The Bow-Lane, London, church of Christ, known to be meeting in the 1520s and 30s, James Bainham and Simon Fish, preachers, and the earlier Coleman Street congregation. Also, the unfortunate story of Richard Hunne.


1Jo 4:1 Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world.



Below, London looking north from Southwark towards Bow Lane, directly north from London Bridge, with the church of St. Paul's on the left. Picture by the Dutch artist, Claes Van Visscher, 1616.


Below, Bow Lane looking towards north towards Coleman Street (Bell Alley), about five minutes walk away.


Bow is the centre of London town. Tradition says to be a true Londoner a person has to be born within the earshot of Bow Bells, where the locals are called 'cockneys'. It is to the centre of London, Bow Lane, where we find Christians meeting in the 1500s.

Finding evidences of congregations meeting separate from the Catholic and later Anglican churches in this time period is difficult, but it is not impossible, ask write a persuasive essay for me from people who understand the historical and cultural development of churches. To meet outside the Catholic Church was illegal and unless recanted, would mean certain death by burning, usually whilst alive. Both the government and state church opposed strongly such congregations and we know from these condemnations that there was those who rejected infant baptism, choosing to baptise upon confession for the remission of sins into autonomous congregations, who used the identity - church of Christ.

John Charles Ryle, DD, (1816 - 1900) who was educated at Eton and at Oxford makes an interesting comment about this time period.  He was Anglican bishop of Liverpool, in his book, 'Principles for Churchmen' 1884, Ryle writes page 223 "It is no exaggeration to say that for three centuries before the Reformation, Christianity in England seems to have been buried under a mass of ignorance, superstition, priestcraft and immorality." Ryle conveniently forgot that the Prayer Book of The Church of England was based on the religion he found fault with, but his comments of this time period are interesting to us in regards to the Lord's Church in the late pre-reformation middle ages.

We know of the Coleman Street congregation due to events in the early 1500s. In one example, between 1511 and 1514 concerning Richard Hunne, a wealthy merchant tailor and Christian living in London, near to modern day Whitechapel. History. In this period, the early pre-reformation 1500s, a small congregation made up of both working and profession classes (guilds), was meeting in Coleman Street, London. 

England in the early sixteenth century was seeing the establishment of a middle class who were not aristocrats, but an educated professional class who had money. The old order of surfs, who were nothing more than slaves except in name and a wealthy gentry of titled lords was coming to an end. It was to this professional class that many members of the church would belong. 

In March 1511 Hunne's child died and according to law, had to be buried in the local burial ground. The law then stated the an un-baptised person could not be buried in the approved cemetery (Holy Ground). The Catholic Church turned a blind eye and allowed the funeral. Not to be outdone, Hunne then sued the Catholic church over some other matter to do with a title of a tenement, in November (St. Michael's, Cornhill, London).
Hunne was then sued by the rector, Thomas Dryffeld, of St. Mary Matfelon (Whitechaple) for the mortuary fee and baptismal charges for his child (which had not been baptised). Hunne appeared in the ecclesiastical Court of Audience in April 1512. The court found in favour of the rector, which was the law of England at that time so could be expected at this first hearing, before requesting appeal to a higher court under the Praemunire Statute of 1353.

On 27 December 1512, Hunne attended vespers at the same church (St. Mary Matfelon, Whitechapel), the priest refused to proceed with the service until Hunne left.

According to the account, which is mentioned in John Foxe's Book of Martyrs  the priest shouted "Hunne, thou art accursed and standest accursed!", meaning by this that Richard Hunne had been excommunicated by the ecclesiastical court. That Hunne did not worry about being excommunicated was of no concern, we know he was not part of the Catholic Church, being a member of the church of Christ.

Hunne then responded in January 1513 by suing the priest for slander claiming his character and business had been ruined by the priest's accusation. In Catholic London in the early sixteenth century many would not have been prepared to trade with Hunne and risk being sought out by the authorities. 

