The Fire and Fury of Jonathan Martin

An artist's impression of Martin in captivity
An artist's impression of Martin in captivity

by Ray Setterfield


June 3, 1838 — A cathedral has dominated York – the town in the North of England founded by the Romans – for more than a thousand years. Officially the Cathedral and Metropolitical Church of Saint Peter in York, it is now known to everyone simply as York Minster. The townspeople are proud of the Gothic masterpiece which continues to attract visitors from across the globe.

Luckily, an attempt by religious extremist Jonathan Martin to burn the building down in 1829 failed, even though he caused extensive damage. It wasn't the cathedral itself that provoked Martin's rage, but the clergy who operated from within its walls.

He had sent them several warning letters demanding that they should "repent of bottles of wine, and roast beef and plum pudding" if they wished to escape from the wrath to come.

Martin, who died on this day in history, was born in the north of England to a family of twelve. In 1804 he was press-ganged and forced to serve in the Navy for six years. Fellow sailors spoke of his religious obsession.

He became a Wesleyan preacher in 1814 and launched a number of attacks on the Church of England, describing the clergy as "vipers from hell." Martin was hauled before magistrates on several occasions for disrupting church services. In 1817, after threatening to shoot the Bishop of Oxford, he was arrested and committed to a lunatic asylum, from where he twice escaped.

Believing that all prayer should come from the heart rather than recited from formal liturgy, Martin considered he had a personal mission to expose what he saw as the corrupt state of the established church. In 1829 he went to York Minster for Evensong and hid until the great doors were closed, then used hymn books, cushions and curtains to start a fire. He escaped by climbing down a bell rope from the tower.

At his subsequent trial Martin said: "It vexed me to hear them singing their prayers and amens. I knew it did not come from the heart; it was deceiving the people."

It did not take a Sherlock Holmes to track down the fire culprit. A series of letters Martin sent to the clergy were all signed JM and gave his address. One of them included the phrase: "Your great Minsters and churches will come rattling down upon your guilty heads."

When seized he made no attempt to resist arrest or protest his innocence, simply declaring that he had carried out God's will.

At his trial Martin told the judge: "After I had written five letters to the clergy, the last of which I believe was a very severe one, I was very anxious to speak to them by word of mouth; but none of them would come near me.

"So I prayed to the Lord, and asked him what was to be done. And I dreamed that I saw a cloud come over the cathedral – and it tolled towards me at my lodgings; it awoke me out of my sleep, and I asked the Lord what it meant; and he told me it was to warn these clergymen of England, who were going to plays, and cards, and such like: and the Lord told me he had chosen me to warn them."

Feelings were running high against Martin, so much so that a detachment of soldiers remained in court during the trial because the judge feared that he might be lynched. He is said to have smiled a great deal during the hearing, fuelling howls of anger from the public gallery.

His confession was interpreted as a plea of guilty and the jury was instructed to pronounce only on his sanity. If judged sane, he would hang. Much to the chagrin of the public, however, it took the jury only seven minutes to decide that the burning of the Minster was the act of a man with an unsound mind.

He was sent to Bedlam for the rest of his life and died in the asylum nine years later, aged 56.

It took three years to restore the Minster, which has suffered two major fires since Martin's arson. In 1840, a workman left a candle burning in the south-west tower, causing the nave roof to be seriously damaged.

In 1984, the roof was again extensively damaged by fire. No careless workman this time: the blame was attributed to a flash of lightning. Unlucky, but just natural causes. Though if Jonathan Martin could have been asked his opinion he would almost certainly have seen it as an act of God!

Published: May 29, 2018

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