/ Mersea's Catholic Martyr: Blessed Thomas Abell

ID: COR2_025 / Sue Howlett
TitleMersea's Catholic Martyr: Blessed Thomas Abell

Hanging, drawing and quartering: the death penalty for treason. From westbergholt.net

On 30th July, 1540, a gruesome public spectacle took place at Smithfield, just outside London's city walls. At the same time as three Protestant 'heretics' were burnt at the stake, three Catholic priests, convicted of high treason, were dragged to the gallows to be hanged, cut down while still alive, disembowelled, beheaded and hacked into quarters. Hundreds of men and women, of both faiths, were brutally executed during the reign of King Henry VIII, as he sought to divorce his first wife and declare himself Supreme Head of the English church. Among those hanged on that day was an Essex clergyman named Thomas Abell. Later beatified by Pope Leo XIII, the Blessed Thomas Abell is celebrated as a martyr of the Roman Catholic church. Otherwise, he is hardly known of, even in Essex. But surprisingly, the name and terrible fate of Thomas Abell is recorded several times in the archives of the ancient manor of East Hall, East Mersea.

Thomas Abell probably grew up at Cook's Hall, West Bergholt, where his father was Lord of the Manor. He studied at Oxford, gaining his MA in 1518 and taking holy orders to become a celibate priest. At that time the English church was still Roman Catholic, ruled by the Pope in Rome rather than the king of England, and Thomas Abell probably expected a quiet life and tranquil career. He could not have foreseen how the dramatic events of the next 20 years would overturn his own life and usher in more than a century of religious conflict.

As a wealthy merchant and manufacturer of the woollen cloth for which Colchester was famous, Thomas's father, John Abell senior, owned much land and property in the surrounding villages, including some on Mersea Island. In his will he left sums of money to the poor of these parishes, including ten shillings to the poor people of West Mersea. Such legacies suggest that he probably employed 'outworkers' in these places, weavers who produced cloth for him in their own homes. Most of these estates were passed down to his eldest son, John Abell junior, and there were smaller bequests of land to other members of the large family. But the only mention in his father's will of 'Master Thomas Abell my sonne' was a bequest of £20, for a specific, religious purpose for which Thomas was now well qualified: to 'synge [masses] for my soule, my wifes soule and for all my good frendes soules, the space of iii yeares shortly after my deth'.

The two properties owned by John Abell senior in West Mersea were the manor of Bower Hall and the tenement _named Marchants, both of which were inherited by his son, John. However, as well as this freehold property, John Abell senior had also held various 'copyhold' or customary tenancies in different manors, which could be taken over by his heirs with the agreement of the Lord of the Manor. One such tenancy was that of Stoneland (often spelt in different ways), a house and farm belonging to the manor of East Mersea Hall. This land was on the south side of the road leading to Mersea Stone, not far from the shore where the Tudor fort would shortly be constructed. With its accompanying four acres of salt marsh, Stoneland may have been used for grazing sheep to supply the clothier's business.

In the vast collection of the Essex Record Office is an ancient Book of Customs and Precedents of the manor of East Mersea Hall. Among the detailed accounts and personal items filling its many pages is a report of proceedings of the manorial Court Leet 'holden on Monday after the feast of the Conception of our Lady Saint Mary' [8th December], 1524. Here we are told that John Abell senior had died since the last court, possessed of one tenement and 15 acres of land called Stoneland, 'and that Thomas Abell, Clerk, of full age, is his son and heir thereunto, wherefore the Bailiff is to give knowledge that he be at the next court to pay the Lord his fine and heriot, & make the Lord his fealty etc.'

Thomas Abell could not leave his priestly duties to attend in person, and sent a deputy to pay the heriot [death duty] and fine [payment for taking over the tenancy], and to swear allegiance on the new tenant's behalf to the Lord of the Manor. At this time Thomas may have been living in Berkhamstead, where, after gaining his MA, taking holy orders and teaching for a time at Oxford, he had been appointed Rector of St Peter's church. The manorial court reported that Thomas Abell was admitted to the tenancy, but was ordered to repair the house called Stoneland. This does not appear to have been carried out, since on 30th March 1529 Thomas Abell was again ordered to repair his tenement, this time called 'Le Stone'.

The political upheavals which began in late 1520s did not allow Thomas Abell to visit his land at East Mersea, or even to remain a humble parish priest. Instead, he found himself thrust into the very centre of political events which would destroy England's great abbeys and monasteries, and bring turmoil, imprisonment and death to many including himself. At first, he must have been pleased with his new appointment as Chaplain to the Queen of England, Katherine of Aragon. But it soon became clear that this would be no easy role. In 1527 Henry VIII was beginning to take steps which would lead to his divorce from Queen Katherine and to the English Reformation. Katherine was determined to resist the proposed annulment of her marriage, and in 1529 Thomas Abell was sent to Spain to collect a crucial document from her nephew, the Emperor Charles V. The Queen rewarded Abell for his loyal service by granting him the Rectory of Bradwell-on-Sea. Perhaps while visiting his new parish, Thomas Abell may also have made the short river crossing to inspect his property at East Mersea.

