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Historian probes tale of Shrewsbury's 'lost' martyr

By Toby Neal | Features | Published:

Acting with courage, principle, and deep religious conviction, the Abbot of Colchester stood up to King Henry VIII.

The scroll showing Beche being led to his death – he is behind the horse, and immediately to the left, as you look at the picture, of the soldier carrying a spear

It cost him his life, and a scroll buried in the archives of the British Library depicts him being led to his execution in December 1539.

But now research by a Catholic historian in Colchester has raised the possibility that the martyred Blessed John Beche did not come from Colchester, as often believed, but from Shrewsbury.

And the story of Jennie Guthrie-Stevens' researches is featured in the Easter edition of the Shrewsbury Catholic Voice, the quarterly diocesan magazine, which describes Beche, the last Abbot of Colchester, as "Shrewsbury's lost martyr."

"That he is venerated by the local church there is understandable, and research undertaken by Jennie Guthrie-Stevens has played no small part in this.

"Thanks to new evidence she has unearthed about his family background, a day might well arrive when Catholics of the Diocese of Shrewsbury can equally recognise this holy monk as one of their own," writes communications officer Simon Caldwell, of the Shrewsbury diocese.

Beche, who was also known as Thomas Marshall, was hanged, drawn, and quartered in Colchester, his crime being to reject the authority of the Crown to close and plunder Colchester Abbey.

With there being a Beche family in Colchester, it seems that an assumption was made that he was from that family, but Guthrie-Stevens' research has not shown any link, and records show that before coming to Essex in the early 1530s he had been Abbot of St Werburgh's, now the Anglican Cathedral in Chester.

"Ms Guthrie-Stevens was led to Shrewsbury when she grew curious as to why Blessed John used the alias of Thomas Marshall, and often signed documents using both names.

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"She began to investigate the frequency of the use of aliases among the clergy, and found that Abbot Richard Baker of Shrewsbury Abbey had also used Marshall as an alias.

"She discovered a Beche family in Shrewsbury who were active in the Catholic Church and the governance of the town in the late medieval and early modern eras and who regularly also used the name Marshall.

"The family, she said, had lived in Marshall House in Beche Lane – perhaps the Beeches Lane a stone's throw from Shrewsbury Cathedral – and close to the grounds of St Chad's Church," writes Simon.

Jennie says it is unusual to find a family using both Beche and Marshall as aliases, and that they were obviously both stubborn in their beliefs and devout in spite of difficult times.

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"I could believe that the abbot could well have been a member of this family," she says.

In 1538 Sir John Seyncler was sent to ask Blessed John to surrender Colchester Abbey, and he replied: "The King shall never have my house but against my will and against my heart for I know by my learning that he cannot take it by right and law, wherefore in my conscience I cannot be content."

In March 1539 he was sent to the Tower of London charged with treason, where he wavered and signed a document which said he accepted the king's supremacy over the Church, but would later retract it.

He was beatified – a religious honour from the Pope declaring a dead person worthy of public veneration and being called "Blessed" – in 1895.

Toby Neal

By Toby Neal
Feature Writer

A journalist in Shropshire for 40 years, mainly writes features and columns, especially about aspects of Shropshire history. Lives in Telford and is based at the Ketley headquarters.

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