Bloody Bonner

by Leo Boix

“This cannibal in three years space three hundred martyrs slew
They were his food, he loved so blood, he spared none he knew”.
Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.

The house stood on the spot where the decrepit Netteswell House now stands. On what is called The Terrace, cornering Old Ford Road and Victoria Park Square, lies somewhere in the vaulted cellar the body of Edmund Bonner, notorious as the cruellest bishop in the persecution of heretics under the most Catholic government of Mary I of England.
The building, with its gabled roof and a profusion of mature tress and bushes, is the oldest surviving house in Bethnal Green, in the East End of London. Nearby stood St Georges Chappell, where Bloody Bonner used to pray for the souls of his victims.
Edmund Abaddon Bonner was born in the holy year of 1500 and by the age of 19 had attained the priesthood. In 1525 he entered the service of Cardinal Wolsey as chaplain, and subsequently was employed by King Henry VIII as his ambassador in Rome during the entangled process of excommunication. Also ambassador to the court of Charles V, where he wrote a preface to Stephan de Gardinier’s De vera Obedientia, asserting the royal and denying the papal supremacy, Bonner was sent as a special envoy to the French Court of Francis I, where he caused consternation with his dictatorial manner.
Pleased with his loyal service, Henry VIII awarded Bonner with the Bishopric of London.
After the death of Henry in 1547, Bonner, quarrelsome by nature, fell out of favour with one of the most powerful and feared men in Tudor times, the Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer, and spent some years imprisoned in Marshalsea gallows until the accession of Mary in 1553.
Days before he was sent to prison, Edmund Bonner leased his cottage on the site of Netteswell House to Sir Ralph Warren, a former Lord Mayor of London, and great grandfather of Oliver Cromwell.
Once released, Bonner took up again the position of Bishop of London, immediately setting about enthusiastically restoring the Old Catholic worship to the people of England under Mary’s instruction.
During the reign of ‘Bloody Mary’, an average of two hundred and seventy people were burnt at the stake per year of her reign for heresy against the Catholic Church. Some say that of these, Bonner was personally responsible for igniting the flames of at least three hundred of them.
According to Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, Bishop Bonner was the most unpopular man in London. Here is his Ode:
“This cannibal in three years space three hundred martyrs slew/
They were his food, he loved so blood, he spared none he knew”.
At the British Library, Box MR-012.73, I found a letter from Queen Mary and her husband King Philip of Spain to Bonner, encouraging the Bishop to even greater zeal in his quest to rid the country of heretics. The Queen ensured that she killed legally by pushing her government to re-introduce the heresy Act of 1401, giving her the power to order anyone condemned as a heretic to the fire.
As it was told to me one afternoon in the gardens of Netteswell House, heretics were burnt in public, normally on market days when the horrific scene would be witnessed by the largest number of people. The condemned included woman and even children. If they were unable to walk to the stake, having already endured torture, they were carried or dragged to it. It could sometimes take as long as an hour and a half for a person to die in the blaze.
In the holy year of 1558 Queen Elizabeth I, half sister of Mary, ascended the throne of England. When Bishop Bonner was presented to her at Richmond Palace, she did not allow him to kiss her hand. He defied the Queen and continue to celebrate mass, but was eventually deprived of his office and later sent to prison where he died mad in 1569.
He was buried in St George’s, Southwark, secretly at midnight to avoid the angry mob.
According to Catholic sources, the coffin was soon quietly removed to the site of Netteswell House, where it was buried under the north side of the vaulted cellar, with the inscription in Latin by St Augustin: “Cum dilectione hominum et odio vitiorum” (Love the sinner and hate the sin).
On the night of 5 September 2009, exactly 440 years after Bloody Bonner’s death, and while I was wondering about in the gardens of the house next door where the Old Chappell used to be, I heard with clarity the sound of horses riding through the gravel entrance.
Then, half in horror, half in disbelief, I saw with my own eyes the black coach and the infamous Bishop, laughing quietly inside.
As I now try to recollect what happened that night it seems that the spectral image disappeared where the red brick wall divides The Terrace with Netteswell House. All that remains is a vigorous ivy that marks the spot of this cruellest apparition.