Thursday, 29 January 2009

The Guernsey Heretics

In 1556 Perotine Massey and her mother and Catherine Cauchés and sister Guillemine Guilbert were burnt as heretics in Guernsey. It is well attested and mentioned in "the official records at the Greffe and the detailed trial report in Foxe's Book of Martyr's[i] but the petition presented in 1562, to Her Majesty's Commissioners by Matthew Cauchés"[ii]. Perotine was cruelly burnt and gave birth while being burnt, the baby being returned to the flames on the instruction of the Bailiff.

"On leaving the Court the dismal procession will have filled up to Tower Hill, where there stakes were set up, the mother being placed in the middle. They were first strangled, but the rope broke before they were dead and they were cast out into the flames, and to Perotine Massey, in that raging furnace, a male child was born. He was picked out alive from the flames by a bystander the master gunner and surgeon "cannonier et cirugien" of the island called William House, and was brought by the Sheriff to the Bailiff, who said he was to be cast back into the flames. And by so saying has insured eternal infamy for his memory."[iii]

Foxe describes it this way:

"Then was the child had to the Prouost, and from him to the Bayliffe, who gaue censure, that it should be caryed backe agayne and cast into the fire. And so the infant Baptised in his own bloud, to fill up the number of Gods innocent Sayntes, was both borne, and dyed a Martyr, leauing behinde to the world, which it neuer saw, a spectacle wherein the whole world may see the Herodian cruelty of this gracelesse generation of catholicke Tormentors, Ad perpetuam rei infamiam."[iv]

This occurs in the time of Queen Mary in Guernsey, this is often mistaken for a witch trial, but the records make it most clear that it was as a Protestant heretic that she was killed, and on those grounds that she made her defence.

In the reign of Edward VI, she had married David Jores, a Norman Huguenot (Protestant) schoolmaster ( and also a minister) and refugee, at the Castel Church, the ceremony having been performed by Monsieur Noel Regnet, one of the French Huguenot pastors who had supplanted the original Catholic priests in the Guernsey Churches (and whom banished for disloyalty in 1554).

Jores was not present, because at the time of the trial he was in London. The charge by the Catholic Bailiff (appointed in the time of Queen Mary) was that "saving only to the commands of Holy Church they had not been obedient." The reply of the three women charged (including Perotine Massey) was that "that they would obey and keep the ordnances of the King and Queen (Philip and Mary) and the Commandments of the Church, not withstanding that they had said and fore the contrary in the time of King Edward the 6th in showing obedience to his ordnances and commandments .", which as D.M. Ogier points out[v], is a clear indication that they were staunch Protestants.

Unfortunately, apart from J.L. Pitts, most of the other books which cite this case do not make it clear that it was separate from the witch trials - L'Amy misquotes Pitts, and Hillsdon mentions the trial right in the middle of a section on witch persecutions! But it is unlikely that they would have been accused of witchcraft, as the "enqueste" on the 5th June, 1556, reported that "had always lived honest, respectable lives, and were deemed incapable of theft."

While the same kind of thinking lay at the root of both witch and heretic persecutions, the rules of evidence were quite different. Witch trials were made on the basis of often fantastical allegations about things happening (curses having effects), and torture was used to ensure that the "correct" form of confession was made (which is why as Pitts notes the form of the confession is often so similar). Heretic trials were made about beliefs, and those accused would defend themselves on the basis of those beliefs (as in the Guernsey case).

The end result was a tragedy in any case, as were the burnings of witches in Jersey, and having studied the period in depth, I am often staggered by the statements by some of the Crown authorities in the Island about Jersey's having "800 years of justice", when there was none for those persecuted in this way and it was the judicial (and not the church) authorities who sentenced people to death, and which I still find distressing to read about.


[i] See
[ii] From Edith Carey's account of 16th Century Social History in Guernsey, an extract is at
[iii] Edith Carey's account of 16th Century Social History in Guernsey
[v] See D.M. Ogier, Reformation and Society in Guernsey

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hello. Excellent position. I didn't anticipate this on the Wednesday. This is a superb tale. Many thanks!