George Marsh, a Protestant priest who became a martyr, was born in the parish of Deane near Bolton in 1515. He died at Boughton, Chester, on 24 April 1555 as a result of the Marian Persecutions carried out against Protestant reformers and other dissenters during the reign of Queen Mary I. His death is recorded in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, and he is remembered by memorials in St Mary’s Church in Deane, Bolton and in Chester.
George Marsh was born and lived most of his life in the parish of Deane, near Bolton. He was a farmer who married at the age of twenty-five. After his wife’s death he left his children in the care of his parents and entered Cambridge University. There he associated with advocates of the reformed faith and in particular Lawrence Saunders. Marsh from Catholic Lancashire, probably became a Protestant while at Cambridge. Nicholas Ridley, the Bishop of London ordained him deacon in 1552 and the following year he became the curate at Church Langton in Leicestershire and the Church of All Hallows Bread in Street, London where Lawrence Saunders was the incumbent.
He was said to be a tall man who had a clever way with words and was a popular preacher. He was for a time employed by the king, but fell out of favour during the reign of Queen Mary I. After Saunders was arrested in 1554 George Marsh went north and continued preaching the Protestant faith in the parishes of Deane, Eccles and elsewhere in Lancashire.
A warrant was issued for Marsh’s arrest for heresy by Edward Stanley, 3rd Earl of Derby. Justice Barton of Smithills HallSmithills Hall in Bolton, Greater Manchester, is one of the oldest manor houses in the northwest of England, dating in parts from the 15th century. in Bolton sent servants to arrest him at his mother’s house, but Marsh gave himself up at the hall. After being questioned at Smithills, according to local tradition, Marsh stamped his foot so hard to re-affirm his faith that a footprint was left in the stone floor.
Trial and death
While being questioned at Lathom House by the Earl of Derby it was thought that he could be made to conform and he was held in reasonable comfort. Marsh, however resisted efforts to make him submit and when he refused to recant was taken to Lancaster Gaol where he was brought for trial at the Quarter Sessions. For nearly a year, Marsh remained in Lancaster Gaol where he read from the Bible and prayed with townsfolk gathered outside his window until George Coates, the Catholic Bishop of Chester intervened. Sympathisers offered support and priests tried to convert him. When statutes against heresy were enacted by parliament Marsh was taken to the gaol at Northgate, Chester.He stood trial under Bishop Coates in the Lady Chapel of Chester Cathedral. Marsh refused to convert to Roman Catholicism, despite being given one last chance to recant while being tied to the stake at which he was about to be burned. His imprisonment is documented in Foxe’s Actes and Monuments. Marsh’s follower and brother-in-law Geoffrey Hurst, a nail maker from Shakerley, was also imprisoned at Lancaster but was saved from execution by Queen Mary’s death.
Marsh was executed in April 1555 on the north side of the road in Boughton, about a mile from Chester city centre. He had been sentenced to be burned to death at the stake at the traditional execution ground. After his death, his ashes were collected by his friends and buried in Saint Giles’ Cemetery. There is no grave marker just a footnote on an inscription:
When Protestant martyr George Marsh was burned at the stake on gallows hill close by his ashes were collected by his friends and buried here.
St Mary’s Church in Deane has two memorials, the inscribed base of an ancient Saxon cross from which early Christian preachers taught in the churchyard that originally stood half a mile to the west of the church. Inscriptions on its base record his martyrdom and the erection of the memorial in 1893. A window was dedicated to him in 1897 depicting Faith, Charity and Hope.
In Chester, there are memorials in St John the Baptist’s Church and a granite obelisk erected in 1888 by the side of a road in Boughton, which has the inscription:
George Marsh born Dean Co. Lancaster. To the memory of George Marsh martyr who was burned to death near this spot for the truth sake April 24th 1555.