Early in the morning on this day in 1555, John Rogers was burned at the stake in the center of London. He was the first martyr during the malevolent reign of Queen Mary Tudor—and thus, his was the opening chapter of that torturous period immortalized in the remarkable chronicle, Foxes Book of Martyrs.
Roger's scholarly youth certainly did not suggest his cruel fate. Born in 1500, he was educated at Cambridge, becoming a Master of the university. Afterward, he surrendered to a call to the ministry and became an orthodox catholic priest. He served first in the great commercial center of Antwerp where he ministered to English merchants. It was at that time that he befriended the reformer William Tyndale who was at that time working on his translation of the Bible into English. Their friendship ultimately led Rogers to convert to Protestantism. In short order, Tyndale suffered martyrdom and Rogers returned to England to pastor a small Reformed congregation.
Determined to see Tyndale's work into print, Rogers obtained a license to print a full English language Bible. Utilizing the text Tyndale completed—the entire New Testament and half the Old—as well as Miles Coverdale’s emendations, Rogers set the work to type and added his own interpolary notes. The work constituted not only the first English language Bible but also the first English language commentary on the Bible. Fully cognizant of Tyndale's fate, Rogers cautiously printed the work under the pseudonym Thomas Matthews. To this day it is known as the Matthews Bible. Later it became the basis of the Bishop's Bible and through it of the Authorized Version of 1611.
Eventually, the official acceptance of Protestantism in England under Henry VIII and Edward VI brought Rogers new prominence. He was awarded high church positions and he preached the doctrines of grace with great fervor and effect. But when sickly Edward VI died, his bitter half-sister Mary, ascended the throne. A staunchly fanatical Roman Catholic, she was determined to stamp out Protestantism altogether. Three days after she entered London, Rogers preached a message urging his congregation to remain faithful to the doctrines they had been taught. For this sermon he was questioned and placed under house arrest. A few weeks later he was transferred to the notorious Newgate prison where he was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death.
Rogers begged to be allowed to speak a few words to his wife before his execution. This was denied him—though he did meet her and his eleven children in the street as he was marched—singing psalms all the while—to the site of his execution. At the stake he was offered a pardon if he would only recant and return to Catholicism. He refused, the fire was lit, and so began Bloody Mary’s Reign of Terror.