18th July 1556
The Guernsey Martyrs were burned at the stake
Sisters Guillemine Gilbert and Perotine Massey were burned alive, along with their mother, Katharine Cauchés, on 18 July 1556. Collectively, the three are now known as the Guernsey Martyrs.
As Calvinists, they had been found guilty of heresy under the Marian persecutions. The persecutions were so-called because they were carried out under the authority of the Roman Catholic Queen Mary (and, before her, Henry VIII). Similar persecutions were conducted during the reigns of Edward VI, Elizabeth I and James I.
The women’s “crime” was their protestant belief, which was enough to earn them a conviction in the Catholic-oriented Ecclesiastical court held in St Peter Port’s Town Church.
The women had initially been brought to court upon suspicion of theft – a crime of which they were not guilty. It was only upon taking statements from the women’s neighbours that the authorities discovered that their beliefs didn’t tally with officially sanctioned doctrine.
A gruesome execution
Had they received the usual punishment for deviating from the monarch’s beliefs, the women would first have been strangled. In that way, the burning that followed would be more of a cremation than an execution. However, the rope that was being used for this purpose broke. Rather than delay matters further, the burning proceeded as planned, with the women still alive and fully aware.
Katharine was tied to a stake in the middle of the fire, with one daughter on either side. The heat – and, no doubt, stress and fear – was so great that Perotine Massey, who was pregnant at the time of her execution, gave birth in the fire. Contemporary accounts describe how “the belly of the woman burst asunder by the vehemence of the flame”.
Her baby boy was retrieved by the crowd and laid out on the grass to recover. However, the Bailiff, Hellier Gosselin, commanded that it be thrown back into the fire so that it would suffer the same fate as its mother.