Thomas Benet, A Biographical Sketch

Transactions of the Devonshire Association, 1875, Vol VII, pp. 75-78.


Paul Q. Karkeek

Prepared by Michael Steer

Thomas Benet (died 1531) from Cambridge, was an English Protestant martyr during the reign of King Henry VIII. In 1524, he moved to Torrington, with his wife and family so that he could exercise his religious conscience more freely in a county where no one knew him. He was executed by burning on 15 January 1531, for heresy, at Livery Dole outside Exeter in Devon, under the supervision of Sir Thomas Dennis (c.1477-1561) of Holcombe Burnell, near Exeter, then Sheriff of Devon. He is said in Foxe's Book of Martyrs to have died with "his hands and eyes to heaven, saying 'Lord, receive my spirit!”.  A memorial to him and his fellow martyr Agnes Prest, who was burned nearby for the same offence in 1557, was designed by Harry Hems and erected near the site of their martyrdom by public subscription in 1909, The article, from a copy of a rare and much sought-after journal can be downloaded from the Internet Archive. Google has sponsored the digitisation of books from several libraries. These books, on which copyright has expired, are available for free educational and research use, both as individual books and as full collections to aid researchers.

In the early part of the sixteenth century there was studying at the University of Cambridge a young man of the name of Thomas Benet, and who was also a native of the same town. As is usually the case, a university town was a good place then, as was Athens of old, " to tell or hear of some new thing;" and consequently the seeds of the coming Reformation were being scattered broadcast among the students.

Benet had made the acquaintance of one Thomas Bilney, who afterwards suffered for his faith, and by him was instructed secretly in the doctrines of the new creed. On taking his degree of B.A., Benet also took to himself a wife; and just then, the search for heretics getting very hot, he deemed it best to leave his native town, and find some spot where he would have a chance of being allowed to believe as he liked, and at the same time earn his living. We are not told what inducement led him to turn bis footsteps westward; but early in the year 1524 Benet arrived at the quiet little town of Torrington. Here he endeavoured to keep a school; but the attempt did not succeed, or at all events he did not make it pay, for after residing in Torrington twelve months, he once more raised his camp, and settled in Exeter.

This time he was more successful, and he managed to secure a living by means of a school he kept in Butcher's Bow. In Exeter he lived six years, and earned the respect of all who knew him. He was spoken of as "of a very courteous nature, humble to all men, and offensive to nobody." Doubtless he kept his views on religious matters to himself, or the Cathedral dignitaries would never have allowed him to keep a school in Exeter very long. He was a regular attendant on all occasions when there was a preaching at the Cathedral, and probably by this habit warded off suspicion of heresy.

Sir Thomas More was very active in London in hunting up Reformers, and committing them to prison; and as such a hunt was of an exciting nature, the taste for this sport spread to the provinces; and consequently the ecclesiastical authorities of Exeter endeavoured to find grace in the eyes of Henry VIII. by emulating the doings of his minister. They succeeded in finding a subject for their skill in the person of Mr. William Stroud, a country gentleman who resided at Newnham, and who was committed to the Bishop's prison in the fall of the year 1530. What became of this gentleman we are not told; probably he had influence enough to get acquitted of the charge laid against him, for there is no evidence of his being burnt. The arrest of Mr. Stroud seems to have disturbed the peace of mind of poor Benet; for after long consideration he appears to have come to the conclusion, that his duty was no longer to hold his creed in secret, but openly to attack the Romanists, as he called them, in this stronghold of their power. Though a perfect stranger to Mr. Stroud, he addressed him a letter of consolation, and which letter has been handed down to us by the recording care of John Hoker. In it are these words: "Because I would not be a whoremonger or unclean person, therefore I married a wife, with whom I have hidden myself in Devonshire these six years."

Soon after writing this letter to Mr. Stroud, Benet called a meeting of his friends - in all probability Reformers like himself, but who held their faith in secret. He explained to them that he could no longer live in the way he had, but that he felt impelled to do his best to propagate his views on religious matters. Knowing the risk he ran, and feeling certain that his way would lead him to the stake, he pro ceeded to distribute his property, a few books, among his friends; and they in their turn prayed "that he might be strong in the cause, and continue a faithful souldier to the end."

