John Rogers was born in Deritend near Birmingham in about 1500. He graduated from Pembroke College in 1526. After leaving Cambridge University he became rector 32 of the London church of Holy Trinity-the-Less. (1)
In 1534 Rogers went to Antwerp to become chaplain to English merchants in the country. While in the city he met William Tyndale and Miles Coverdale who had both fled from England in fear of being persecuted for their religious beliefs by Henry VIII. (2) Tyndale was living there as a guest of Thomas Poyntz, an English merchant and cousin to Lady Walsh of Little Sodbury in Gloucestershire who, with her husband, had employed Tyndale as tutor to their children in the early 1520s. (3)
Tyndale was the author of The Obedience of a Christian Man (1528) and had translated the New Testament and the Old Testament as far as the Book of Chronicles. In May 1535 a combination of forces hostile to reform, including the Emperor Charles V, succeeded in having Tyndale arrested just outside the English House, and had him imprisoned. Some of Tyndale's manuscripts were confiscated but Rogers managed to rescue some of his work, including translations of some of the Old Testament. (4)
Rogers worked with Miles Coverdale to use Tyndale's manuscripts to assemble a complete Bible. Fifteen hundred copies of Tyndale's Bible were printed and shipped to England. Rogers arranged for the English Bible to be printed in Antwerp in 1537. A copy was given to Archbishop Thomas Cranmer. He sent it to Thomas Cromwell with the note "as for the translation, so far as I have read thereof I like it better than any other translation heretofore made". (5)
The two men wanted the Bible to be available in English. This was a controversial issue as William Tyndale had been denounced as a heretic by Henry VIII eleven years before, for producing such a Bible. Therefore, the Bible did not have Tyndale's name on it and instead was attributed to Thomas Matthew. (6)
On 4th August 1538, Cranmer asked Cromwell to present it to the king in the hope of securing royal authority for it to be available in England. Henry agreed to the proposal on 30th September. Every parish had to purchase and display a copy of the Bible in the nave of their church for everybody who was literate to read it. "The clergy was expressly forbidden to inhibit access to these scriptures, and were enjoined to encourage all those who could do so to study them." (7) Cranmer was delighted and wrote to Cromwell praising his efforts and claiming that "besides God's reward, you shall obtain perpetual memory for the same within the realm." (8) Bishop Stephen Gardiner was totally opposed to this measure as he considered the departure from the "original" Latin was heresy. (9)
While in Antwerp John Rogers married Adriana de Weyden. John Foxe described her as "more richly endowed with virtue and soberness of life, than with worldly treasures". In 1540 the couple moved to Wittenberg. In 1543 he became pastor at Meldorf. During this period Philipp Melanchthon, a follower of Martin Luther, described Rogers as "a learned man… gifted with great ability, which he sets off with a noble character… he will be careful to live in concord with his colleagues… his integrity, trustworthiness and constancy in every duty make him worthy of the love and support of all good men." (10)
In January 1547 Edward VI came to the throne and the following year he returned to London. Soon afterwards Joan Bocher, an Anabaptist, began distributing pamphlets, that expressed the opinion that Christ, the perfect God, had not been born as a man to the Virgin Mary. She was arrested and brought to trial before Bishop Nicholas Ridley and found guilty of heresy. Boucher's views upset both Catholics and Protestants. John Rogers was brought in to persuade her to recant. After failing in his mission he declared that she should be burnt at the stake. (11)
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." (12)
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. (13)
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." (14)
On 13th May 1550, Rogers became vicar of one of the leading London churches, St Sepulchre. On 27th August 1551 he received from Bishop Nicholas Ridley the prebend of St Pancras in St Paul's Cathedral. "He was appointed lecturer in divinity in the cathedral. Ridley admired him. He preached powerfully and boldly against the misuse of the abbey lands by Northumberland and his party. In April 1552 his wife and those children born in Germany, including John Rogers and Daniel Rogers, were naturalized." (15)