Hunne then with legal assistance counteracted with a praemunire charge against the church court in which he had been arraigned and argued that its authority derived from a Papal legate and therefore was a foreign court which could have no legitimate jurisdiction over the King of England's subjects. This law has even been used recently to counteract those who are pro-European.

The bishop of London, Richard Fitzjames, responded by again charging Hunne, this time for heresy. Hunne was then sent to the small prison at St. Paul's, the episcopal prison, London. This was after a raid on his house in October 1514, which had uncovered an English Bible, with, we are told,  a prologue sympathetic to Wycliffe's doctrines and other books.

The Catholic Church now engaged in a major and public battle with Hunne were relieved when he was found hanging in his cell on 4 December 1514. His body was burned on 20 December, as befitting a "heretic". His accusers claimed that he had committed suicide, although they could not convince the coroner's jury, which in February 1515 found that Hunne had been murdered by the bishop's chancellor, Dr. Horsey and two others.

The citizens of London were furious against Bishop Fitzjames and his officials. Then, when his chancellor was arrested for the murder, Fitzjames besought Cardinal Wolsey to help him, 'For assured I am if my chancellor be tried by any twelve men in London, they be so maliciously set in favour of heretical pravity that they will cast and condemn my clerk though he were as innocent as Abel.' And that the bishop did not say this in momentary anger appears from the fact that he repeated it some weeks later in the House of Lords, adding with gross exaggeration that if the obstinate jurymen went unpunished, 'I dare not keep my house for heretics.' It is clear from this that Hunne received great sympathy and his murder did not go unnoticed.

The Catholic church then appealed to Rome. The King, Henry the Eighth interjected with the words "By the permission and ordinance of God we are King of England: and Kings of England in past times never had any superior but God only. Therefore, know you well, that we will maintain the right of our crown, and of our temporal jurisdiction, as well in this as in all other points, in as ample a manner as any of our predecessors have done before our time."

The bishop's chancellor, Dr. Horsey, and his two companions received a free pardon from the king (Henry the eighth), but had to pay £1500 to the family (a considerable sum in that day).

In 1515, as a result of this affair and due to Hunne's powerful friends, Parliament debated whether to approve a Bill to restore to Hunne's children the property which had been forfeited to the crown when their father was found, posthumously, guilty of heresy.

The House of Commons petitioned Henry VIII to reform the law on mortuary fees and an attempt was made to extend laws against benefit of clergy. None of the proposed bills were passed, being rejected by the House of Lord's and the King.

John Foxe's Book of Martyrs recounts Hunne's case as evidence of the unfairness and unaccountability of English ecclesiastical courts on the eve of the Reformation. It also presents Hunne as a martyr and one of the forerunners of the Protestantism that would soon enter England in the wake of the reformation.

The country was shocked by these events, which led in time led to the English Reformation, the people being firmly set against the power of the Church. When King Henry the eighth for personal reasons moved against Rome, he had sympathy with many ordinary people. 

Later, Simon Fish, a lawyer of Gray’s Inn and an Oxford graduate, he was both an educated and cultured gentleman, he was born in Bristol, a part of England long associated with those seeking obedience to the scriptures. Fish had to leave London, about the year 1525, for acting in a play which offended cardinal Wolsey. While abroad, Fish wrote The Supplication for the Beggars (A Supplycacion for the Beggars) which was condemned as heretical by the Roman Catholic Church on May 24, 1530.

This pamphlet (small book, a copy is in British Library) the urged the abolition of monasteries and the seizure of their lands. Either through Anne Boleyn or some royal servant the pamphlet reached the hands of Henry VIII, who is said to have studied it carefully and long kept it by him. Through the king’s connivance, Fish was allowed to return from his banishment.

To make his anti-clerical case, Fish cited the case of Richard Hunne (above), which at the time was still a sensational story. This certainly upset the Catholic Church, whilst King Henry who was now seeking to break with Rome was turning a blind eye. The pamphlet was scathing of the Catholic Church also citing the spread of sexual diseases due to incontinent priests and monks. The printer of the pamphlet was most likely Johannes Grapheus of Antwerp, but cannot be confirmed. From Antwerp the Supplication was smuggled into England, penetrating the country’s borders despite its prohibition.

