I had some spare time yesterday morning, and after dropping my daughter off at school, and walking, as usual, down Denmark Street, towards Southernhay, I decided to stop by a monument that had previously caught my attention as it sits strangely asymmetrically from the crossroads it stands at.
I was very surprised when, after circling it, I noticed that the sculptor had been Harry Hems. The monument, a pillar of Dartmoor granite, was in fact erected in 1909 and allegedly paid for by money raised through public subscriptions. It represents, on opposite panels, the protestant martyrs Thomas Benet (above left), who died at the stake at Livery Dole, and Agnes Prest (above right), who died at Southernhay.
Thomas Benet was a Professor of Civil Law at Cambridge who lived during Henry VIII’s reign. After turning to Protestantism, he nailed a paper on Exeter Cathedral’s West door protesting against the supremacy of the Pope in October 1530. Benet, who had had to leave Cambridge and was living on Smythen Street in Exeter, where he was making his living as a teacher, was finally captured when he attended his own excommunication service at the Cathedral. He was placed in irons, ordered to submit to the Pope, and after he refused, taken to the Livery Dole and burnt at the stake in 1531.
The Livery Dole is a triangle of land between Heavitree Road, Polsloe Road and Magdalen Road. From the Old English Leofhere who owned the land and dole, meaning a piece of land, it was used as a place of execution for those who committed murder, treason, heresy and witchcraft until 1537.
Looking at the monument, it seems to me as if Hems sculpted Benet so that his panel was facing towards the Livery Dole, and Prest, so that her panel was facing towards Southernhay, looking at their own places of execution.
In fact Benet’s position in the panel is reminiscent of that of Martin Luther (who also famously nailed his thesis on the Wittenberg Schloss Kirk door on 31 October 1517), except that Benet is on his own, anxiously turning around to see if anybody is seeing him. If we circle him, he almost looks right at us.
The paneling on the Cathedral door is in fact similar to what Hems represented here, but there are no figures at the Cathedral that are reminiscent of the female figure (above right) in the right corner of the panel.
Who is she, I wonder? She looks so sad, and beautiful, like a girl Hems might have known.
Prest, who lived under Mary’s reign, was a Cornish woman who worked in Exeter as a servant. She allegedly had witnessed Benet’s execution in her youth. She refused to accept the doctrine of transubstantiation, and was turned in by her own husband and neighbours. She was imprisoned in Lanceston and then Exeter, charged with heresy, asked to give up her beliefs, and finally burnt at the stake at Southernay in 1557.
In Hems’s panel we see her moments before her death. Whereas Benet was caught in a private moment, this panel is showing a public scene. We see Prest in chains, a boy building up the fire being distracted by something in the distance, some clergy, soldiers, and a lady witnessing the death from the Southerhay walls.
Everybody in this panel is looking in a different direction, but one figure is looking right at us (below right).
Who is this figure. Why is he looking at us? Does he remind you of anybody?