From the Martyr’s Mirror

by Thieleman J. van Braght

The Story of Hans Bret, Died January 1577

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue 5 in 1985 ]

SINCE HIS ENGLISH FATHER was no longer living and his brother Daid had gone to England, Hans Bret was the sole support for his mother. They lived in Antwerp in the Netherlands, his mother’s homeland. Hans worked in a confectionery with a baker, who like him and his mother was also an Anabaptist.

From the age of twenty-one Hans had distinguished himself as a serious student of the Bible. He spent his Sundays instructing recent converts and preparing them for baptism. Many sought him out for the privilege of studying with him because of his insight, kindness, and earnestness. But only a few months after his own baptism, something happened …

It was about nine o’clock in the evening when a knock came at the confectionary door. Hans went to open it. There stood the bailiff of Antwerp and a number of his beadles. Seeing who was there, Hans ran back quickly to warn the baker and his family. They quickly went to leave by the back door. But the house was surrounded! All the occupants were arrested. While the beadles cruelly manhandled the men, Han’s mother and several others made their escape.

Not Hans. He was taken to the castle prison of Antwerp, and there tortured and questioned several times over the next few months. He took the occasion of his imprisonment to write letters of encouragement to his mother, his sister, his brother in England, to other friends, and the congregation. Part of Hans’ suffering was to be imprisoned alone in a dungeon for weeks. From this dark hole he wrote several letters. Here is part of a letter he wrote to his mother:

Most dearly beloved mother, I am glad to tell you that I am well according to the flesh. But according to the spirit, I thank the Lord that he gives me strength by His Holy Spirit, so that my mind is unchanged. For from him alone we expect our strength to withstand these cruel wolves, so that they can have no power over our souls. They are really more cruel than wolves—they are not satisfied with our bodies, tearing at them; but they seek to devour and kill our souls.

I want to write you a little about how my examination by the priests passed off. The first time that I spoke with the priests, the dean came, that great large priest with another priest, whom we are in the habit of calling the inquisitor (my master knows him well) and who cries and storms the most. We talked for a long time, and I reproved their idolatry, as much as the Lord by His Holy Spirit gave me utterance. Then while we were talking a Jesuit came in, so that there were three of them sitting there. The priest began to speak of the Supper. So I asked them: “When Christ gave the bread, saying: ‘Take, eat, this is my body; this do in remembrance of me,’ did Christ himself remain sitting there?” The priest said, “Yes.” I said, “So the interpretation cannot be as you understand it.” And I told him that he did not understand the scriptures, because Paul says that a carnal man cannot understand that which is spiritual. Then he cried, “What can you say about me? Am I a drunkard?” I answered, “Your idolatries bear witness that you are.” The Jesuit cried that the devil had me by the throat, and that I was a proud fool. I replied, “I rejoice that I am thus despised for Christ’s sake.” They shouted so loudly that one could scarcely utter a sentence. The dean cried to the others: “Domine, Domine, let him go, we shall gain no laurels with him.”

After eight months in jail, the torture became more severe, but Hans Bret did not recant his beliefs. Finally he was brought before the court for a hearing. Hans testified boldly to his faith. A sentence was pronounced: Hans Bret would be burned at the stake.

 
 

Early in the morning of the day set for the burning, Saturday, 4 January, the executioner came to Hans’ cell. The executioner ordered him to put out his tongue. Over it he placed an iron clamp, then screwed it tight with a vice-screw over the tongue. This done, he burned the end of Hans’ tongue with a hot iron so that the tongue would swell and could not be withdrawn from the clamp. This tongue screw was to prevent Hans from speaking to the people when he was taken to the stake.

Then Hans was placed in a wagon and hauled through the streets still cluttered with the debris from the Spaniards’ burning of the city. Stepping from the wagon at the marketplace where the stake was, Hans knelt to pray, his face toward heaven. Seeing this, the beadles jerked him toward the stake, wrapped his body to the stake with chains, stacked wood around him, and straw next to it to make the wood catch more quickly.

As Hans Bret was being chained to the stake, his pastor and friend, Hans de Ries stepped out of the crowd and as near to his friend as he dared. The fire blazed up, and Hans Bret’s body went limp. After the body was burned to ashes and the fire cooled, Hans Ries retrieved from the ashes a memento—the tongue screw used to silence Hans Bret.

Shortly thereafter, Hans de Ries married Hans Bret’s mother. In their family the tongue screw of this young martyr has been handed down from generation to generation.

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