Fish's pamphlet had two specific objections against the Roman Catholic Church, objecting against the existence of purgatory and the sale of indulgences. This pamphlet is well known to historians of the English reformation and is often quoted as a precursor to the reformation. Simon Fish is quoted as a reformer and "Luther with a difference" (Robert Peters, 1973), in fact he was a restorer rather than reformer.

Fish was an associate of William Tyndale, the Bible translator, and helped in spreading the printed New Testament in English.

Simon Fish's less well known book, "The sumine of the holye scrypture" was taken from an older German 1523 (or Dutch) tract used in Europe, written originally by by Henricus Bomelius, which Fish translated into English with additions. It was printed in 1529/30. The book taught that baptism came after hearing the gospel and is possibly one of the earliest books printed by the churches of Christ in Europe and England. The mode used was "plunged under the water" which dispels the idea that sprinkling was used for believers baptism in the sixteenth century. The first edition of which only one remains was printed abroad. Later editions of this popular book were printed in London by Wyllyam Hill and remained in use for several decades. I have consulted the copy held at the University Library, Cambridge.

The appearance of "The sumine of the holye scrypture"  in England was condemned by an assembly of Bishops and other theologians, convened by Archbishop Warham at the command of Henry the Eighth, in 1530. Two proclamations for heresy were the outcome of this convention.. The seeds of certain heresies, it was declared, had been sown “by the disciples of Luther and other heretics, perverters of Christ’s religion.” Severe punishments were threatened against those malicious and wicked sects of heretics who, by perversion of Holy Scripture, do induce erroneous opinions, sow sedition amongst Christian people, and finally disturb the peace and tranquillity of Christian realms, as lately happened in some parts of Germany, where, by the procurement and sedition of Martin Luther and other heretics, were slain an infinite number of Christian people. In all the Church of England counted 92 heresies in Fish's book.

Fish's book counters Luther on his 'faith only' stance defending the book of James.

The book teaches the plan of salvation, the word of God must be preached first, it must be believed through faith, Christ confessed, repent and be baptised by immersion for the remission of sins whereby a person contacts Christ and is added to the church. This is not the teaching of Luther or any denomination, it is the pure gospel plan of salvation being preached nearly three hundred years before the Restoration Movement. The Reformation in England had not begun, society was highly superstitious and Roman Catholic, it was no better than pagan and fatalistic with people praying to and petitioning saints. Events, natural tragedies were blamed on God or the Devil, astrology was a science. In middle of this wretched depraved society, across England, were gentle autonomous congregations preaching the pure Gospel, using the identity, church of Christ, teaching how men could become Christians and live peaceably. This was a hundred and thirty years before any person wore the name Baptist, and over two hundred years prior to the Methodist Church. Yet we know similar congregations named Lollards had been doing the same for centuries before!      

So the Anabaptists (Christians) were made Lutherans which was ridiculous, as Luther was busy hunting down Anabaptists and exterminating them! The Protestants made the Anabaptists Catholics and Catholics made them Lutherans. Wherever they went, they were hunted down and exterminated as scum, for no other reason than they rejected the authority of the established church in preference for scripture. The name Anabaptist in this time period was used as a derogatory name and did not reference any particular group of people.

Fish was eventually arrested in London on charges of heresy (he was denounced as a "damnable heretic"), but was stricken with bubonic plague which infected much of London and died before he could stand trial in 1531. His widow then remarried, to James Bainham, becoming a widow twice-over in April 1532, when Bainham was burnt alive at the stake.

James Bainham belonged to a church of Christ, located in Bow-Lane, London, where he was a preacher. Fish's wife, who was suspected of heresy, married Bainham, who in turn was burnt for heresy in 1532. He was a lawyer of high character and Anglican Bishop Burnet wrote "that for true generosity, he was an example to the age in which he lived." This is truly a remarkable testimony coming as it does from a bishop of the Church of England.

Below, Bell Church where in the church yard (second picture), a few moments from where the congregation met, possibly in a warehouse, they would evangelise.



