The Martyrs of Billericay

The question of individual politics and principles is an interesting one that feels even more relevant in our current age where everyone is encouraged to have an opinion on the most minor of matters and everything from trans rights to veganism is decried and defended.


It can be difficult to know how firm to draw the line. After all, what good are principles if you don’t stick to them, especially in the face of opposition? But also what good are principles so iron-clad they allow for no accommodation of circumstance or humanity? Billericay has many blue plaques dedicated to driven and passionate individuals, the martyrs of Billericay, one of which is in memory of Thomas Watts. Watts was a Protestant who worked as a linen draper during the reign of the Catholic Queen Mary I in the mid sixteenth century.


Mary was the daughter of Henry VIII and his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, and as violent as her father was, Mary’s actions during her reign earned her the soubriquet of “Bloody Mary”. Mary was Catholic, and came of age during massive political upheaval caused by her father’s breaking with the Church of Rome and declaring himself, rather than the Pope, the head of the newly established Church of England. This act allowed him to divorce Mary’s mother Catherine and marry Anne Boleyn, which made Mary illegitimate and further down in line for the throne.


Perhaps understandably, given all that she had witnessed in the country’s departure from her faith, Mary was a devout Catholic. Unfortunately, she pushed her zeal to the limits, and waged a bloody war of terror on anyone who practised other faiths. During her five-year reign, Mary executed 300 religious dissenters, usually by the horrific means of burning alive at the stake.


Thomas Watts was one of three recorded Protestants from Billericay who were executed during this period. Margaret Eliot and Joan Horns were both maids from Billericay who were killed for their faith; Eliot was executed in May 1556, and Horns was burned on 16th May 1556. Watts’ story was recorded in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, which is a work of Protestant history recording the men and women who died for their faith.


To be prepared to kill for one’s faith is a sobering thing, as is being prepared to die for it.

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