In April 1552 Edward VI fell ill with a disease that was diagnosed first as smallpox and later as measles. He made a surprising recovery and wrote to his sister, Elizabeth, that he had never felt better. However, in December he developed a cough. Elizabeth asked to see her brother but John Dudley, the lord protector, said it was too dangerous. In February 1553, his doctors believed he was suffering from tuberculosis. In March the Venetian envoy saw him and said that although still quite handsome, Edward was clearly dying. Edward's heir was Mary, the daughter of Catherine of Aragon and a Roman Catholic. (16)
Edward died on 6th July, 1553. Three days later one of Northumberland's daughters came to take Lady Jane Grey to Syon House, where she was ceremoniously informed that the king had indeed nominated her to succeed him. Jane was apparently "stupefied and troubled" by the news, falling to the ground weeping and declaring her "insufficiency", but at the same time praying that if what was given to her was "‘rightfully and lawfully hers", God would grant her grace to govern the realm to his glory and service. (17)
Mary, who had been warned of what John Dudley, the Duke of Northumberland, had done and instead of going to London as requested, she fled to Kenninghall in Norfolk. As Ann Weikel has pointed out: "Both the earl of Bath and Huddleston joined Mary while others rallied the conservative gentry of Norfolk and Suffolk. Men like Sir Henry Bedingfield arrived with troops or money as soon as they heard the news, and as she moved to the more secure fortress at Framlingham, Suffolk, local magnates like Sir Thomas Cornwallis, who had hesitated at first, also joined her forces." (18)
Mary summoned the nobility and gentry to support her claim to the throne. Richard Rex argues that this development had consequences for her sister, Elizabeth: "Once it was clear which way the wind was blowing, she (Elizabeth) gave every indication of endorsing her sister's claim to the throne. Self-interest dictated her policy, for Mary's claim rested on the same basis as her own, the Act of Succession of 1544. It is unlikely that Elizabeth could have outmanoeuvred Northumberland if Mary had failed to overcome him. It was her good fortune that Mary, in vindicating her own claim to the throne, also safeguarded Elizabeth's." (19)
The problem for John Dudley was that the vast majority of the English people still saw themselves as "Catholic in religious feeling; and a very great majority were certainly unwilling to see - King Henry's eldest daughter lose her birthright." (20) When most of Dudley's troops deserted he surrendered at Cambridge on 23rd July, along with his sons and a few friends, and was imprisoned in the Tower of London two days later. Tried for high treason on 18th August he claimed to have done nothing save by the king's command and the privy council's consent. Mary had him executed at Tower Hill on 22nd August. In his final speech he warned the crowd to remain loyal to the Catholic Church. (21)
Mary decided to remove from power all those who were considered to be Protestants. John Rogers was accused of being a seditious preacher and the Privy Council ordered his arrest. Rogers stayed a prisoner in his house for five months. Some of his religious friends escaped to Europe but Rogers insisted on staying in London to defend his beliefs. On 27th January 1554 he was sent to Newgate Prison. His biographer, David Daniell, points out: "He (John Rogers) was not permitted to receive any stipend, though by law he was still incumbent of St Sepulchre. His wife and ten children were in desperate need. He remained in Newgate for a year, untried. In November or December 1554 he joined with his fellow prisoners in writing a letter to the queen, protesting against the illegality of their imprisonment and begging to be brought to trial." (22)
In December 1554 parliament re-enacted legislation permitting the execution of heretics, and on 22nd January 1555 John Rogers was put on trial before Bishop Stephen Gardiner. Rogers was accused of heresy in denying the Papal Supremacy over the Church and the Real Presence of Christ in the consecrated bread and wine of the Sacrament. Rogers was attacked for having a wife and eleven children. He defended his decision to marry by arguing that the Bible did not say that priests should not have a wife. Rogers was also criticised for "misusing the gifts of learning which God had given them by arguing for a wicked cause against God's truth". (23)
