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The Century of Persecution

The present conflict between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland is a reminder of the ‘Century of Persecution’, and in a book of that title the Revd. St. George Kieron Hyland describes the reign of Elizabeth I as ‘one of the most barbarous cruelty, in comparison with which the repressive measures of Mary pale to insignificance. And this reign was succeeded by one of equal cruelty under James I’.


People who refused to attend the Anglican Church or to acknowledge the ecclesiastical supremacy of the Crown were indicted as recusants and the churchwardens were made responsible for ‘questioning every man, woman and child as to his belief. Absentees from Church were asked to give a reason for their absence and obstinate truants were reported to the Magistrates, summoned before them and, if refractory, were fined, later on imprisoned. In 1581 the fine for abstention from Church was £20 a month’.


Nicholas Saunders of Ewell, who lived in a mansion on the site of Bourne Hall, was described by Hyland as a ‘recusant of the fighting type’ and was listed as a recusant in 1577 and in 1578 was committed to the Fleet Prison on April 30, released on June 23. He was summoned before the Privy Council in September 1579, but defended himself so well that he was dismissed in favourable terms and then made an offer to the Government of an additional supply of horses and was ready to pay for a standing exemption from attendance at Church. In January 1580 he was summoned to appear before the magistrates at Kingston and in April 1580, Robert Cole, Vicar of Epsom, complained to the magistrates of ‘molestations’ by Nicholas Saunders after his excommunication. Nicholas brought a counter charge against the Vicar of being a ‘barrator’ and a troublesome person, in other words, of malicious prosecution, but the Revd. Hyland comments that there was not the faintest chance of such a charge being successful at that time. Nicholas Saunders was indicted several times until eventually in 1586 he ‘appeared and did submit and Confirm himself’ and in 1593 he is ‘not suspected anye waye to be popishe but his wife is of popish disposition as we are crediblye ynformed’. Sir Nicholas (knighted in 1603) was a Member of Parliament, Justice of the Peace, Surrey Magistrate and a barrister of the Inner Temple, who owned 338¾ acres of land in Ewell and nine houses and a cottage as well as the Parsonage. In 1598 the inhabitants of Ewell petitioned Sir William More ‘in the behalf of our poore vicar Richard Williamson… he be constrayned to beg for his living’ because Nicholas Saunder (both father and son) kept the revenues from the parsonage lands. However, when the parish registers were started in 1604 the first entry records the baptism of ‘Henry Saunder sonne and heare of Sr. Nicholas Saunder’. (Another article on the family of Saunder in Ewell appeared in SAC 54).


Other Ewell residents indicted include Elizabeth Browne, gentlewoman, wife of Cuthbert Browne, gentleman, her daughter Mrs. Ann Whore and Mr. Allen Whorde (Horde), Elizabeth Blake, Richard Wright, yeoman, and Thomas Becket of Nonesuch. Erasmus Saunder, brother of Nicholas, was also committed to Fleet Prison on a number of occasions, as was his wife Jane. Michael Walker (in SAC 54) notes that Jane’s father died when she was a child and she became a ward. She was carried away by night by a certain Peter Veale, who sold her wardship to Erasmus Saunder, who subsequently married her. Jane came from Tenby and she and Erasmus lived there and brought up eleven children.








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