The crowd was sympathetic. Elizabeth Gaunt was not only an old woman, but known to many of the onlookers as a kindly Christian who helped the poor and exiles. But in the England of 1685, as in all of the world, cruel deaths were all too often dished out to people who angered the authorities with independent religious views.
Elizabeth arranged straw around herself to speed the flame so that her misery would be as short as possible. When the people saw this, many burst into tears. Few of the onlookers felt that Elizabeth’s sentence was just. She had no part whatever in treason, but was to burn alive for it.
What had happened was this. Two years earlier, several members of the Whig party plotted to assassinate King Charles II as he passed by a place known as Rye House. Although they abandoned the plot, they were betrayed to the government. James Burton, one of the men implicated in the plan pleaded with Elizabeth Gaunt to hide him from his pursuers for the sake of his family. Believing that it was what God would expect, she not only helped him escape but gave him her precious savings.
The government issued a proclamation that any one who gave evidence leading to others who took part in the plot would be given immunity from prosecution. James Burton saw this as a way to save his skin. He made a deal with the authorities: He would testify against Elizabeth, the woman who had saved his life, if they would grant him the promised immunity. The government agreed to this, and as the philosopher David Hume wrote, “He received a pardon as a recompense for his treachery and she was burnt alive for her charity.”
For several years, King James II, who had come to the throne, made use of Judge Jeffreys, a brutal and unjust man, who made a career of handing out cruel sentences against the king’s enemies. Everyone could imagine what level of justice Elizabeth could expect. Probably mercy would not have been shown to her even if she had not been one of the hated Anabaptists. These people taught pacifism and, contrary to the practice of most denominations, rejected infant baptism. They believed that only someone old enough to know the meaning of baptism should receive the water.
“My fault,” wrote Elizabeth, shortly before her death, “was one which a prince might well have forgiven. I did but relieve a poor family and I must die for it.”
Die she did, in the flames, on this day, October 23, 1685. She died bravely, the last woman burned alive in England for treason.
William Penn, founder of Pennsylvania, was at the scene and saw her die. He recorded some of the details.
Afterward, a furious storm burst upon England, which many considered to be a sign of God’s anger at the burning of the innocent woman.
- Barker, Anthony Richard. Women’s Roles in the Baptist Churches: An Historical and Contemporary on Baptist Female Leadership in Great Britain. (School of Theology Westminster College, Oxford, 1996 http://www.baptist.org.uk/pdffiles/tbarker.pdf.
- Green, John Richard. A Short History of the English People. New York: Harper, 1895; source of the portrait.
- Hume, David. History of England.
- Macaulay, Thomas Babingdon. History of England.
- Various internet pages.