William Hunter

The Life And Martyrdom Of William Hunter

The Sower 1880:

In this age of civil and religious liberty it is somewhat difficult for us to form an adequate idea of the state of affairs in our country during the short reign of Queen Mary. It is true that some of our ablest historians have given us very correct and vivid descriptions of those times; nevertheless, as we are in the enjoyment of such invaluable liberties and privileges, we cannot very readily, even by the aid of imagination’s power, place ourselves in the position of our forefathers. In our day we can sit around the family hearth, read our Bibles, and join in family prayer without fear of interruption or intrusion; but, in Mary’s days, no home-stead was safe from the inroads of Rome’s zealots. Wherever any person was suspected of “heresy”—in the nobleman’s mansion or the peasant’s cottage—there must entrance be given to the agents of religious persecution. Often was the husband cruelly torn from the wife, and the nearest and dearest relatives separated from each other on account of “heresy.” Not only so, but friends were called to witness against friends, and parents were sometimes commanded to assist the authorities in the apprehension of their own children, because they were suspected of entertaining views contrary to the teaching of Rome. Such a case was that of William Hunter, whose name does not sound so familiar to us as that of Hooper and others whose careers we have already sketched in this series of papers; but we feel that our list would not be fairly representative and complete if we omitted to find a place for this youth by the side of the veteran martyrs of the Reformation.

On the accession of Queen Mary to the throne, orders were issued to the priests of every parish, commanding them to summon all their parishioners to receive the communion at Mass, during the following Easter. Among those who dared to disobey this royal mandate was William Hunter. At this time, for he was only nineteen years of age, he was an apprentice; but, when his master heard of his refusal to obey the law, he immediately desired him to leave his premises. To this the apprentice consented, and he returned to his native town of Brentwood, where he resided with his father about six weeks.

One day, as he was strolling about the town, finding the church door open, he ventured to cross the threshold and walk to the reading-desk, upon which he found an English Bible. The youth opened the sacred volume, and began studyng its blessed pages, when he was suddenly interrupted by one of the bishop’s officers who thus accosted him: “William, why meddlest thou with the Bible? Understandest thou what thou readest? Canst thou expound Scripture?” To these queries young Hunter bravely replied, “I presume not to expound Scripture; but, finding the Bible here, I read for my comfort and edification.”

The reading of the Scriptures was too serious an offence in the eyes of Rome to pass by unnoticed, and this officer therefore deemed it his duty to inform a neighbouring priest of Hunter’s crime. This cleric severely questioned the youth concerning his arrogance and presumption in daring to read or meddle with the Bible; but he replied to the priest as he had already done to his informant, adding that he was determined to read the Scriptures as long as he lived. Hunter was then asked his opinion concerning the Sacrament of the altar. The corporeal presence William stoutly denied, affirming that he looked upon the bread and wine as figures, and he considered the Lord’s Supper as an institution in remembrance of the death and sufferings of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. This answer greatly annoyed the priest, who threatened to report Hunter’s heterodox opinions to the bishop.

About this time a neighbouring magistrate, of the name of Brown, heard that young Hunter entertained “heretical” views upon certain doctrines of Rome; and, in order to ascertain whether this news was correct, he sent for his father, who, he thought, would be able to tell him the truth. The poor old man said that his son had left home, and he did not know where he had gone; whereupon the justice told him that he must find him, on pain of imprisonment. “Would you,” exclaimed the aged Hunter, with tears trickling down his cheeks, “have me seek out my son to he burned?” But, tears and remonstrances notwithstanding, the father must search for his son.

Not long after his departure from the magistrate’s court, he accidentally met his son, when the poor father had to acquaint him with the unfortunate position in which he was placed. William, however, made no effort to escape, but, knowing the danger his father would incur if he did so, voluntarily returned with him, and the following day he was apprehended and put in the stocks for twenty-four hours. After he had undergone this punishment, young Hunter was examined, and his views being found contrary to the teaching of Rome, he was immediately sent to London to be tried by the bishop of that city.

Soon after his arrival in the metropolis, William was brought before Bonner, who commenced reasoning with him in the following manner:—

“I understand, William Hunter, by Mr. Brown’s letter, that you have had communication with the Vicar of Welde about the blessed Sacrament of the altar, and that you could not agree; whereupon Mr. Brown sent for you to bring you to the Catholic faith, from which, he saith, you have departed. Howbeit, if you will be ruled by me, you shall have no harm for anything said or done in this matter.”

HUNTER: “I am not fallen from the Catholic faith of Christ, I am sure; but do believe it, and confess it with all my heart.”

BONNER: “How sayest thou to the blessed Sacrament of the altar? Wilt thou not recant thy saying before Mr. Brown, that Christ’s body is not in the Sacrament of the altar, the same that was born of the Virgin Mary?”

HUNTER: “My lord, I understand that Mr. Brown hath certified you of the talk which he and I had together, and thereby you know what I said to him, which I will not recant, by God’s help.”

