Laurence Saunders
Summary: Laurence Saunders is an excerpt from the recommended book Cross and Crown by James D. McCabe, Jr. Who was this important martyr and what did he stand for?
 
 

Laurence Saunders was a man of good family. He was born during the reign of Henry VIII, and was educated at Eton College, from which he passed to King's College at Cambridge, where he remained three years.

Martin Luther Stock

At the end of that time his mother, who was a wealthy widow, and who wished him to engage in mercantile pursuits, apprenticed him to Sir William Chester, an eminent city merchant. This change was not to the taste of the young man, however, and Sir William, perceiving this, gave up his indentures and prevailed upon his mother to allow him to resume his studies.

He was soon admitted to the ministry of the English Church, and in the reign of Edward VI, married a young woman of his own rank in life, who proved a noble helpmate to him, and to whom he was devotedly attached. After filling sundry positions he was given the rectorship of All-Hallows Church in the City of London. He was in charge of this parish when Bloody Mary began her persecution of the Church of England.

Bonner, the Bishop of London, was not slow in singling out Saunders as a victim. In consequence of a sermon which he preached to his congregation on the 15th of October, 1553, he was arrested and carried before the bishop, who ordered him to write down his opinion concerning the doctrine of transubstantiation. He obeyed without hesitation, and as he handed the paper to the bishop, said:

"My lord, ye do seek my blood, and ye shall have it. I pray God that ye may be so baptized in it, that ye may thereafter loathe bloodsucking, and become a better man." He added that his conscience was clear.

"A goodly conscience, truly!" exclaimed Bonner, interrupting him. "It would make our Queen a bastard, would it not, I pray you?"

"We go about no such matter," replied Saunders.

"Let them care for that, whose writings are yet in the hands of men, witnessing the same, not without the great reproach and shame of the authors."

This report cut the unprincipled bishop to the quick, for Bonner had, in the reign of Henry VIII, written and printed a book against the lawfulness of Henry's marriage with Queen Catherine, the mother of Queen Mary. He was powerless to reply, and he called out to the officers, in a rage:

"Carry away this frenzy fool to prison."

Previous to his arrest, Saunders had lived in constant dread of being imprisoned, and had been so much disturbed by this feeling, that he said to a friend: "In very deed, I am in prison till I be in prison."

He knew that his arrest would be but the prelude to his death, but from the moment of his apprehension all his disquiet ceased, and he became calm and peaceful. He described his feelings to a fellow prisoner "as a sense of refreshment issuing from every part and member toward the heart, and from thence ebbing and flowing to and fro;” and he believed it to be “a certain taste of the Communion of Saints, wonderfully comforting him, not only in spirit, but in body also."

He charged his wife that she should make no effort to obtain his release, but that she should leave him in the hands of God, to work His blessed will. He assured her of his cheerful constancy, thanks to God and His Christ, "in whom, and through whom," he added, "I shall, I know, be able to fight a good fight, and finish a good course, and then receive the crown which is laid up in store for me and all the true soldiers of Christ. Thank, you know whom, for her most sweet and comfortable putting me in remembrance of my journey whither I am passing. God send us all good speed, and a joyful meeting. I have too few such friends to further me in that journey, which is, indeed, the greatest friendship."

He was kept a prisoner for fifteen months, and was treated with considerable severity. His place of confinement was the Marshalsea prison, never a comfortable abode at any time, and wretched place at this period. The keeper of the prison had positive orders not to allow anyone to visit his prisoner, and when Mrs. Saunders came to the jail, with her infant in her arms, and begged to see her husband, he was obliged to refuse her. Touched by her distress, however, he took the baby in his arms and carried him to his father. Saunders was profoundly moved by the sight of his boy, and when his fellow prisoners crowded around him to see the little fellow, an uncommon sight in that terrible place, he exclaimed an outburst of feeling:

"What man, fearing God, would not rather lose this present life, rather than, by prolonging it, adjudge this boy to be a bastard, his wife a whore, and himself a whore-monger? Yea, if there were no other cause for which a man of my estate should lose his life, yet who would not give it to avouch this child to be legitimate, and his marriage to be lawful and holy?"

