Wednesday, 6 May 2009

The case of Perotine Massey

Perotine Massey is not a familiar name to many. When we think of the Protestants persecuted during Mary’s reign we often reflect on the prominent victims like Thomas Cranmer, archbishop of Canterbury. Perotine was no one ‘special’. So why is she, or more accurately her death, so controversial? Is it because she was a woman? No – women could be arraigned and condemned for a variety of crimes and Perotine was certainly not the first nor the last female burnt for heresy in England. Was it her status? Again no, for she was from a modest background as were numerous other martyrs. So what made Perotine controversial? The answer is that she was pregnant at the time of her death.

Here are the details on Perotine supplied by John Foxe in his Book of Martyrs. She was the daughter of one Katherine Cauches (or ‘Cowchen’) and she lived with her mother and one sister called Guillemine in St Peter Port, Guernsey. A woman in her community had stolen a silver cup and tried to sell it to Perotine but knowing that it was actually the property of anther, Perotine informed the actual cup’s owner. The thief was arrested and Perotine was also questioned for any impossible involvement in the robbery. Sufficient evidence could not be found for her involvement but she was instead accused of not attending church. Was she perhaps accused by the disgruntled thief? Regardless, the case was brought to the dean of Guernsey and on 14th July 1556 she was examined before a number of local important figures (amongst them the dean). Either on the 17th or the 27th July she was condemned as a heretic, and burnt at the stake. She was strangled beforehand but the rope broke. Whilst on the stake she gave birth to a boy and one eyewitness (a ‘W. House’) initially saved the baby but the bailiff, Helier Gosselin, insisted that it too should die. As a consequence the infant was thrust into the flames.

It is a horrifying story. But is it true – and if so why did they still execute her and why, when she gave birth at the stake, did they not save the baby?

And if it is false, why invent such a story in the first place?

Reasons as to why the story was mentioned – or even invented – by Foxe is obvious. The murder of a newborn infant was regarded as heinous to contemporaries, as it does to us, thus those responsible for this were cast as unjust and brutal. This is exactly the manner in which the Protestant Foxe wished to present Mary and the Catholic Church. But that does not necessarily mean he invented it. Not all of what Foxe recorded was inaccurate – no one doubts, for example, that Cranmer was sent to the stake even after recanting his Protestant beliefs regardless of the fact that his recantation should have saved him.

The issue of the pregnancy though raises questions. During the early modern period there was a plea known as ‘benefit of belly’. This was where a pregnant woman who had been condemned to death could raise her condition and as such the execution would be stalled until after the child’s birth. The existence of this plea indicates that the unborn child was not regarded as culpable of its mother’s sins and as such was not to share her fate. She could still remain in prison, and in most cases she was not guaranteed a full pardon. But nonetheless the child was still to live.

So why was Perotine sent to the scaffold? Perhaps her pregnancy was not known to herself or to the officials. Pregnancy in the early stages was hard to determine with much certainty during the sixteenth-century, and obvious signs like the cessation of menstruation could be regarded instead as a symptom of a general ailment. If the female criminal was pregnant she needed to raise the condition first and then be examined. But if she did not know of her pregnancy then she could not do this. There was also the possibility that she could tell the officials of this, be examined by a groups of matrons and have her pregnancy denied. This may sound odd to us but there are cases of women being sent to the scaffold although they claiming to be pregnant but were declared not to be so by others. Cathy McClive records the death of one female criminal who was hanged and dissected in 1666 outside the Louvre. The woman had previously pleaded that she was pregnant but this was overruled. The crowd was said to have been shocked when during the execution it was discovered that she was had been around four months pregnant.

According to Jasper Ridley in Bloody Mary’s Martyrs (2001), Perotine did not tell the judges at her trial that she was pregnant although it is hard to deduce whether this was consciously done or whether she really didn’t know about her condition. But why did the bailiff, once the child was born, decide to condemn the child with the mother? The bailiff was asked the same question years later during the reign of Elizabeth I. He was tried for his actions and his response was that the child had been in the woman’s (and therefore the ‘heretic’s’) womb and therefore shared her sin. This was not regarded to be a just reason and subsequently he was condemned for murder. But Elizabeth pardoned him.

In my opinion the story of Perotine would have made many uneasy because regardless whether the contemporary was Catholic or Protestant the death of a newborn infant was viewed as unacceptable. The charges were so damning that one Catholic writer and Elizabethan exile, Thomas Harding stressed that she had not told the judges at her trial that she was pregnant and had she done so she would have not been sent to the stake. Importantly he did not deny that Perotine had existed or that had given birth at the stake; rather he was challenging the idea that the Catholic Church had anything to do with the death.