As his support of Queen Katherine became more outspoken, Thomas Abell challenged the accuracy of some of the king's arguments, and was banished from court. His next, dangerous move was to publish a book, in English rather than the usual scholarly Latin, entitled Invicta veritas. An answere, That by no manner of law, it may be lawfull for the most noble King of England, King Henry the eight to be divorced from the queens grace, his lawfull and very wife. This was a step too far: Thomas Abell was arrested and imprisoned for several months in the Tower of London.

Thomas Abell's rebus in the Beauchamp Tower. From spitalfieldslife.com

After a brief period of release when he returned to the Queen's service, Thomas Abell was re-arrested in December 1533. Along with Sir Thomas More and Bishop John Fisher, he was charged with disseminating the prophecies of the Maid of Kent, encouraging the queen 'obstinately to persist in her wilful opinion against the same divorce and separation', and maintaining her right to the title of Queen. Within two years, both More and Fisher were beheaded for refusing to accept King Henry, rather than the Pope, as Supreme Head of the English church. Meanwhile Thomas Abell remained in close confinement in the Beauchamp Tower, within the Tower of London. As the months of his imprisonment turned into years, he spent several long hours carving deeply into the stone wall a signature still visible today: his name 'Thomas' above a punning 'rebus' to represent his surname, 'A bell'.

News of Thomas Abell's imprisonment took less than a year to reach Mersea Island. On 19th October 1534 the scribe at East Mersea Hall's manorial court noted that Abell's property had been forfeited to the Lady of the Manor, Bridget, Lady de Marney: 'Presented that Thomas Abell, Clerk, who before the date of this court was convicted and attaint by authority of Parliament of misprision and concealments ... and by this cause is now imprisoned of the Lord King in the Tower of London, by reason of which he has forfeited into the hands of the Lady his aforesaid tenement and land worth 25 shillings a year... Wherefor the Bailiff is ordered to seize the tenement and land called Stonelands into the hands of the Lady.'

During his six years of imprisonment in the Tower of London, Thomas Abell had more pressing concerns than the loss of income from his house and land at East Mersea. Denied writing materials for most of this period, he could not preach or say mass and had no contact with anyone except his jailor. In 1537 he was allowed to write to King Henry's chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, to whom he appealed in a moving letter, 'I beseech you move the King's grace to give me licence to go to church and say Mass here within the Tower ... your Lordship knows that never man in this realm was so unjustly condemned as I am, for I was never since I came hither asked nor examined of any evidence that should be laid to my charge ... I do not rehearse the diseases I have, nor my increasing misery, need and poverty. I commit to you this little petition of going to church and lying out of close prison...' Thomas Cromwell had no help to offer - indeed, his own career was soon to be in ruins and his execution took place just two days before that of Thomas Abell.

A postscript to the story of this Essex martyr is provided, 18 years after his death, in the manorial records of East Mersea Hall. Following Thomas Abell's legal attainder, his confiscated property had become the property of the monarch. Now Queen Elizabeth had succeeded her brother Edward and sister Mary to the English throne, by which time the manor of East Mersea had also passed into royal hands. In the first year of her reign, Elizabeth sent a letter 'To her Steward and Surveyor of her manor of East Mersea ... Trusty and well beloved, we greet you well. Letting you to understand we are contented & well pleased That our well beloved John Abell [brother of the late Thomas Abell] shall have ... one piece of customary land by estimation xv acres called Stone Land, and four acres of Salt marsh in East Mersea aforesaid, being late parcel of the possessions of Thomas Abell, Clerk, attainted of high treason, yielding & paying therefore to us & our successors yearly eight shillings and eight pence being the accustomed rent and doing all other services as a customary tenant of that our manor ought to do ...' [ MARG_304_011 ]

Having established his right to inherit his brother's forfeited land at East Mersea, John Abell junior had little interest in holding on to it. At the same meeting of the manorial court, he surrendered his tenancy of Stoneland to Nicholas Middleton and his wife, Petronella, who were busily buying up many other landholdings in the parish. Thus, in 1558, East Mersea's connection with the Catholic martyr, Blessed Thomas Abell, came to an end.

[The East Mersea manor court records are in a bound manuscript book in Essex Record Office, reference D/DRc M12.]

The article and illustrations here are as originally written by Sue Howlett. It was published in Mersea Courier 11 March 2013, with additional pictures of Katharine of Aragon, Sir Thomas More's execution, and a prison room in the Beauchamp Tower.

AuthorSue Howlett
SourceMersea Museum