The Bow-Lane congregation met in a warehouse, suggesting a congregation of some size. With Bainham marrying Fish's widow, this brought him to the notice of the authorities and also, the congregation.    

Bainham by trade was a lawyer and was arrested at the Middle Temple, London in 1531. The Middle Temple is where law is practised and learned. It is one of the four Inns of Court exclusively entitled to call their members to the English bar as barristers. (The others are the Inner Temple, Gray's Inn and Lincoln's Inn.)

Bainham was whipped at the 'Tree of Truth' in Lord Chancellor (of England) Thomas More's garden, and was then sent to the Tower to be racked, "and so he was, Sir Thomas More being present himself, till in a manner he had lamed him." Bainham, under torture recanted, and later retracted his recantation, first before the brethren at the Bow Lane congregation where he asked forgiveness of God and all the world for what he had done. The following Sunday, at the church of St. Augustine, he rose in his seat with Tyndale's English New Testament in his hand, and declared openly, before all the people, with weeping tears, that he had "denied God," praying them all to forgive him, and beware of his weakness; "for if I should not return to the truth," he said, "this Word of God would damn me, body and soul, at the day of judgment." And then he prayed "everybody rather to die than to do as he did, for he would not feel such a hell again as he did feel for all the world's good." With such a public apology and repentance he would find no mercy, he was arrested. 

Under examination he said that "the truth of the holy Scriptures was never these eight hundred years past so plainly and expressly declared to the people as, it had been within these six years." Referring to the printed bible of Tyndale, which the Bow-Lane congregation may have helped to finance in addition to distributing, along with brethren from nearby Coleman Street, a congregation that is recorded in another page.

He also stated of baptism "That as many as repent, and do on them Christ, shall be saved. That is, as many as die concerning sin, shall live by faith with Christ. Therefore it is not we that live after that, but Christ in us. And so whether we live or die, we are God's by adoption, and not by water only but by water and faith. That is, by keeping the promise made. For ye are kept by by Grace and Faith, saith saint Paul, and that not of yourselves, for it is the gift of God. 

Under torture he stated there are but two churches, "The Church of Christ militant and the Church of Antichrist, and this Church of Antichrist may and doth err, but the Church of Christ doth not".

He stated concerning the New Testament "doth preach and teach the word of God"

We know dipping (immersion) for baptism was the practise in the English churches of Christ, for the remission of sins, in this period, though the continental Anabaptists at this time used pouring or sprinkling. Anglican clergyman, Dr Daniel Featly (one of the translators of the King James 1611 bible), wrote in 1645 of the churches of Christ meeting in London and elsewhere, where he calls the rebaptizing of adults "a new leaven," and that their position "is soured with it." Featly takes these congregations back to 1525 when he quotes from them "That baptism ought to be received by none, but such as can give a good account of their faith; and in case any have been baptized in their infancy, that they ought to he rebaptized after they come to years of discretion, before they are to be admitted to the Church of Christ". (Dippers Dipt, 1646 edition, page 20, spelling modernised)

After torture, including the rack, over several weeks, James Bainham died a triumphant death, at the stake, April 20, 1532, at Smithfield (London).

Prior to being executed he spoke to the crowd "I come hither, good people! Accused and condemned for an heretic; Sir Thomas More being my accuser and my judge. And these be the articles I die for, which be a very truth, and grounded on God’s Word, and no heresy. They be these: first, I say it is lawful for every man and woman, to have God's book in their mother tongue. The second article is, that the Bishop of Rome is Antichrist, and that I know no other keys of heaven-gates but only the preaching of the Law and the Gospel; and that there is no other purgatory, but the purgatory of Christ’s blood; and the purgatory of the cross of Christ, which is all persecutions and afflictions; and no such purgatory as they feign of their own imagination: for our souls immediately go to heaven, and rest with Jesus Christ for ever"

He was then chained to the stake, this prevented those being burned from walking away after the rope had burned through, keeping the victim upright and alive longer throughout the ordeal. After the fire had (quoting Foxe) "half consumed his arms and legs he spake these words:  O ye papists, behold, ye look for miracles, and here now now you may see a miracle; for in this fire I feel no more pain than if I were in a bed of down, but it is to me a bed of roses".

