Martyr: 1: a person who voluntarily suffers death as the penalty of witnessing to and refusing to renounce a religion. 2: a person who sacrifices something of great value and especially life itself for the sake of principle.
It is difficult in this day and age and place to wrap our heads around the idea that people once were (and around the world still today are) willing to give up their lives for religion, for ideas, for faith. It seems, in the modern Western World, our only Faith is in ourselves.
Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. became a martyr 50 years ago, assassinated on 4 April 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee–he suffered death for the sake of principle, for his faith in the ultimate humanity of mankind and the American Republic. Today, 21 January 2019, we have a Federal Holiday to reflect on the man and his mission. Yet, who among us would make the same sacrifice half a century later?
Five centuries ago, martyrdom was much more common in the Western World than today. The original Martin Luther had ignited the Protestant Reformation in 1517, posting his 95 theses on the front door of the Wittenburg Castle church (since Facebook wasn’t invented yet). In Merry Olde England, Henry VIII may have just wanted a divorce from the Pope in 1527, the English Reformation soon turned political, and bloody. Parliament separated the Church of England from the Catholic Church in Rome (1532-34), while forces loyal to Reformation and loyal to Rome jockeyed for position during the regency of Edward VI (1847-1853). Catholic Queen Mary I earned her moniker “Bloody Mary” reversing these reforms in the Marian Persecutions (1853-1858). Over her five-year reign, Mary Tudor burned over 280 religious dissenters at the stake.
Richard Woodman of Sussex became one of the martyrs of the Marian Persecutions in 1557. Woodman was an “iron-master”, and employed about 100 people in his enterprise at Warbleton, East Sussex, so he would have been a leader in his community. The story goes, that in 1553:
During a sermon at St Mary the Virgin Church, Warbleton, Woodman was arrested for having words with the rector which are said to have identified Woodman as a Protestant. Woodman said that the rector was preaching the exact opposite of what he previously said (before Mary was Queen).
Long story short, despite being given chances over several years of imprisonment to renounce his heresy, and ultimately gaining release from prison, Woodman would not recant his evangelical faith. On 22 June 1557, he and nine other men and women were assembled at Lewes, county town of East Sussex, and burned at the stake in the largest mass execution by fire of Bloody Mary’s reign of terror (the Sussex Martyrs). To be fair, many loyal Catholics were also martyrd during the reigns of Henry VIII and later in Elizabeth’s term before we ever get to the English Civil War or the settlement of America.
Queen Mary died the following year at age 42, succeeded by Queen Elizabeth I (1558-1603) who restored the English Protestant church (the Elizabethan Religious Settlement of 1558-59) and faced the continued fallout of the Reformation throughout Europe. Mary’s son and Elizabeth’s successor, James VI & I (1603-1625), continued to face an unsettled political and religious environment, as demonstrated by the Puritans on one side and Catholic machinations leading to the Gunpowder Plot in 1605 on the other. Historian M. A. Lower wrote about the Sussex Martyrs in the mid-nineteenth century, and in Sussex in particular they are part and parcel of Guy Fawkes night celebrations: “Remember, remember the Fifth of November, The Gunpowder Treason and Plot…”
Some sources try to connect Richard Woodman, the martyr, with Edward Woodman and his brother Archelaus Woodman who emigrated from Corsham in Wiltshire (Wessex) to Newbury, Massachusetts, in 1635, during the ill-fated reign of Charles I (1625-1649). Edward’s grandfather was Thomas Woodman, but the way the church records get back that far it’s impossible to determine who Thomas’ father was. Some genealogists have exacting standards for documentation, while others (before the internet or after) are much more willing to fewer assurances in accuracy. In 1943, G. Andrews Moriarty discredited certain fictions that our Woodmans of Wilshire were connected with the Woodman of Sussex in the pages of the New England Historical and Genealogical Register while explaining the apparent basis of the supposition. (Thomas’ father could have been a man named Nicholas Woodman, or a man named Richard Woodman, but both would have been from Wiltshire families not Sussex.) As others might make leaps of faith to claim kinship with Kings and Queens, our family made leaps of faith to claim kinship with a martyr.
I admire men and women who hold their faith so dear that they would lay down their lives, to value an idea more than their own flesh. Martin Luther valued his soul more than his own life. Richard Woodman valued the ideas of the Reformation more than his own life. Rev. Martin Luther King valued freedom and equality more than his own life. Remember, remember, indeed.