The 16th Century was a time of great religious upheaval throughout all of Europe and England in Particular.
With the First Act of Supremacy in 1534 Henry VIII had split from the Catholic Church of Rome and formed his own Protestant Church of England with himself as its head beginning the English Reformation.
England was plunged into a period of unknowable turmoil as the monasteries that had dominated religious life since the early middle ages were stripped of their power, influence and property. The Catholic Faith had been England’s religion for centuries but suddenly practicing Catholicism was heretical and punishable by death.
However, his Daughter Mary Tudor was Catholic and upon her ascent to the throne in 1553 she switched the state religion back to Catholicism, decided that it was the Church of England that was heretical, and started burning Protestants at the stake.
However, Mary died without an heir in 1558 and her half-sister Elizabeth became queen. Elizabeth was a Protestant like her Father Henry VIII and so the state religion again became the Church of England, this time with Elizabeth as the head. During Elizabeth’s reign Catholics once again found themselves subjected to ever increasing amounts of suspicion and persecution.
Rowland Jenkes was a Catholic bookseller living and working in Oxford. Due to the presence of the University Oxford had a reputation for being a progressive city where ideas could be freely shared and discussed. Jenkes was a devout Catholic and decided to share his thoughts about the protestant Queen Elizabeth.
As a Catholic, he had a great deal to say about Elizabeth I and none of it was good. This landed him in a lot of trouble and he was put on trial in the summer Assizes of 1577 for seditious libel and was sentenced to be pilloried. Today the word pilloried means to attack, ridicule or publicly humiliate someone, so you can imagine that Rowland’s punishment was not pleasant.
The pillory is a freestanding wooden frame that holds a prisoner’s head and arms in place, forcing them to stand painfully bent over and immobile. These would be left out in public to display the prisoner and they would often have a sign hanging round their neck so the crowds can see what crime they had committed and deal out whatever punishment they saw fit.
Prisoners locked in the pillory would suffer all sorts of abuse and humiliation, often having all sorts of unpleasant things pelted at them while they were unable to shield themselves or even turn their face aside to avoid the stinking filthy projectiles.
As well as the pillory there was a more permanent element to his punishment and you can discover all the gruesome details on one of our costumed guided tours.
During Rowland’s trial it was recorded that a strange malady swept through the courtroom. This malady killed some three-hundred people in Oxford itself and potentially hundreds in the surrounding countryside. Many of the dead were the wealthy men that had presided over Jenkes’s Trial. Among them were Sir Robert Bell, the Lord Chief Baron of the Exchequer and Sir Robert D’Oyly, a descendant of the Robert D’Oyly that built Oxford Castle over five hundred years earlier in 1071.
There were many theories about what had caused this malady that become known as the Black Assizes. Some claimed it was a disease caused by the stench coming from the unwashed prisoners, while other placed the blame squarely on Jenkes, claiming that he had uttered a terrible curse during his trial. The truth, has sadly been lost to the depths of time.