Benet opened the campaign by going in the night to the door of the Cathedral, and fixing to it a placard containing these words: "The Pope is Antichrist, and we ought to worship God only, and no saints."

When this was discovered in the morning, there was a great disturbance, of course, and it proved a subject for talk and bustle for some days. The bishop and his colleagues naturally enough made a stir in denouncing the unknown offender; and the mayor and magistrates were compelled to exert themselves to effect his capture, but to no purpose. The Sunday following, Benet went as usual to the Cathedral to hear the sermon, and while there was closely watched by two men who had been very active in searching for the writer of the heretical placard. One of them said, "Surely this fellow is the heretic;" but Benet, who heard him, gave no sign, and continued reading his book, which, if they had been sufficiently literate, they would have found to be the New Testament in Latin.

No one having found the heretic, the clergy proceeded with great solemnity to pronounce the sentence of excommunication on him in contumaciam. Such a sight as this was sure to fill the Cathedral; and Benet was present. The sermon delivered on this occasion was on the text, "There is an accursed thing in the midst of thee, O Israel." (Joshua vii. 13.) At that stage of the ceremony when the cross is thrown to the ground, and falls with a noise, the congregation was much excited, and some of the women shrieked. Benet, forgetting his usual caution, was seen to laugh at this climax, and was immediately pounced on by the angry bystanders, who asked him "what he was laughing at?" and then shouts arose of " Here is the heretic ! here is the heretic!" " Hold him fast!" and so on. Great confusion took place, and in the midst of the disturbance Benet contrived to escape.

A day or two afterwards, at five o'clock in the morning, Benet sent his serving-lad to fix a placard "on the little stile." The lad was seen doing this by a citizen, who at once seized him and his placard, and bore off both to the mayor. The boy, being asked, revealed the name of his master, and Benet was soon arrested and placed in the stocks. The prisoner was visited in confinement by the Bishop, John Veysey, alias Harman, and others of the Cathedral clergy - including Doctors Moseman, Crispin, and Casely - and the preachers Bascavild and David, and Gregory Basset, a bachelor of divinity. These men were impressed by Benet's appearance and manner, and were apparently inclined to let the prisoner escape, if he would only give them a loophole to do 80. Gregory Basset was the only exception, and he was determined that Benet should not escape. Basset's religious character would not bear inspection. He had been at one time inclined to the reformed doctrines; but " the canons of Bristow made him recant by showing a pan of fire." Here there was a golden opportunity for exhibiting his zeal for the faith, and ingratiating himself in the good opinion of those in power. Basset and Benet had many an argument in the course of the trial, some of which have been handed down by Hoker, or rather what Hoker probably thought ought to have been the arguments; but, as usual, those in power (carried the day, and by Basset's influence the heretic was condemned to burn, and Sir Thomas More sent from London the writ de comburrendo to authorize the execution.

On January 15th, 1531, Benet was handed over to the civil power in the person of Sir Thomas Denis, Knt, who was at that time Sheriff of Devon. The place of execution was the Livery-dole, on the Heavitree Road, whei-e a few years ago, in making some excavations, a post with an iron ring was discovered, and which was supposed to be the spot where the heretic and witch burnings took place. The martyr was dressed for the occasion in a jerkin of neat's leather; why, we are not told; probably it had some symbolical meaning now forgotten. Two gentlemen present made themselves very officious in an extremely brutal manner. They were called Thomas Carew $nd John Barnehouse. The latter in particular was unnecessarily cruel; " for he took a furze-bush upon a pike, and setting it on fire, thrust it in the martyr's face," saying, " Accursed heretic ! pray to our Lady, or I will make you do it." On the executioner setting fire to the wood, there was a great competition among the bystanders, each being desirous of emulating the example of the aforesaid John Barnehouse. The record says "that well was he or she that could catch a stick or a furze to cast into the fire."

Thus perished Thomas Benet, a victim of the times he lived in and his own impetuosity. Twelve months later, and the minister who signed his death-warrant was in disgrace; and two years after, on January 25th, 1533, Henry VIII. was married to Anne Boleyn; and matters were too far gone then for any one to obtain a writ de comburrendo - at least for the party who burned poor Benet.

The fact of this man having resided for the space of twelve months in Torrington has induced me to bring forward on this occasion a short account of what is known, or at least reported, of his life and death.