Today is International Women’s Day. It’s the day that we celebrate accomplishments of women throughout history.
I’m late getting to the “Weekly Saint”, which I normally post on Mondays, due to some computer issues.
But, perhaps God has a reason, because I am drawn to telling you the story of two women from Amersham: Joan Broughton and Joan Clerk.
Before I get to our Weekly Saint, I need to give you a little background information about a Christian group called the Lollards.
Lollards predated the classic reformers, and were followers of John Wycliffe and his teachings beginning about the year 1382.
You may have heard of Wycliffe. Aside from being a staunch supporter of reformation within the church, similar to Martin Luther’s and John Calvin’s teachings, Wycliffe believed that every single person should have access to the Bible in their own language. Well, actually, he believed that all English speaking people should have access to an English written Bible instead of the common Latin versions at the time, but his thoughts about translating the Bible transfers easily to all languages. Today, the Wycliffe Bible Translation Society employs missionaries to carry out Wycliffe’s goals to translating the Bible into ALL languages for ALL people.
I don’t want to spend a lot of time on Wycliffe right now. I’m sure I’ll get to him eventually, but today I want to focus on these Lollards in Amersham.
The Lollards always had it tough because they were up against some big organizations, namely the church in Rome and the Church of England. Let’s just say that their ideas were not well received by either of these churches, nor the governments that relied upon the churches for their continuous power.
But as hard as the churches, kings and governments tried to get rid of reformers like the Lollards through trials and persecutions, the Lollards would not be silenced.
About a hundred and twenty years later in the early sixteenth-century, the Lollards were still facing harsh trials and persecution and burnings at the stake.
My story of the two Joans takes us to the small village of Amersham, England.
The 2 Joans of Amersham
By the early 1500’s England had enough of the Lollards and their calls for church reform. So much so that King Henry VII declared war on the Lollards in a matter of speaking.
The early years of the 1500’s became known as “The Great Abjuration” in which Henry VII ordered various torture techniques, including branding on the cheeks of the Lollards, in order to force abjuration or renunciation of their beliefs. About 60 Lollards in Amersham gave in to the king’s demands out of fear.
Some scholars claim the year 1506 was the worst of the persecutions; others claim the year 1510. Other sources cite the year as late as 1521. The year matters less than the fact that scholars agree that the Lollards were actually persecuted for their beliefs in reformation. Personally, I choose the earlier date of 1506 because of overwhelming historical evidence that points to Henry VII, instead of his son Henry VIII, although Henry VIII inherited the family business of persecuting the Lollards.
Those who did renounced the Lollards were branded on the cheek, forced to wear a symbol that looked like the pile of sticks around a stake, and were forced to march around town with a bundle of sticks and a lighted torch to warn the Lollards about their fate if they refused to recant.
Getting back to our two Joans. Although quite different, their stories should be told. We can learn from both of them.
The first, Joan Clerk¹, was the daughter of William Tylsworth, one of the current leaders of the Lollards and public enemy of Henry VII. Tylsworth’s crimes included owning a portion of Wycliffe’s English translation of the Bible and believing that the church needed reforming. Both were declared heresies by the king. Sadly, Joan and her husband were two of the 60 who chose renunciation of their beliefs. When her father was sentenced to death by burning at the stake, Joan was forced to light the bundle of sticks surrounding him.
Despite her renunciation of her beliefs, she was still branded, persecuted and forced to light the fire that would burn her own father’s body.
Some scholars believe that Joan Clerk ended up recanting her renunciation of her faith which is why she was forced to do the unthinkable. Even John Foxe, who wrote Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, calls her “a faithful woman”. Other scholars disagree; she never recanted, but was still forced to start the burning of her father.
Regardless of what camp you’re in regarding Joan Clerk, I can’t help but to be reminded that she forgot Jesus’ words at Matthew 10:28.
“And be not afraid of them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.”
Maybe she didn’t know this scripture, maybe the portion of the Bible that they had did not include this passage. I don’t know. But I do know that poor Joan thought she could escape the trials and persecution by denouncing her faith. She feared man more than God.
The second Joan, Joan Broughton, gave up her life just a few years before the “Great Abjuration” in Amersham.
She is known as “the first woman to suffer martyrdom in England, Joan Broughton, was burnt at Smithfield, 1494, as was also her daughter, Lady Young (M. Thomas, 1984).”
I could find little about Joan Broughton, except her fame of dying for her faith in April of 1494, refusing to renounce her faith and association with the Lollards.
John Foxe writes this about “A Godly Woman”:
This faithful woman persisted in her truthful testimony to the end, committing her cause to the Lord and refusing no pain to keep her conscience clear.”
Every single article and book that I could find mentioning Joan Broughton of Amersham said pretty much the same thing. Not much more.
But in those few words, Joan Broughton teaches us a lot.
Perhaps, Joan Broughton knew of Peter’s speech before the governor Felix.
“I cheerfully make my defense, knowing that for many years you have been a judge over this nation. As you can find out, it is not more than twelve days since I went up to worship in Jerusalem. They did not find me disputing with anyone in the temple or stirring up a crowd either in the synagogues or throughout the city. Neither can they prove to you the charge that they now bring against me. But this I admit to you, that according to the Way, which they call a sect, I worship the God of our ancestors, believing everything laid down according to the law or written in the prophets. I have a hope in God—a hope that they themselves also accept—that there will be a resurrection of both the righteous and the unrighteous. Therefore I do my best always to have a clear conscience toward God and all people. -Acts 24:10-16
It is my prayer that we can all learn to stand strong in our faith – even if we are asked to recant our faith in Christ, even if we are faced with a horrible death if we do not.
Let us all be like Joan Broughton of Amersham, England, who chose a clear conscience toward God, who chose to be a witness for God right to the very end, and who chose not to let the threats of harm from men to sway her faith one tiny bit.
Until tomorrow, may God bless you and keep you.
¹Some scholars have her married name as Clark, others like John Foxe uses the old English “Clerk”