The Roman party had foully denounced the marriages of the clergy in King Edward's reign as invalid, and had branded all the children of such unions as illegitimate. The married clergy, therefore, had not only their religion to maintain against Rome, but the honour of their wives and children was at stake, and during the whole reign there were fewer apostates among them than among their single brethren.

After being kept in prison for fifteen months, Mr. Saunders was taken for examination before the Privy Council, over which presided Gardiner, the Bishop of Winchester, then Lord Chancellor of England. He knew that this was but preliminary to his condemnation, but he was resolved to endure all with the firmness of a faithful Christian man. Gardiner began by telling him that his heresies were well known to the council, but that it was thought fit to show him mercy if he would seek it properly. "We have fallen in manner all," he said, "but now we be risen again, and returned to the Catholic Church; you must rise with us, and come home unto it. Leave off your painting and pride speech, for such is the fashion of you all to please yourselves in your glorious words. Answer, yes or no."

"My lord," replied the martyr, calmly, "it is no time for me now to paint. And as for pride, there is no great cause why it should be in me; my learning I confess to be but small, and as for riches or worldly wealth, I have none at all.

“Notwithstanding, it standeth me in hand to answer your demand circumspectly, considering that one of these two extreme perils is likely to fall upon, namely, the losing of a good conscience, or the losing of this my body and life. And I tell you truth, I love both life and liberty, if I could enjoy them without the hurt of my conscience."

"Conscience!" said the chancellor, who, being deficient in that quality, always disbelieved its existence in others; "you have none at all, by pride and arrogancy, dividing yourself by singularity from the Church."

"The Lord is the knower of all men's consciences," answered the martyr. "And where your lordship layeth to my charge this dividing myself from the Church (as you do mean, and as is now among you concluded upon, and I do understand), I do assure you that I live in the faith wherein I have been brought up since I was fourteen years of age, being taught that the power of the Bishop of Rome is but usurped, with many other abuses springing thereof. Yes, this I have received, even at your hands, as a thing agreed upon by the Catholic Church and public authority."

"But have you received by consent and authority, all your heresies of the blessed sacrament of the altar?" asked Gardiner, stung by this reply.

"My lord," said Saunders, "it is less offence to cut off an arm, hand, or joint of a man, than to cut off the head. For the man may live though he lose an arm, or hand, or joint; but he cannot without his head. Now you had all agreed to cut off the supremacy of the Bishop of Rome, whom now you will have to be the head of the Church again.

Here Bonner interrupted him, and called out to the chancellor: "And if it please your lordship, I have his hand against the blessed sacrament. What say you to that?" he asked, turning to the prisoner.

"What I have written, that have I written," was the reply, "and further I will not accuse myself. Nothing have you to burden me withal, for breaking of your laws since they were in force."

“You are obstinate, and refuse liberty," said the chancellor.

"My lord," said Saunders, simply, "I may not buy liberty at such a price; but I beseech your honours to be means to the Queen's majesty for such a pardon for us, that we may live and keep our consciences unclogged, and we shall live as most obedient subjects. Otherwise, I must say for myself, that by God's grace I will abide the utmost extremity that man may do against me, rather than act against my conscience."

"Ah, sirrah," cried Gardiner, "you will live as you like. The Donatists did desire to live in singularity; but indeed they were not fit to live on earth: no more are you, and that you shall understand within these seven days; therefore away with him."

"Welcome be it," said the martyr, tranquil, "whatsoever the will of God shall be, either life or death. And I tell you truly, I have learned to die. But exhort you to beware of shedding innocent blood. Truly it will cry. The Spirit of God rest upon you all."

He was taken from the council chamber, and made to wait in an anteroom until the other prisoners who had been brought from the same jail with him were examined. There was a large crowd present in the hall, and Mr. Saunders took advantage of this to exhort the people to avoid the wrath of God by refusing to bow the knee to Antichrist, and to be bold to confess the true faith of their Saviour in the face of any danger that might threaten them.