Among the lay officials present at the stake, was "one Pavier," town clerk of London. Pavier was a Catholic fanatic, and as the flames were about to be kindled he burst out into violent and abusive language. The fire blazed up, and the dying sufferer, as the red flickering tongues licked the flesh from off his bones, turned to him and said, "May God forgive thee, and shew more mercy than thou, angry reviler, shewest to me." The scene was soon over; the town clerk went home.

A week later, one morning when his wife had gone to mass, Pavier sent all his servants out of his house on one pretext or  another, a single girl only being left, and he withdrew to a garret at the top of the house, which he used as an oratory. A large crucifix was on the wall, and the girl having some question to ask, went to the room, and found him standing before it "bitterly weeping." He told her to take his sword, which was rusty, and clean it. She went away, and left him; when she returned, a little time after, he was hanging from a beam, dead!

In 1727 a congregation still met in Bow Lane whose preacher was Thomas Lamb, a name found associated with the Bell Alley congregation. 


The burning of James Bainham, from a woodcut in Foxes Acts and Monuments, 1684 



Modern medical knowledge informs us that that pain receptors in the skin, without which a person would not be able to feel pain, are destroyed in severe burning. This may explain the many accounts of Christians being burned alive by their enemies being able to converse coherently, despite the most horrific injuries including limbs dropping into the fire whilst alive and talking.  The first stages of being burned was often the most horrific before the pain receptors were destroyed. During this stage it was not uncommon for bystanders to kill the victim if allowed.

The victim was mostly drawn on a sledge to the place of execution, this mirrors the pagan system, particularly the ancient Egyptians who burned people alive for religious reasons, were also to draw on a sledge their unfortunate victims. The Catholics until recently viewed cremation as a pagan practice and a denial of the doctrine of the Resurrection. That's why cremation was expressly forbidden by the Catholic Church until recent years, yet they were happy not only to practise cremation on those whom they disagreed with, but to do it whilst they were alive. The ancient Egyptians developed an intricate transmigration of soul theology, which prohibited cremation. except for their enemies who they burned alive for religious reasons.

In 1415, 30 years after John Wycliffe's death, the Council of Constance declared him a heretic, condemned him on 267 different counts, ordered that his writings be burned, and directed that his bones be exhumed from consecrated ground, burned and cast into the river. They also excommunicated him. It wasn't until 1428 that the orders were carried out, presumably to prevent his being resurrected. They took Wycliffe's bones, burned them and scattered their dust in the nearby River Swift, which flows into the River Avon.


Summary, we can conclude:

In the late middle ages churches of Christ existed in England

The Bow Lane congregation saw themselves as a - church of Christ, and used that identity

These churches continued into the seventeenth century, and some continue to this day as Baptist

They met separate from the established Catholic and later Anglican church, in borrowed buildings

They were autonomous, and had a plurality of elders/deacons

They baptised believers for the remission of sins, by full immersion

They taught from the scriptures - Tyndale's New Testament and the Lollard OT & NT, which still remains a good bible

They taught free-will and opposed Calvinism

They opposed infant baptism

They sought the separation of State and Religion


Below, from Bow Lane looking down Watling Street towards St. Paul's Cathedral, where Christians evangelised under the eyes of the authorities! The Watling Street here is not the famous Roman Road, though dates back to pre-Roman times.


Below, the trees of the churchyard of St. Paul's Cathedral, London, where members of the churches of Christ from Bow Lane and Coleman Street would evangelise, often to their peril.


Below, the Old Bailey, Newgate, London, a few minutes walk from Bow Lane and St. Paul's. Here was a meeting house in the 1600s where the Newgate congregation met, and where the family of Edward Wightman fled after he was burned alive in 1612, the last man so executed by burning in England for religious "heresy".



Next page, John Smyth, 'Se-Baptist'? click on logo: