closer than ever. On his way back, the people crowded to see him; to whom he said, I thank God, good people, I am come away from them undefiled, and by the help of my God shall seal the truth of his word and gracious gospel with my blood.

About a week after the condemnation of Dr. Taylor, bishop Bonner came to the prison to perform the ceremony of degradation, when the doctor refused to put on the popish vestments, but had them put on him by force; which done, putting his hands on his sides, he strutted up and down the room, saying, How say you, my lord, am not I a goodly fool? How say you, my masters, were I now in Cheapside, should not I have boys in abundance to laugh at these apish toys and childish trumpery? On which the bishop began to scrape his fingers and thumbs, and the crown of his head, and cursed him again and again. You may curse me, said the doctor, but what avails it when God will bless me. I have the witness of my conscience that you have done me wrong and violence; nevertheless, I pray God your sins may be forgiven you. But from the tyranny of the bishop of Rome, and his cruel coadjutors, good God deliver us.

After his degradation he was sent to the king’s bench., where he soon experienced the difference between the treatment of the keepers in the bishop’s prison and those of the king. The former, like their merciless masters, were wicked and cruel; but the latter exercised towards their prisoners all the civility and humane kindness in their power; and here the doctor, through the courtesy of his new keeper, was indulged with a visit of his wife, Ms son Thomas, and his servant John Hull, to sup with him the evening before he suffered. Before supper he prayed with them; and when supper was over, walking up and down the room, he gave thanks to God for his goodness and his effectual calling, that he had afforded him strength to abide by his holy word. Then turning to his son, he thus addressed the young man: My dear son, almighty God bless thee, and give thee his holy Spirit, to make thee a true servant of Christ, to teach thee his word, and to thy life’s end constantly to stand by his truth; and, my dear son, see that thou fear the Lord always. Flee from all sin and wicked living; be virtuous, serve God with daily prayer, and apply thyself to learning; and by all means prove obedient to thy mother, love her and serve her; be ruled by her now in thy youth, and in all things follow her good counsel. Beware of the lewd company of young men who fear not God, but follow their lusts and vain desires. Flee from whoredom, and hate all filthy living, remembering that I, thy father, die in defense of holy marriage: Another day, when God shall bless thee, love and cherish the poor people; and to be rich in alms account thy greatest riches; and when thy mother has waxed old, forsake her not, but provide for her to thy power, and see that she lack nothing; for so will God bless thee, and prosper the work of thy hands; which I pray God to grant thee. Then turning to his wife, he said, My dear wife, I have been a faithful yokefellow to you, and you have been the same to me; and the time is now come when I shall be taken away from you. Continue steadfast, I beseech you, in the faith of the gospel, and in the fear and love of God. Keep yourself undefiled with popish idolatry and superstition; and doubt not but God will be a merciful father to you, and to my poor children, whom I pray you to bring up in his fear, and in learning, to the utmost of your power; and O keep them from this Romish idolatry.

Having ended his last and parting advice with the utmost tenderness and affection, they prayed together, and wept over each other in the most affecting manner. He gave his wife the prayer book he had with him in prison; and to his son a book of remarkable sayings of the primitive martyrs, written in Latin, in the end of which he had written his last will and testament: so they took their leave of him, under feelings which the reader may imagine, but which cannot be described.