By the sentence of the council Mr. Saunders was excommunicated, and turned over to the secular power for punishment. The Sheriff, in whose power he was placed, lodged him in the Compter, a prison in Bread Street, within the limits of his old parish. He was very much pleased at this, as it seemed to him like getting back among his old friends, as indeed it was, for the people of his church, who were attached to him, flocked to the street with the prison, and he preached to them through the barred windows of his cell, as from a pulpit.

Knowing that his end was close at hand, the martyr wrote to his wife, who had been refused permission to see him, telling her that he was soon to be despatched to Christ, and comforting her. He asked her to send him a shirt, "which," he wrote, "you know whereunto it is consecrated. Let it be sewed down on both sides, and not open. O, my Heavenly Father, look upon me in the face of Thy Christ, or else I shall not be able to abide Thy countenance. He will do so, and therefore I will not be afraid what sin, death, and hell can do against me. O, wife, always remember the Lord. God bless you! Yea, He will bless thee, good wife, and thy poor boy also. Only cleave thou unto Him and He will give thee all things."

Obedient to his request, the noble woman made the shirt and sent it to him. It was the garment in which he was to die at the stake, and it was a comfort to him that it was made by the hands of her who had been a true helpmate to him in his prosperity, and whose fortitude greatly sustained him in his hour of trial.

On the 4th of February, 1555, Bishop Bonner came to the prison to degrade him from the ministry. This mockery was performed with great minuteness, and when it was concluded, the martyr said to the brutal bishop: "I thank God I am none of your Church."

The next morning he was delivered by the Sheriff of London to a detachment of Queen's Guard, to be conveyed to Coventry, where he was to be burned to death. On the first night they stopped at Saint Alban's. A person named Grimauld, who had been a member of the Reformed Church of England, but who had apostatized to Rome, took supper with the martyr. Saunders took the cup in his hands, and asked his companion whether he would pledge him in the cup which he would begin. The apostate answered timidly, "Of the cup in your hand will I pledge you, but I will not promise to do so with the other which you mean."

"Well," said the martyr, "my dear Lord Jesus Christ hath begun to me of more bitter cup than mine shall be, and shall I not pledge my sweet Saviour? Yes, I hope to do so."

From Saint Alban's they continued their journey, and arrived at Coventry on the 7th of February. As the captive passed through the town the people thronged the streets to gaze upon him, and many were the exclamations of pity and sympathy that greeted him. A poor shoemaker came up to him, and said to him, with tears:

"O my good master, may God strengthen and comfort you."

"Pray for me," said the martyr, earnestly; "I am the most unfit man for this high office that was ever appointed to it; but my gracious God and dear Father is able to make me strong enough."

He passed on to the town jail, into which he was thrown with common felons. He made a good use of this companionship, and passed the night in praying with them and instructing them in the truths of Christianity.

The next morning, February 8th, 1555, he was taken from his prison and conveyed to the park, where the stake had been set up. He was clad in an old gown and in the shirt his wife had made for him. He was barefooted, and walked with difficulty. As they drew near to the stake, the officer in charge of the guard said to Mr. Saunders that he was one of them who troubled the kingdom with false doctrines and heresy, but that if he would recant and be reconciled to the Church of Rome, the Queen would still pardon him. If he refused he would be put to death immediately.

"It is not I, nor my fellow preachers of God's truth, that have hurt the Queen's realm," replied the martyr; "but it is yourself, and such as you are, who have always resisted God's holy Word; it is you who mar the Queen's realm. I hold no heresies, but the doctrine of God, the blessed Gospel of Christ, that hold I, that believe I, that have I taught, and that will I never revoke."

Upon reaching the place of martyrdom, Mr. Saunders knelt down and prayed fervently. Then, rising, he embraced the stake, exclaiming: “Welcome the Cross of Christ, welcome everlasting life."

Then they bound him to the stake and the pile was lighted. The wood being green burned slowly, and this greatly increased his sufferings; but he bore the torments of the flames with patient firmness, never uttering a cry nor a groan, and presently he fell asleep in Jesus.

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