BONNER: “I think thou art ashamed to bear a faggot and recant openly; but, if thou wilt recant privately, I will promise that thou shalt not be put to open shame: even speak the word now between me and thee, and I will promise it shall go no further, and thou shalt go home again without any hurt.”

HUNTER: “My lord, if you let me alone, and leave me to my conscience, I will go to my father and dwell with him, or else with my master again; and, if nobody disquiet or trouble my conscience, I will keep my conscience to myself.”

BONNER: “I am content, so that thou wilt go to the church, and receive, and be shriven, and so continue a good Catholic Christian.”

HUNTER: “No; I will not do so for all the good in the world.”

BONNER: “Then, if you will not do so, I will make you sure enough, I warrant you.”

HUNTER: “Well, you can do no more than Gcd will permit you.”

BONNER: “Wilt thou not recant by any means?”

“No!” was the reply of the intrepid youth; “never while I live, God willing.”

At the close of the examination Hunter was again put in the stocks for two days and nights, a crust of bread and a cup of water being the only food allowed him. Bonner then came to see him, and, finding the bread and water untouched, told his officers to release him and give him a breakfast. At the conclusion of the meal he again appeared before the bishop, when he was asked to recant. The brave youth had but the same reply to give, that he would never recant and deny his Lord and Master. The bishop asked him his age, when William told him he was nineteen years old. “Well,” said Bonner, “you will be burned ere you be twenty years old, if you will not yield yourself better than you have done yet.” But God is able to nerve the youth as well as the veteran, as Hunter well knew, and so his simple reply to the cruel threat of the judge was, “God strengthen me in His truth.”

During the nine months that Hunter was in prison he was brought before Bonner six times, and on the last occasion, February 9th, 1555, he was condemned, with five others, to be burned at the stake. On one occasion, Bonner tried to tempt the youth with the riches of this world, by offering a good situation and money; but William replied, “I thank you for your great offers; notwithstanding, my lord, if you cannot persuade my conscience with Scriptures, I cannot find in my heart to turn from God for love of the world; for I count all things worldly but loss and dung in respect of the love of Christ.” Thus was this youthful martyr enabled, by the grace of God, to defeat the machinations of his enemies, and to endure faithful unto the end, finishing his course with joy.

Brentwood, his native town, was fixed as the place where he should close his career. On his arrival, he was met by his aged parents, who prayed unto God that he might finish as he had begun, and his mother emphatically expressed her joy at his heroic behaviour, by saying that she was glad that ever she bare such a child, who could find in his heart to lose his life for Christ’s sake. To this her son replied, “For the little pain I shall suffer, which will soon be at an end, Christ hath promised me, mother, a crown of joy. Should not you be glad of that?” His parents shed tears of joy at their son’s constancy, and his mother earnestly prayed that her boy might be kept faithful unto the end. He was lodged at the Swan Inn, where many of his companions in former years came to see him, some of them admiring his courage for the truth, whilst others tried to reason him out of his convictions.

On the Monday night before he suffered, he somewhat anticipated the scene at the stake by a dream, many incidents of which had their literal fulfilment. Early the next morning the sheriff commanded him to prepare for his fate. At the same time the sheriff’s son whispered these words of encouragement in his ears: “William, be not afraid of these men, with bows and weapons, prepared to bring you to the place where you shall be burned.” ”I thank God I am not afraid,” replied the undaunted youth, “for I have reckoned what it will cost me already.” Hunter was then conducted to the stake, his brother Robert accompanying him, and on his way he met his father, who exclaimed, “God be with thee, son William.” “God be with you, good father,” said he; “and be of good comfort, for I hope we shall meet again, when we shall be joyful.”

Upon the arrival of the procession at the stake, William knelt down and prayed, after which a letter was brought from the queen, desiring him to recant. “I will not recant, God willing,” answered the noble youth. He was then bound to the stake, when he addressed the magistrate as follows: “Mr. Brown, now you have that which you sought, and I pray God it be not laid to your charge in the last day; howbeit, I forgive you. If God forgive you, I shall not require my blood at your hands.” A priest now came to worry the youth, who loudly exclaimed, “Away, thou false prophet! Beware of them, good people, and come away from their abominations, lest ye be partakers of their plagues.” “Then,” said the infuriated priest, “look how thou burnest here—so shalt thou burn in hell.” William again cried, “Thou liest, thou false prophet! Away, thou false prophet, away!” The fire was then made, when the martyr’s brother said, “William, think on the holy passion of Christ, and be not afraid of death.” The simple reply was, “I am not afraid;” and, lifting up his hands to heaven, he cried, “Lord, Lord, Lord, receive my spirit!” and, shortly after, terminated his mortal career, which had been but short. Nevertheless, he has left a name behind him as one who lived and died for Christ, and who has now gone to be for ever with the Captain of his salvation.

William Hunter (1536-1555) was a Protestant Reformer whose young life was cut short on account of his faith. Rejecting the dogma of the Roman Church, he was sentenced to death under the reign of Queen Mary, burned at the stake for heresy.