Next morning, at two o’clock, the sheriff and his officers arrived, and’ led the doctor to the sign of the woolpack without Aldgate. His wife suspecting they would take him away while dark, watched all night in the neighborhood, along with her daughter Mary, and a young maiden called Elizabeth, thirteen years of age, who had been brought up with them from a child. And when the sheriff, with his prisoner, came opposite where they were waiting, Elizabeth cried, O my dear father I my dear father! Mr. s Taylor also called her husband by name, for .it was very dark, being in the month of February. Dear wife, said the doctor, I am here, and so stood still. The sheriff’s men were for pushing him forward; but the sheriff said, no, stop a little, and let him speak with his wife. He then took Ms little daughter Mary in his arms, and kneeled down, with his wife and Elizabeth, and prayed. The scene here was so moving, that. the sheriff and some of his officers melted into tears. When they rose up from prayer, the doctor kissed his wife, shook hands with her, and said, farewell, dear wife, be of good comfort, for I enjoy a quiet and approving conscience, and God will raise up a father for my poor children. He took his little daughter again in his arms, kissed her, and said, God almighty bless thee, and make thee his faithful servant. . He kissed Elizabeth, and said, God bless thee; and I pray all of you to stand strong and immoveable in the cause of Christ and his blessed word, and keep clear of the idolatry of Rome. God be with thee, dear husband, said Mrs. Taylor, I shall, with his help, meet thee at Hadley. But having followed them to the inn, and being observed by the sheriff, he ordered her to be confined till he returned from the execution, so that she beheld her loving husband no more.

The doctor was put into a chamber, with a guard of four men, where he gave himself wholly to prayer till eleven o’clock, when he was put on horseback, and led forth; where his servant, with his son Thomas, was waiting. When the doctor saw them, he called for his son, and setting the child before him on his horse, he took off his hat, and said to the numerous spectators, Good people, this is my son, begotten of my body in lawful marriage; and this is one of the charges for which I am about to give myself to the flames; but God be thanked for the blessing of lawful matrimony. And lifting his eyes to heaven, he prayed for his son, and blessed him, and returned him to his servant, whom he shook by the hand, saying, farewell, John Hull, the faithfullest servant ever man had.

They halted at Burntwood, where they had a close hood prepared for him, with openings for his eyes, and one for breathing. This was done to many of the martyrs, because it was understood that the cheerfulness and serenity of their countenances tended to confirm the protestants in the faith of the word of God, and in their abhorrence of popish cruelty; but notwithstanding their severity, the doctor was exceedingly cheerful on the way. He exhorted the sheriff and his men to repent and leave off their evil courses, in such an earnest and pathetic manner, that they frequently wept. In the evening they were met by the sheriff of Suffolk at Camelsford, where they all supped together. After supper, the sheriff of Essex, supposing it might yet be possible to persuade the doctor to save himself from the cruel death that awaited him, expressed, in very handsome terms, how sorry he and all the company present were for his situation; and urged him, by every possible consideration, yet to consider the ruin he was bringing on himself and family, and the loss the country would suffer in the event of his death, assuring him, that his advice was given with an honest heart, and with the most benevolent intentions; and so, said the sheriff, good doctor, I drink to you; and so we will all of us drink to you, said the company. When it came to the doctor’s turn, he took the cup, and after a short pause, said, Mr. ‘Sheriff, and my masters all, I heartily thank you for your goodwill. I have hearkened to your words, and marked well your counsels; and, to be plain with you, I perceive that I have been deceived myself, and that vast numbers at Hadley will also be deceived. God’s blessing on your heart, said the sheriff, these are comfortable words; but pray explain yourself. You see, said the doctor, that I am a man of a large carcass, which I hoped would have been buried in Hadley churchyard, in which there are a vast number of worms, which should have had jolly feeding on this carrion; but now I arid they shall both be disappointed, for this carcass shall be burnt to ashes. The fortitude manifested in this explicit declaration, filled the company with sorrow and astonishment.

The sheriff of Suffolk waited two days at Lanham, where he was joined by the magistrates and principal gentlemen of the county, who labored to bring over the doctor to the Romish religion. They promised him great promotion, even a bishopric; but having counted the cost of a faithful testimony for Christ, all their entreaties were vain. When within two miles of Hadley, he expressed a desire to walk the rest of the way, and was permitted to dismount: On which he leaped as it were for joy; which the sheriff observing, said, well, Mr. Doctor, how do you do now? Never better, said he, God be praised, I am almost at home, and have only another stile or two to pass, when I shall arrive at my Father’s house. Being told he should pass through Hadley, he thanked God that once more before his death he should see his flock, whom he heartily loved, and had truly taught, and prayed the Lord to keep them steadfast to his truth.