John Rogers was found guilty of heresy. Rogers told the commissioners that he had only one request to make, and asked that before he was burned he should be permitted to receive one farewell visit from his wife. His request was denied and on 4th February 1555 he was degraded by Bishop Edmund Bonner. (24) This process has been explained by Jasper Ridley, the author of Bloody Mary's Martyrs (2002): "The hands were scraped with a knife to remove the holy oil with which they had been anointed. The scraping could be done either gently or roughly. The Protestants alleged that Bonner did it roughly whenever he took part in a degradation ceremony; but this may have been Protestant propaganda, for Bonner's attitude varied between boisterous and aggressive gloating and a patient attempt to persuade heretics to recant so that their lives could be spared." (25)
On 4th February, 1555, John Rogers was taken to Smithfield. His wife and children met him on the way to the burning, but Rogers still refused to recant. He told Sheriff Woodroofe: "That which I have preached I will seal with my blood." Woodroofe replied: "Then, you are a heretic. That will be known on the day of judgment." Just before the burning began a pardon arrived. However, Rogers refused to accept it and became the first martyr to suffer death during the reign of Queen Mary. (26)
It was claimed that when the fire took hold of his body, "he, as one feeling no smart, washed his hands in the flame, as though it had been in cold water" and "lifting up his hands to heaven he did not move them again until they were consumed in the devouring fire". (27) Protestants rejoiced in his faithfulness and even Catholic opponents noted his heroic fortitude in death. (28)
John Foxe, from Boston in Lincolnshire, after graduating at Magdalen College in Oxford, was ordained as a deacon in London and became an ardent Protestant. He had been horrified at the burning of Protestant heretics by Henry VIII, and was very distressed that Joan Bocher was now to be burned under the Protestant government of Edward VI. He thought that her opinions were wrong and shocking, but that the life of "this wretched woman" should be spared; she should be imprisoned in some place where she could not propagate her beliefs and where renewed efforts could be made to induce her to recant.
Foxe visited Rogers and pleaded for Joan's life; but Rogers insisted that she must die for her heresy. Foxe said that if her life must be taken away, she should not be burned: "at least let another kind of death be chosen, answering better to the mildness of the Gospel. What need to borrow from the Papal laws and bring into the Christian arena the torments of this dreadful death?" Rogers said 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."
John Rogers was educated at the University of Cambridge then served as chaplain to the English merchants living in Antwerp, The Netherlands. There he met William Tyndale and Miles Coverdale, both of whom had previously fled England. Converted to Protestantism, Rogers aided the two in translating the Bible into English, married, and moved to Wittenberg, where he was given a congregation of his own.
Rogers served his congregation for many years before returning to England during the reign of King Edward VI, who had banished Catholicism and made Protestantism the state religion. He served in St. Paul's until Queen Mary took the throne, banished the gospel, and brought Catholicism back to England.
Even then, Rogers continued to preach against the queen's proclamation until the council ordered him to remain under house arrest in his own home, which he did, even though he could easily have left the country. Protestantism was not going to flourish under Queen Mary. Rogers knew he could find work in Germany; and he did have a large family to think of, but he refused to abandon his cause to save his life.
He remained a prisoner in his own house for a long time, but eventually Bonner, bishop of London, had Rogers imprisoned in Newgate with thieves and murderers, and Stephen Gardiner, bishop of Winchester condemned him to death.
Early on the morning of Monday, February, 4, 1555, the jailer's wife woke Rogers and told him to hurry and dress; this was the day he was to burn. His wife and children met him on the way to Smithfield, but Rogers still refused to recant. Arriving at Smithfield, he was given one more chance by Sheriff Woodroofe.
"That which I have preached I will seal with my blood," Rogers replied.
"Then," said Woodroofe, "you are a heretic."
"That will be known on the day of judgment."
"Well, I'll never pray for you!"
"But I will pray for you."
A little before the burning, a pardon arrived, but Rogers refused to recant and accept it, becoming the first martyr to suffer death during the reign of Queen Mary.