The Popular History of England of Society and Government from the Earliest Period to Our Own Times, Volume III
Of all the heroes of the Reformation, Rowland Taylor is, to our minds, the most interesting, because the most natural. Of a hearty, bluff English nature, full of kindliness and pleasantry, he is perfectly unconscious of playing a great part in this terrible drama, and goes to his death as gayly as to a marriage-feast.
Fuller says that those “who admire the temper of Sir Thomas More jesting with the axe of the executioner, will excuse our Taylor making himself merry with the stake.” He has been compared to Socrates in his simplicity and jocularity, his affection for his friends, and his resolution to shrink from no danger rather than compromise the goodness of his cause.*
The account which Fox has given of Rowland Taylor is held to be only inferior to the eloquence and dignity of the Phædon of Plato.†It is difficult to give the spirit of such a narrative without impairing its force; but we may select one or two of its more remarkable points. Taylor had been chaplain to archbishop Cranmer; but having been appointed rector of Hadleigh, in Suffolk, he devoted himself most zealously to the duties of his parish. He was married, and had nine children.
Soon after the accession of Mary some zealous papists took forcible possession of his church, and brought a priest to perform mass. Taylor remonstrated, with more wrath than worldly prudence, against what he called popish idolatry; and he was cited to appear in London before the chancellor. He was strongly urged to fly; and his faithful servant, John Hull, who rode with him to London, entreated him to shun the impending danger, and declared that he would follow him in all perils.
He came before Gardiner, with whom his long conference ended by the overpowering argument,” Carry him to prison.” He remained in confinement for about a year and three quarters, when he was brought before the commissioners and condemned as a heretic. His degradation was performed by Bonner; the usual mode being to put the garments of a Roman Catholic priest on the clerk-convict, and then to strip them off. Taylor refused to put them on, and was forcibly robed by another.” And when he was thoroughly furnished therewith, he set his hands to his sides, and said, ‘How say you, my lord, am I not a goodly fool? How say you, my masters, if I were in Cheap should I not have boys enough to laugh at these apish toys?'”
The final ceremony was for the bishop to give the heretic a blow on his breast with his crosier-staff. “The bishop’s chaplain said, ‘My lord, strike him not, for he will sure strike again.’ ‘Yes, by St. Peter, will I,’ quota Dr. Taylor, ‘the cause is Christ’s, and I were no good Christian if I would not fight in my Master’s quarrel.’ So the bishop laid his curse on him, and struck him not.” When he went back to his fellow prisoner, Bradford, he told him the chaplain had said he would strike again; “and by my troth,” said he, rubbing his hands, “I made him believe I would do so indeed.” We give the scene as we find it, as an exhibition of character and of manners. What Heber calls “the coarse vigor of his pleasantry” may justly appear to some as foolish irreverence. But under this rough contempt of an authority which he despised there was in this parish priest a tenderness and love most truly Christian.
At two o’clock on a February morning one of the sheriffs of London led Taylor out of his prison, to deliver him to the sheriff of Essex, in Aldgate, “Now when the sheriff and his company came against St. Boto??h Church, Elizabeth, his daughter, cried, saying, ‘O my dear father! Mother, mother, here is my father led away.’ Then cried his wife, ‘Rowland, Rowland, where art thou?’ for it was a very dark morning, that the one could not see the other. Dr. Taylor answered, ‘Dear wife, I am here,’ and stayed. The sheriff’s men would have led him forth, but the sheriff said, ‘Stay a little, masters, I pray you, and let him speak to his wife;’ and so they stayed. Then came she to him; and he took his daughter Mary in his arms, and he, his wife, and Elizabeth kneeled down and said the Lord’s Prayer: at which sight the sheriff wept apace, and so did divers other of the company.
After they had prayed, he rose up and kissed his wife, and shook her by the hand, and said, ‘Farewell, my dear wife, be of good comfort, for I am quiet in my conscience. God shall stir up a father for my children.’ And then he kissed his daughter Mary, and said, ‘God bless thee, and make thee his servant:’ and kissing Elizabeth, he said, ‘God bless thee, I pray you all stand strong and stedfast unto Christ, and his words, and keep you from idolatry.’ Then said his wife, ‘God be with thee, dear Rowland. I will with God’s grace meet thee at Hadleigh.’
And so he was led forth to the Woolsack [an inn], and at his coming out, John Hull, before spoken of,stood at the rails with Dr. Taylor’s son. When Dr. Taylor saw them, he called them, saying, ‘Come hither, my son Thomas;’ and John Hull lifted up the child and set him on the horse, before his father. Then lifted he up his eyes towards heaven, and prayed for his son; laid his hand on the child’s head, and blessed him; and so delivered the child to John Hull, whom he took by the hand and said, ‘Farewell, John Hull, the faith fullest servant that ever man had.’ And so they rode forth; the sheriff of Essex, with four yeomen of the guard, and the sheriff’s men leading him.”
The narrative of Fox conducts the condemned man by slow steps to his beloved Hadleigh. He is placid and even merry to the last. He jests upon his burly and corpulent frame, and holds that the worms in Hadleigh churchyard will be deceived, for the carcass that should have been theirs will be burned to ashes. He asks to be taken through Hadleigh. The streets are lined with his old parishioners. He could see them, but they could not look upon his face, which had been covered through his journey with a hood, having holes for the eyes and mouth. In Hadleigh there still stand some almshouses, built by William Pykeham, the rector, at the end of the fifteenth century.
Taylor, “stopping by the almshouses, cast out of a glove to the inmates of them such money as remained of what charitable persons had given for his support in prison, his benefices being sequestrated; and missing two of them he asked, ‘Is the blind man and the blind woman that dwelt here alive?’ He was answered, ‘Yea, they are there within.’ Then threw the glove and all into the window, and so rode forth.”
When he came to Aldham Common, where he was to suffer, he said, “Thanked be God, I am even at home;” and lighting from his horse he tore the hood from his head. “When the people saw his reverend and ancient face, and long white beard they burst out with weeping tears, and cried, saying, ‘God save thee, good Dr. Taylor.'” He would have spoken to them; but a guard thrust a tipstaff into his mouth. As they were piling the fagots a brutal man cast a fagot at him, which wounded him so that the blood ran down his face. “O friend,” said he, “I have harm enough; what needed that?” Let us draw a veil over his sufferings, and see only the poor woman who knelt at the stake to join in his prayers, and would not be driven away.