The streets of Hadley were lined with men and women, both of town and country; who expressed their feelings in bitter lamentations and prayers, that God would strengthen him, and comfort his soul in the trying hour; to whom he frequently said, as he passed along, I have preached God’s word and verity amongst you, and I am now come to testify, before the world, that I believe and adhere to the same, by suffering my body to be burnt to ashes in your presence.

When he was come to Aldam common, the place of his execution, he tore off the hood that covered his face; when it appeared, that the malicious Bonner, when degrading him, had endeavored to disfigure him, by cutting off parts of his fine hair, and by tying other parts of it into knots. He then attempted to speak to the people, but no sooner had he opened his lips, than some one or other thrust his tipstaff into his mouth. He asked leave of the sheriff; but was denied, and put in mind that he had made a promise of silence. It has been said that he was threatened with having his tongue cut out if he would not promise to keep silence. He then put off his clothes to his shirt, and giving them away, cried, with a loud voice, Good people, I have taught you nothing but God’s holy word, and those lessons which I have gathered out of God’s blessed book, the holy bible: Upon which Holmes, one of the guard, who had behaved cruelly to the Doctor all the way down, struck him on the head with a bludgeon, saying, Is this thy promise of silence, thou heretic.

On finding that he would not be allowed to speak, the doctor kneeled down and prayed; after which he went to the stake and kissed it. He was placed in a pitchbarrel, with his back upright against the stake, where, with his bands clasped together, and his eyes lifted up to heaven, he continued praying. One of the men employed in making the fire threw a faggot at him, which wounded his head till the blood ran down his face, and besmeared his long and venerable beard. Friend, said the doctor, I have harm enough beside, what occasion was there for this! Another hearing him say the psalm miserere in English, said, Knave, speak Latin, or I will make thee. The fire being kindled, he continued in the same position, without moving at all, praying and ejaculating, Merciful Father of heaven, for Jesus my Savior’s sake, receive my soul. At last one with a halberd beat out his brains, and his body fell into the fire. Thus died, for the cause of Christ and the rights of conscience, Rowland Taylor, an eminent preacher of righteousness, who cheerfully rejected proffered wealth, power and preferment, from the usurpers of his Master’s prerogatives, choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God than enjoy the pleasures of sin; accounting the reproach of Christ, and his persecuted prophets, apostles, and martyrs, infinitely greater riches than the pretended vicar of Christ ever had to bestow.

The Last Will and Testament of Dr. Rowland Taylor, Parson of Hadley:

“I SAY to my wife and children, the Lord hath given you unto me, and the Lord hath taken us away from one another; blessed be the name of the Lord. I believe them blessed who die in the Lord. God careth for sparrows and for the very hair of our heads. I have ever found him more faithful and favorable than any father or husband. Trust in him, believe in him, love, honor, and obey him, pray to him; for he hath promised to help in every time of need. I go, but do not consider me dead, for I shall never die. I only go before you. I go to the rest of my children, Susan, George, Helen, Robert, and Zachary, and you shall, all of you, in God’s good time, follow after, where we shall meet again with joy unspeakable and full of glory. I have bequeathed you to him whose goodness is infinite, and whose power is equal to his goodness. Fear not. ,… . “I say to my friends in Hadley, and all others who have heard me preach, that I leave this world with a quiet conscience with regard to the doctrines I have taught them; for I have taught them these lessons that I gathered from the unerring word of God; and therefore, if an angel from heaven should preach any other doctrine unto you, God’s great curse fall on that preacher. Beware, for God’s sake, that ye deny not the Saviour, nor decline from the truth of his gospel. For God’s sake beware of popery, for though it has the appearance of unity, yet this same unity is vanity and antichristianity, diametrically opposed to the faith and verity that is in Christ Jesus. The Lord grant all men his good and holy Spirit to increase their wisdom, to show them the vanities of time, and give them a relish for true holiness, and the enjoyment of God and the heavenly company, through Jesus Christ, our only Mediator, Advocate righteousness, life, sanctification, and hope. Amen, amen.

Bible Verse:

“I am Almighty God; walk before Me and be blameless,” (Gen. 17:1).

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