Jonathan Martin, Arsonist ~ Full of Fury and Fire

Many of my Regency stories is set in Yorkshire, one of my favorite places in the UK. Today, I bring you a tale that occurred on 1 February 1829, in the town of York and, specifically, involved the Cathedral and Metropolitical Church of Saint Peter, now known as York Minster.

An artist’s impression of Martin in captivity ~

One Jonathan Martin was outraged with what “went on” in the Gothic cathedral. Martin had sent the church’s clergy several warning letters regarding their sins: “repent of bottles of wine, and roast beef and plum pudding.”

Martin was born at Highside House, near Hexham in Northumberland, one of 12 children. His brother John Martin was an English Romantic painter, engraver and illustrator. Another brother, William Martin, was an English eccentric and self-described philosopher. Jonathan was said to have been farmed out to his aunt, Ann Thompson, a staunch Protestant to spoke often of her visions of hell to the boy. Jonathan was “tongue tied” and spoke with an impediment.

Later, he stood witness to his sister’s murder by a neighbor and was sent to his uncle’s farm to recover from the shock. Eventually, Jonathan was apprenticed to a tanner but was caught in London and press ganged in 1804. He served for six years upon the HMS Hercule and even saw action at the Battle of Copenhagen.

Jonathan finally returned to England when the HMS Hercule was broken up in 1810. He settled to Durham, where he married and where his son Richard was born in 1814. Shortly, thereafter, he became a Wesleyan preacher and denounced the Church of England. He was well-known for disruptive Protestant church services, calling the members of the clergy of the Church of England as “vipers from hell.”

In 1817, he was arrested, tried, and sent to a private asylum in West Auckland for his threats to shoot Edward Legge, the Bishop of Oxford. Later, he was transferred to the public asylum in Gateshead, from which he escaped in June 1820, but was quickly recaptured.

In 1821, upon learning his wife had died, Martin escaped a second time from the asylum. He was not recaptured, and, so, he returned to work as a tanner and a preacher. Because he believed that all prayer should come from the heart, rather than be recited from formal liturgy, Martin thought it his mission to expose the “corrupt state” of the established church, and he acted according to those tenants for nearly a decade following his return to society. He published his autobiography in 1826, with additional editions in 1828, 1829, and 1830. This was his chief source of income.

In 1828, he remarried; this time to Maria Hudson. The couple moved to York, where he experienced another mental breakdown in 1829.

On Sunday, 1 February, Martin attended the evensong (the Anglican equivalent to Vespers in the Roman Catholic Church) at York Minster. During the service, he became distracted by what he termed to be a “buzzing sound” coming from the organ. Instead of returning home after the service, Martin hid in the building, finally making his way to the bell tower. Ironically, any who noted his light did not question its presence in the tower. Later that night, Martin set fire to the woodwork in the choir area, using hymn books, cushions, and curtain as the fuel, and then escaped by climbing down a bell rope from the tower.

Evensong rehearsal in the quire of York Minster, showing carved choir stalls.

Smoke was not noted until the early hours of 2 February. It was raging by 8 of the clock. It took until the afternoon of 3 February before the fire was under control. “A section of the roof of the central aisle approximately 131 foot (40 m) long was destroyed, stretching from the lantern tower towards the east window, together with much of the internal woodwork from the organ screen to the altar screen, including the organ, medieval choir stalls, the bishop’s throne, and the pulpit. The cause – arson – soon became apparent, and the culprit was identified from threatening placards Martin had left on the Minster railings in previous days, including his initials and address. (Jonathan Martin, arsonist)

Martin was captured near Hexham on 6 February. He neither denied his guilt nor resist arrest. He simply declared his actions as “God’s will.”

He was tried at York Castle in March 1829, before Baron Hullock and a jury. At his 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.” Martin was defended by Henry Brougham, who had gained notoriety for defending Queen Caroline in 1821 and who became a liberal leader in the House of Lords, as well as Lord Chanceloor of Great Britain (24 November 1830 to 9 July 1834). Unfortunately, like the placards left at the scene, Martin had sent a series of letters to the clergy at the York cathedral. He had signed each with “JM” and include his address. One of them included the threat: “Your great Minsters and churches will come rattling down upon your guilty heads.”

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.” (The Fire and Fury of Jonathan Martin)

Despite the jury ruling that he was guilty on a capital charge, which should have resulted in a death sentence, the judge declared him not guilty on the grounds of insanity. He was detained in Bethlem Royal Hospital, where he remained until he died nine years later. During this period of detention, he made a number of drawings, including self-portraits and an apocalyptic picture of the destruction of London. His son, Richard, from his first marriage, was brought up by Jonathan’s brother John. Richard committed suicide in September 1838, three months after his father’s death.

Other Sources: 

Balston, T, The life of Jonathan Martin … with some account of William and Richard Martin (1945).

H. C. G. Matthew, ‘Martin, Jonathan (1782–1838)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, September 2004; online edn, October 2006.

“Jonathan Martin, A Madman Who Set Fire to York Minster.” The Newgate Calendar.

Rede, Leman Thomas. “Arson and Sacrifice: The Life and Trial of Jonathan Martin.” York Castle in the Nineteenth Century, Being an Account of All the Principal Offences Committed in Yorkshire, from The Year 1800 to the Present Period; with The Lives of Capital Offenders; Accompanied with Interesting Anecdotes, Etc.


About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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