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John Bland, Rector of Adisham

Graham Noble assesses the significance of one of the earliest Marian Martyrs.

Mary Tudor’s doomed attempt to restore the Catholic faith in England led to the execution by burning of nearly 300 unrepentant, evangelical heretics between 1555 and the Queen’s own death in 1558. More than a fifth of these were persecuted in the county of Kent, most of them within Thomas Cranmer’s archdiocese of Canterbury.

Amongst the first to die was John Bland, the Rector of Adisham. His martyrdom, closely documented in John Foxe’s great, propagandist work Acts and Monuments, is particularly noteworthy not only because it so clearly reveals the acrimony of the reformation in Kent but also because it raises an issue uncomfortable for Foxe and other critics of Marian persecutions: that many of the Canterbury martyrs were far from being orthodox Edwardian protestants whose faith had been the official doctrine of England just a few years previously.

Bland’s Background

John Bland was born to a privileged background in Sedbergh, North Yorkshire. It was no doubt at St John’s College, Cambridge, where he first encountered Thomas Cranmer, that Bland developed his taste for the new European learning, Protestantism. Abandoning his first career as a schoolmaster, he was inspired to become a minister of the Church and, according to Foxe, was ‘inflamed with incredible desire to profite the congregation’. He was presented to the Kentish living of St John’s at Ospringe and in 1541 became rector of Adisham, near the Archbishop’s palace at Bekesbourne, and acquired a role in Cranmer’s administration.

Soon Bland earned himself a reputation as a committed and provocative reformer. He traveled widely in eastern Kent, preaching the evangelical cause and denouncing fasts, devotion to the saints and other ‘superstitious’ Catholic ceremonies. Adisham Church was stripped of its altar and images as early as 1542 and iconoclastic attacks destroyed those of Ospringe in the winter of 1543.

The Prebendaries’ Plot

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