The case of Perotine reveals certain problems within the system of persecuting heretics during Mary’s reign. Mary and leading Church officials could of course not involve themselves in every case of heresy – this had to be left to local officials. Therefore the system rested on the belief that local officials could oversee the burnings in a correct and appropriate manner. But as Linda Porter in her biography on Mary notes, ‘some local administrative and justices were as zealous as individuals in pursuing heretics’ and as such the system was capable to be abused (p.361).

So does that mean that Mary is not to blame for the death of Perotine or any other cases of abuse within the system? Should we blame instead zealous officials like the Guernsey bailiff? It is hard to decree that Mary was directly responsible for this case and we have no idea whether she was even informed of it. It is true that she was not there to personally administer the death of the child and it is extremely unlikely that she, along with most contemporaries, would have issued the death of an infant. But before we put the case down to the corruption of those directly involved, it must be remembered that there did exist those close to the political centre that urged caution. Amongst them was the Franciscan friar Alfonso de Castro, who was part of Philip of Spain’s household. Whilst he was a supporter of the method of burning heretics, Castro urged that time needed to be taken to convert the Protestants – in essence that burning should be the final option and the authorities should spend as much time as possible trying to make the person recant. In other words it was not to be a rushed affair, like the case of Perotine.

So Perotine did exist and today a plaque in her honour (along with her mother and sister who were burnt alongside her) can be seen on the Tower Hill steps in St Peter’s Port. She may not have been the most famous Marian martyr, and today her name is frequently left out of books on Mary and the church during this period. But her story was regarded as important enough for Foxe to raise it and for Harding to attack. Ultimately I don’t perceive the case of Perotine to be an example of Mary’s supposed brutality, nor do I think it is fair to use such situations to form a complete judgment of Mary’s church. But speaking as someone who favours a more balanced portrayal of Mary and her church, I wonder whether it is not amiss to ignore certain flaws of the system just as it is illogical to deny this queen of any achievements.


John Foxe, Acts and Monuments. Available from:

Cathy McClive, ‘The Hidden Truths of the Belly: The Uncertainties of Pregnancy in Early Modern Europe’, Social History of Medicine 15:2 (2002).
Glyn Redworth, ‘Castro, Alfonso de (c.1495–1558)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004.
Jasper Ridley, Bloody Mary’s Martyrs (London, 2001), pp. 152-3.
Linda Porter, Mary Tudor: The First Queen (London, 2007), pp. 350-62.


  1. Elena Maria Videl ("Tea at Trianon" linked to your blog. I will be back! Thank you very much for your excellent work.
    I am certainly looking forward to Eamon Duffy's study of Catholicism during the reign of Mary I. I notice you reference Linda Porter's recent biography: do you recommend it as the better of the recent Marian biographies?

  2. This looks like it's going to develop into a truly fascinating blog. When studying the history of the period both at school and at university, I always felt that the treatment of Mary by scholars was extremely biased, and I look forward to following your balanced reassessment of her reign.

  3. I, too, linked from "Tea at Trianon". I enjoy reading and learning about this time period. And, I, too, have felt a deep sense of discomfort in reading the very biased presentation of Queen Mary I. I look forward to returning and learning more.

  4. Stephanie A. Mann – Thank you!! Whilst I enjoyed Linda Porter’s work and liked the fact that it contained information that is frequently missed out of popular biographies on her, I preferred the biography by Judith Richards. Richards's work engages more in ongoing academic debates regarding Mary’s reign but does so in a manner suitable for those well knowledgeable on and not that knowledgeable on Mary’s reign. Richards also discusses the subject of female rule and Mary I very well, and indicates how Mary was her own individual and a true Queen Regnant (certainly not under her ministers’ or husband’s thumb!). It is very sympathetic – arguably a bit too sympathetic – but Richards provides evidence for her claims. I just wished it covered more on Mary’s Church. Overall it is a good read – as is Anna Whitelock’s new biography on Mary which I have recently purchased and not yet finished.

    Mark – thank you!! My interest in Mary really fuelled at university (which I still attend) and after searching more into her life and reign I became more aware of the prejudicial manner in which it has been portrayed. Fortunately a number of works on Mary have emerged that has challenged the stereotypical image of a ‘bloody’ and incompetent Mary. Hopefully such works will affect popular perceptions of her, although I am rather cynical and think it will take many years for these new works to make a wide impact!

    Thank you Monument and Rosy! I am really flattered that a link to this blog has been made. I am currently going through exams so I will posting in a slow fashion, but thank you for the comments!

  5. Thank you very much for the information about the two biographies. Perhaps Eamon Duffy's new book on the Church will supplement Richard's book. We have to wait until September this year for Duffy's book in the U.S., but I am going to buy a copy while in Oxford next month!