In the beautiful church of St Oswald's, Ravenstonedale, well-know for its inward-facing
pews and fine three-decker pulpit, there is a stained-glass window commemorating
the death on 4th October 1685 of the last woman to be burnt at the stake at Tyburn
for her belief. She was Elizabeth Gaunt, the Anabaptist daughter of Anthony Fothergill
of Brownber, the head of an influential family in the Dale: a family who produced
many eminent members in the 17th and 18th centuries and whose descendents still live
in the parish.
None, however, were so famous as Elizabeth Gaunt. At that time Baptists were sometimes
called 'Anabaptists' after a group founded on the continent in the 16th century and
those beliefs were brought over by refugees from the Low Counties. They refused to
have their children baptised and re-instituted the baptism of believers, hence the
nick-name 'Anabaptists' after the Greek, meaning 're-baptisers', so, in today's phraseology,
you could say that Elizabeth Gaunt was one of the first 'born-again Christians'.
Anabaptists were vigorously denounced by both Luther and Calvin and were severely
persecuted by both Roman Catholics and Protestants alike. Those put to death probably
ran into tens of thousands.
In Hume's 'History of England' there is this account of
'Of all the executions during the dismal period when the iniquitous
Jeffries was carrying out his dreadful work, the most remarkable were those of Mrs
Gaunt and Lady Lyle who had been accused of harbouring traitors. Mrs Gaunt was an
Anabaptist, noted for her benevolence which she extended to persons of all professions
and persuasions. One of the rebels, knowing her humane disposition, had recourse
to her in distress and was concealed by her.
Hearing of the proclamation which offered an indemnity to such as discovered criminals,
he betrayed his benefactress and bore evidence against her. He received a pardon
as a recompense for his treachery and she was burnt alive for her charity.'
One of the witnesses of her death was William Penn, who related that 'when she had
calmly disposed the straw about her in such a manner as to shorten her suff~rings,
all the bystanders burst into tears'. It was recorded that while the foulest judicial
murder which had disgraced even those times was perpetrated, a tempest burst forth
such as had not been seen for many a day.
So died a brave and good woman. 'My fault,'
said Elizabeth, shortly before her death, 'was one which a prince might well have
forgiven, did but relieve a poor family and I must die for it.'