George van Parris was a Flemish immigrant to London. His biographer, Andrew Pettegree, has argued: "The scant records of his life suggest that he was a surgeon, who had fled his native Flanders and settled in France before journeying on to London." (1) Parris had moved to England in order to enjoy a life free of religious persecution.
During the reign of Henry VIII eighty-one heretics had been burnt at the stake. Most of those executed were followers of Martin Luther. After the death of Henry in January 1547, his son, Edward VI, came to the throne. Edward was only nine years old and was too young to rule. In his will, Henry had nominated a Council of Regency, made up of 16 nobles and churchman to assist Edward in governing his new realm. It was not long before his uncle, Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, emerged as the leading figure in the government and was given the title Lord Protector. (2)
Seymour was a Protestant and so most of the followers of Luther returned from exile. Religious figures sympathetic to the Protestants such as Thomas Cranmer, Nicholas Ridley, Hugh Latimer, John Bradford, Miles Coverdale, John Rogers now held senior positions in the Church. Although some senior Catholics involved in the persecution of Protestants were arrested and imprisoned, they were not burnt at heretics.
It was this background that gave George van Parris confidence to establish his own church in London in 1550 based on the teachings of Arius. The historian, Jasper Ridley, has pointed out: "Van Parris held opinions which his opponents called 'Arian' because, like the African theologian Arius in the fourth century AD, he did not believe that Jesus was God. He was quite unlearned, knowing nothing about theology, but was a gentle man who had led a blameless life. (3) It is believed that this was an extremely small group made up of recent immigrants. (4)
The new government began concerned about the growth of different religious groups. This was especially true of the Anabaptists. It has been pointed out: "The Anabaptists not only objected to infant baptism, but also denied the divinity of Christ or said that he was not born to the Virgin Mary. They advocated a primitive form of Communism, denouncing private property and urging that all goods should be owned by the people in common." These beliefs posed a serious threat to all kings. (5)
One of the Anabaptist leaders, Joan Bocher, was arrested for distributing pamphlets, that expressed the opinion that Christ, the perfect God, had not been born as a man to the Virgin Mary. She was brought to trial before Bishop Nicholas Ridley and found guilty of heresy. Boucher's views upset both Catholics and Protestants. John Rogers, who had been involved in the publishing of English Bible that had been translated by William Tyndale, was brought in to persuade her to recant. After failing in his mission he declared that she should be burnt at the stake. (6)
John Foxe, who had been active in opposing the burning of heretics during the reign of Henry VIII was very distressed that Joan Bocher was now to be burned under the Protestant government of Edward VI. Although he disagreed with her views he thought that the life of "this wretched woman" should be spared and suggested that a better way of dealing with the problem was to imprison her so that she could not propagate her beliefs. Rogers insisted that she must die. Foxe replied she should not be burned: "at least let another kind of death be chosen, answering better to the mildness of the Gospel." Rogers insisted that burning alive was gentler than many other forms of death. Foxe took Rogers' hand and said: "Well, maybe the day will come when you yourself will have your hands full of the same gentle burning." (7) Foxe was right as Queen Mary ordered Rogers to be burnt at the stake on 4th February, 1555. (8)
It has been claimed by Christian Neff that the 12-year-old King Edward at first refused to sign the death warrant. Archbishop Thomas Cranmer insisted that "she should be punished with death for her heresy according to the law of Moses".He is said to have told Cranmer with tears, "Cranmer, I will sign the verdict at your risk and responsibility before God’s judgment throne." Cranmer was deeply impressed, and he tried once more to induce her to recant but she still refused. (9)
Joan Bocher was burnt at Smithfield on 2nd May 1550. "She died still upbraiding those attempting to convert her, and maintaining that just as in time they had come to her views on the sacrament of the altar, so they would see she had been right about the person of Christ. She also asserted that there were a thousand Anabaptists living in the diocese of London." (10)
As a result of the Bocher case, a commission was formed in January 1551 to deal with Anabaptism and other religious groups considered to be promoting heresy. One of the first people to be arrested was George van Parris. Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, Miles Coverdale and Nicholas Ridley were the judges at the trial of Parris. As he knew no English, Coverdale acted as interpreter. He was examined on his views, and most especially the belief that "God the Father is only God, and that Christ is not very God". His refusal to recant sealed his fate, and he was condemned for Arianism on 7th April. Parris was burnt alive on 25th April 1551. (11)
George van Parris, religious radical, was one of only two protestant dissenters executed for unorthodox views during the reign of Edward VI (the other being Joan Bocher). Van Parris was a foreign immigrant to London, a Fleming, though little is in fact known of his background and life before he fell foul of the London authorities. The scant records of his life suggest that he was a surgeon, who had fled his native Flanders and settled in France before journeying on to London. Here he is thought to have joined the London stranger church, founded in 1550, and he was certainly granted papers of denization on 29 October 1550, at the same time as many of the church's first members. It was most likely his denunciation by that congregation which precipitated his trial and execution, though the precise circumstances that led to his arrest and examination by the newly established commission charged with examining heresy remain obscure.
Even some leading English Protestants, like Bishop Ridley, did not see why the foreign Protestants should be allowed to have their own Church services instead of those of the Engliah Book of Common Prayer... John Lasco, a Polish nobleman who was a well-known Protestant... showed that he could be trusted to root out Anabaptists and extremist amomg his congregation when he denounced George van Parris, a Flemish refugee who had come to England from the Netherlands. Van Parris held opinions which his opponents called "Arian" because, like the African theologian Arius in the fourth century AD, he did not believe that Jesus was God. He was quite unlearned, knowing nothing about theology, but was a gentle man who had led a blameless life.
(2) Barrett L. Beer, Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)
(3) Jasper Ridley, Bloody Mary's Martyrs (2002) page 37
(5) Jasper Ridley, Bloody Mary's Martyrs (2002) page 35
(6) Andrew Hope, Joan Boucher: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)
(7) Jasper Ridley, Bloody Mary's Martyrs (2002) page 35
(8) David Daniell, John Rogers : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)
(9) Christian Neff, Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online (1953-2015)
(10) Andrew Hope, Joan Boucher: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)
(11) Andrew Pettegree, George van Parris : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)