"Faithful unto death..."
The mid 16th Century was a dark hour for the Lord's dear people living under the shadow of England's throne. Mary Tudor ("Bloody Mary") a wretched, sanguinary, bitter woman, daughter of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, held despotic sway.
During four years of her five year reign 289 of her subjects, men, women, boys and girls fell victim to the malevolence of resurgent Romanism championed by Mary and were burned at the stake. Another 112 would have died in the same manner had they not perished in prison due to torture and starvation. No corner of the Kingdom was safe for the true people of God and many fled. Among their number was a Huguenot preacher who took or sent his family to the island of Guernsey. He probably thought that there they would be safe in his absence as he himself was pursued, but this was not to be the case as his wife and daughters were cruelly murdered. The great martyrologist John Foxe wrote of the story we are about to recount, "Amongst all and singular histories touched in this book before, as there be many pitiful, divers lamentable, some horrible and tragical: so is there none almost either in cruelty to be compared, or so far off from compassion and sense of humanity, as this merciless fact of the papists, done in the Isle of Guernsey upon three women and an infant whose names were Katherine Cawches, the mother; Guillemine Gilbert, the daughter; Perotine Massey, the other daughter; and an infant, the son of Perotine."
In "The Town", St. Peter Port, there was a most wicked woman whose name was Vincent Gosset who on 27th May 1556 went at 10 o'clock at night to the house of a man called Nicholas le Conronney, found his hidden door key, entered the house and stole a silver cup. Vincent Gosset went directly to Perotine Massey and offered it to her. Perotine suspected that it was stolen and declined to take it. However, because she knew who the owner was, to retrieve and restore the vessel she gave the mischievous woman sixpence and received it. Perotine then reported the matter to the authorities and Vincent Gosset was summoned and apprehended. At her examination she immediately confessed the theft. The goblet was retrieved, Vincent Gosset was whipped, her ear was nailed to the pillory, and then she was banished from the Island.
The day after her trial the King's officers came before the justices to report that the constable had found in Perotine Massey's home (where she lived with her mother and sister), a pewter vessel which bore no mark and a dish upon which the name had been scraped off. At this stage the three women were arrested and put in prison. On 5th June 1556 they were found not guilty of any charges against them and it was recognised that they had always lived as honest women among their neighbours.
It would appear that Vincent Gosset was very possibly part of a conspiracy to bring these three innocent Godly women to the attention of the authorities with a view to causing them trouble concerning their religious convictions and practices. The justices observed that the three women had not been obedient to the commandments of "holy church" and had not attended the church, therefore they were again imprisoned in the castle on 1st July. The civil authorities thought that this matter did not pertain to their jurisdiction but to that of the clergy and so immediately wrote to the Dean, Jacques Amy, and Curates. A few days later Katherine, Guillemine and Perotine were examined by the ecclesiastics and no doubt questioned on their beliefs concerning the actual bodily presence of Christ upon the mass altar in the elements of bread and wine (according to the Act for the Burning of Heretics 1400-1401). On 14th July under the seal of the Dean and the signs of the Curates, a document was delivered to the Justices stating that Katherine Cawches and her two daughters had been found guilty of heresy. The women were fetched from the castle to hear their sentence which was to be "burned until they be consumed to ashes" at the stake. An appeal was made to the Sovereigns, the women stating that against right and reason they were so condemned but the appeal was to no avail.
Three stakes were set up, probably in the Tower Hill area off Le Bordage, in St. Peter Port. The mother was tethered to the central stake, the elder daughter on her right and the younger on the left. They were first partially strangled but the rope broke before they were dead. The women fell into the fire and Perotine who was "great with child" fell on her side. Her stomach burst open due to the vehemency of the flame and a fair baby boy fell into the fire. A man named House pulled the baby out of the fire immediately and laid it upon the grass. The little boy was carried to the Provost and then to the Bailiff who ordered that he be carried back again and thrown into the fire to be burned with his mother, grandmother, and aunt. And so this little mite was both born and died as a martyr. Foxe aptly describes this scene of martyrdom as ďa spectacle wherein the whole world may see the Herodian cruelty of this graceless generation of popish tormentors...".
Recognising that the horrific details of these martyrdoms would almost defy belief, Foxe was careful to state how he had received particulars from both French and English eyewitnesses. He had in addition annexed to his account the supplication of the inhabitants of Guernsey and the petition of the brother of Katherine Cawches complaining to Queen Elizabeth I and her Commissioners concerning the horribleness of the act which was presented to the Queen's Commissioners in 1562. The Roman Catholic Dean and Bailiff, both Jerseymen, who had been instrumental in this tragic event, were summoned to London after Elizabeth ascended to the throne, and when examined ultimately confessed to throwing the baby boy back into the fire, a horrendous act which outraged opinion in England. The Dean and Bailiff disavowed their Roman Catholic faith, begged for mercy, and received it. Very substantial fines were imposed upon them and upon the Jurats, all of whom were dismissed from office.
In the Guernsey archives (the Greffe) the charge against the Bailiff and Jurats is recorded "Helier Gosselin, sometime Bailift Nicholas Carey senior, John Blondel, John Marchant, Piers Bonamy and Nicholas Martin be truly Jurats living in the said Isle that wilfully and most maliciously burned four persons against the laws of God, and humane reason as may appear by the review of the last Commission from Guernsey returned at Windsor." A copy of the submission by the Royal Court in the Home Office records states:
"... They submit themselves to the Queen's Most Excellent Majesty acknowledging their erroneous judgments as well against Katherine Cawches and Guillemine and Perotine her two daughters and the infant of the said Perotine executed by fire for supposed heresy"
Helier Gosselin fled the Island in fear of his life, a new Bailiff was installed, and Romish influence in Guernsey had been effectively destroyed.
Stephen J. Scott-Pearson D.D.
General Secretary of The Protestant Alliance