An extract from the work of Derby antiquarian John Keys - 1890

The Story of Joan Waste

HAVING omitted from time to time certain records, chiefly regarding the churches, which will have attention in another part of this slight chronicle, we now arrive at the sixteenth century, and find ourselves before a dark page of the history of our town. The martyrdom of Joan Waste, in the year 1556, at Windmill Pit, is one of many instances of the religious persecution of the Dark Ages, and serves to remind us of the terrible price that has been paid for the freedom of thought which we to-day accept so much as a matter of course.

Let us enquire into the particulars of the dreadful crime for which this poor woman suffered a period of imprisonment, terminating in an awful agony of death.

Joan Waste was the daughter of one William Waste, a poor barber, who eked out a scanty subsistence by occasionally making ropes. Joan was one of twins, and was born blind; but, not withstanding her affliction, she was able from an early age to turn her hands to many things, and make herself of use to her parents. At the age of twelve she could knit hose and sleeves well, and often helped her father to turn ropes; and, in short, she proved a handy little maid, who never allowed herself to grow idle. After the death of her parents she lived with her brother Roger, and, as time went on, she developed a knowledge of religious matters by regular attendance at church, where divine service was read in the vulgar tongue. Her thirst for information on the subject of Holy Scripture naturally increased as she listened to the sermons and other discourses of the learned ministers; and at length she contrived, by careful saving, to purchase a New Testament. This precious volume she could not herself read, of course, but she determined to acquire a knowledge of its contents, and, to this end, she became acquainted with a certain John Hurt, a grave old man of seventy, who was imprisoned for debt in the " Common Hall" of Derby. Being delighted to have the company of this poor, blind girl, the prisoner readily yielded to the request of Joan, and, every time she visited him, read her a chapter or so from the book. Certainly it sometimes happened that the old man was sick, or occupied, and consequently unable to see her but Joan had two strings to her bow, and on these occasions would repair to her friend, John Pemberton, the clerk of All Saints’ Church. Indeed, so determined was she to hear the good tidings contained in her Testament, that when, at times, both her friends failed her, she would pay a hard-earned penny or two for this assistance to persons who would not otherwise oblige her. By this means she gained such a mastery over the passages of Scripture, that she could repeat many chapters from memory, and became known as one who, whilst showing forth the value of her learning by a life of virtue, did not scruple to point out certain religious abuses and other evils which were prevalent at the time.

In due course, King Edward the Sixth the then reigning monarch, died; and Mary came to the throne, to reinstate the religion of Rome, and to inflict the awful cruelties for which she is notorious. Then the time of trouble for Joan Waste was at hand. Being of strong character, though but a young woman of twenty-two, this poor blind creature was too firm in her faith to change like her fellows. She clung to the teaching she had learnt to love, and, whilst refusing to communicate in religious matters with those who taught the opposing doctrine, she unflinchingly proceeded with her own devotional exercises. Such rank heresy could, not long remain unnoticed by the zealous adherents to the religion of the Crown of England, and accordingly Joan Waste was apprehended in Derby about the end of June, 1556; being privately questioned in prison by Peter Ffinsh, the town official, before the more general enquiry, which took place in the presence of Rafe Baine, the bishop of the diocese; Doctor Draicott, his chancellor; Sir John Port, and others.

The charges of heresy brought against her were these: - That she held the Sacrament of the Altar to be only a memory or representation of Christ’s Body, and that in receiving such sacrament she did not receive the same body that was born of the Virgin Mary. That she held that Christ at His last supper did not bless the bread in His hands, but was blessed Himself; and that by virtue of words of consecration, the substance of the bread and wine is not converted and turned into the substance of the body and blood of Christ. Joan's reply to these accusations was that she believed in that which the Scriptures taught her, and also according to what she had heard preached by certain learned men, some of whom had already suffered imprisonment and death for their doctrines. She further remarked that what she believed in was true, and desired her accusers not to trouble her with further talk, she being a poor, blind, ignorant woman, but to do what they would with her, as she was ready, with the help of God, to yield up her life for her faith in such manner as they should direct. The bishop and Dr. Draicott endeavoured to shake her belief by argument, which they prolonged to such an extent and conducted so skilfully that Joan was astonished and half moved from her resolution; in consequence whereof, together with her natural desire to live, she offered to the bishop a different answer if he would, before the assembled company, solemnly hold himself responsible for the truth of his doctrine and for the safety of her soul on the Day of Judgement. The bishop at once expressed himself willing to undertake this responsibility; but his chancellor, Dr. Draicott, urged him to decline. "My lord," he said, "you know not what you do. You may in no case answer for a heretic." The speaker then turned to the prisoner and asked her whether she would recant or no, as she must answer for herself now and at all times Joan saw nothing for it but to repeat that she was ready to die; and so, after some discussion, sentence, of death was pronounced against her, after which she was delivered to the bailiffs of the town, who took her back to the jail, having instructions to bring her to the parish church of All Saints on the day appointed for carrying out the decree.

On the 1st of August, in accordance with the arrangements made, Dr. Draicott repaired to the church in company with certain gentlemen, and there he preached a sermon, the wretched woman who was to suffer for the sake of conscience having been placed close before the pulpit in view of the onlookers. In his discourse, the Christian preacher announced that the woman before him was condemned for denying the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar to be the very body and blood of Christ, and was thereby cut off from the body of the Catholic Church. He remarked that she was blind - not only in her bodily eyes, but in the eyes of her soul; that, as her body should be presently consumed with material fire, so her soul should be burned in hell with everlasting fire, as soon as it should be separated from the body, there to remain world without end; and that it was not lawful for the people to pray for her. Having, with such remarks as these, come to the end of his sermon, this so-called follower of the Saviour commanded the bailiffs and others to see her put to death, and went off to his inn, where he lay down and slept! Meanwhile, Joan was carried off from the church to the place called Windmill Pit, and here, holding her brother’s hand, she prepared herself for the end, saying such prayers as she had learnt and calling upon Christ to have mercy upon her.

Thus died Joan Waste, and thus another blot was, through the cruel blindness of bigotry, let fall upon the pages of English history, only to be wiped out by the ceaseless exercise of Christianity in all its beauty of charity and forgiveness.

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