York Minster has had its fair share of tragedy and triumphs, but one of the biggest travesties to ever occur in its long history took place in 1829.
The Minster has suffered a few fires throughout its history including the recent 1984 fire which many York residents will still remember. These unfortunate events were accidents, but what happened on the 2nd February 1829 was certainly no accident…
A young choirboy named Swinbank was walking across the Minster Yard when he slipped on some ice and fell on his back, and from this angle noticed smoke billowing from the Minster’s roof. He raised the alarm and on opening the Minster doors it was discovered a frenetic fire was storming through the choir area and had been for some time. All the cities fire engines were obtained to battle the blaze, but it wasn’t enough and more had to be called for from nearby places like Leeds. A vast amount of damage was caused, with one report written after the event recalling that “the flames spread around the south-west corner of the choir, and reached the Organ; and when this noble instrument caught fire, an appalling noise, occasioned by the action of the air in the pipes, &c. upon the flames, reverberated through the building; and struck with awe all who heard it. A little after eight, this fine instrument, unequalled we believe for tone and power by any instrument in the world, was totally consumed, together with the valuable collection of music which was deposited in the organ loft, and much of which being manuscript cannot be replaced“. It took hours for the fire to come under control and be extinguished; as the burnt remains of the choir were examined the question was asked – what caused this?
A gas issue? Candles left unattended? Or worse…an incendiary.
As you can probably tell it was the latter, and his name was Jonathan Martin.
We know a surprising amount about Jonathan Martin’s life before the tragic fire of 1829, largely because Martin had previously written and published a biography about himself. He wrote that he was born in 1782 in Hexham, Northumberland to poor but honest parents and was apprenticed in the tanning business. His life changed dramatically when he was press ganged into naval service (a horrible practice where people were forced into the armed service against their will). He wrote “as they deceived me I determined to do so by them, and gave them a wrong name, thinking that it would be a service to me if any opportunity of escaping presented itself“. He was eventually paid off and travelled back to the north where he married and had a son named Richard. Always a devout Christian, things began to take a turn when he began to have vivid distressing warnings in his dreams and worried it was because he had neglected religion.
His loved ones were concerned as Martin wrote “my wife endeavoured to comfort me, as she feared for my head“. He converted to methodism and began to get into arguments with the clergy as he felt the Church of England was corrupt. Things came to ahead when he considered shooting a Bishop. Although this thankfully did not occur, he was sent to an asylum in West Auckland before being moved to one in Gateshead. It seems highly likely Martin was suffering with a severe mental health condition, which is unlikely to have been understood and treated appropriately in the early 1800s. He escaped from the asylum and later remarried (his first wife having died) and wrote and published his memoirs. He began to take issue with the clergy at York Minster and sent them several warning letters which were all ignored. This takes us to the events of February 1829.
It wasn’t long before Martin was caught, his wife was found first and taken into custody but she pleaded innocence and was completely unaware of his previous mental health problems. Martin was caught only a few days later near his birthplace of Hexham on the 6th February. During Martin’s trial he reportedly said very calmly, as if discussing a normal event, “the reason why I set fire to the Cathedral was because of two remarkable dreams. I dreamt that one stood by me with a bow and sheaf of arrows, and he shot one through the Minster door, I said I wanted to try to shoot, and he presented me the bow. I took an arrow from the sheaf , and shot, but the arrow hit the flags, and I lost it. I also dreamed that a large thick cloud came down over the Minster, and extended to my lodgings. From these things I thought I was to set fire to the Minster.” Martin was guilty of the crime, but he wasn’t found guilty by the court by reason of insanity (which he objected too, believing himself sane). Instead of a prison sentence, Martin was sent to another asylum this time Bethlem Hospital in London, in the criminal lunatic section, where he spent the rest of his life before dying in 1838.
During his time at the hospital Martin continued to write and also showcased his artistic ability, with artistic works including self-portraits and apocalyptic images. Some of his surviving artistic pieces are held by the Museum of the Mind which you can view online here: https://museumofthemind.org.uk/collections/gallery/artists/jonathan-martin
Martin’s tale is full of religious fervor, tragedy and drama. What do you make of Martin’s story? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comment section below.
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“An account of the Alarming and destructive Fire in York Minster on February 2 1829; containing the particulars of the commencement, progress, and termination of the conflagration with a sketch of the life of the Jonathan Martin; likewise his letters, misapprehension, examination, confession and committal to the city jail” Printed and sold by the R. Burdekin 1829
“The Life of Jonathan Martin of Darlington, Tanner” Written by himself. 3rd edition and printed for and sold by the author, by R.E. Leary 1828.
“Full and Authentic Report of the Trial of Jonathan Martin” Published by H.Bellerby 1829
Newspaper Extract “The Life of Jonathan Martin” 1829
Artist in Focus V – Jonathan Martin: https://museumofthemind.org.uk/blog/artist-in-focus-v-jonathan-martin
Collection ref: DX 24 Martin’s Drawings and Writings held by York Minster Archives.