When Anthony Fothergills wife gave birth to their daughter Elizabeth at Newbiggin-on-Lune little did they realise what her fate was to be. The Fothergills were, and still are, one of the oldest families in the area. She was brought up at Tower House at Brownber in a Christian household which believed in truth, liberty and rational religion and as such became an Anabaptist. Anabaptists believed in the literal interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount and did not believe in taking part in military action or civil government. As a result of this they were persecuted for their views by both Catholics and Protestants.
She married William Gaunt and moved to London where they were both Whigs. At one time they kept a tallow chandlers shop selling products such as candles, leather dressing, soap etc. which was obtained from the fat of cows, sheep and horses. They lived in the parish of St. Mary’s Whitechapel and were well known in the area. By 1683 she was living in lodgings in Old Gravel Lane, Wapping having given up the shop. It was also well known that she would give shelter to people who were persecuted and was a frequent visitor to the gaols. Many thought that Elizabeth and her husband’s activities went beyond charity and that they acted as agents for Whigs and Dissenters in Amsterdam and London. In 1682, London authorities believed that the two had acted as the Earl of Shaftesbury's agent, enabling him to leave London for Amsterdam. In Amsterdam Elizabeth was referred to by the refugee community as “Mother Gaunt”; this name was used to show that she was one among several “mothers” who gave shelter and help, and carried messages for the radicals between the Netherlands and England.
In the spring of 1685 Elizabeth was in Amsterdam staying with Mrs. Ann Smith, a wealthy English widow, who had helped fund both Monmouth’s and the Earl of Argyll’s rebellions. Monmouth sent Elizabeth and the Whig barrister, Edward Norton, back to England to instruct the Earl of Macclesfield to be ready to act in Cheshire. A few weeks later Elizabeth went back to Amsterdam to find out why Monmouth had been delayed, but she had returned to London by July 1685
So what was her crime? After Monmouths army was defeated at Sedgmoor Elizabeth and William arranged passage overseas for the fleeing rebels. One of these rebels was James Burton who she gave money and got him a boat to Gravesend so that he could escape to Amsterdam. Burton’s wife had arranged for him to stay with a neighbour, John Fernley, while he waited. Seemingly, John Fernley was poor and besieged by creditors. He was also aware of the one hundred pound reward that had been offered by the authorities for Burton. On August 2nd, while waiting for the Gaunts to arrange his passage, Burton was arrested at Fernleys house trying to escape through a chimney.
The government’s chief witness against both Fernley and Elizabeth Gaunt was Burton, who turned king’s witness and won himself a pardon. He had been aware of the Kings proclamation. Her trial took place at The Old Bailey on October 19th 1685 in front of the Recorder, Sir Thomas Jenner, Lord Chief Justice Jones, Lord Chief Baron Montagu, and Mr. Justices Levinz and Wythens. At the start of her trial the clerk asked Elizabeth whether she pled guilty or not guilty, she replied that she desired to have more time to consider it. Eventually she pleaded Not Guilty and when asked how she would be tried, she stated “by God and my country.”
In his instructions to the jury, Lord Chief Justice Jones admitted that “it is true, there is no direct proof that there was any particular mention that Burton was in the Proclamation for treason; but the woman says, and Burton himself says, that they do both verily believe, that the prisoner at bar did know he was in the Proclamation, and therefore there was no particular discourse concerning it; and she herself being examined, says, she might hear that his name was in the Proclamation, and she might hear that his house was searched and that he could not be found; and yet notwithstanding all this, she endeavours to conceal him”
After the jury returned the court reporter delivered the following decision: “You Elizabeth Gaunt, you have here been indicted for that great crime of high treason, and that particular part of it, for harboring, and comforting, and assisting, and cherishing of traitors, more especially of one Burton; you have had your trial, and a very fair trial, and upon that the jury have found you guilty: It is the duty of my place to pronounce the sentence the law hath provided for such high crimes as these are, and that is no other but this: ‘That you are to be carried back to the place from whence you came, from thence you are to be drawn upon a hurdle to the place of execution, and there you are to be burned to death; and the Lord have mercy upon your soul.” . Elizabeth replied that “this woman did tell several untruths of me” . The recorder responded by asking if that was all she had to say, to which she replied that she “did not understand the law.”
On October 23, Elizabeth Gaunt was burnt to death at Tyburn, which was the punishment for treason for women.
Sir Parry describes the events as follows:
“The woman was dragged there upon a hurdle as the law directed, and at the place of execution a huge stake had been driven into the ground, in a diameter as thick as a large telegraph pole. Round the stake were piles of faggots and straw and long bundles of reeds. The woman was stood against the stake, and a smith came with an iron chain, which he passed under her arms and fastened securely to a large nail driven into the post. The smith and his assistants now piled the sheaves of reeds upright around her body and heaped fagots and wood against her.
The Sheriffs on their horses, with their armed guards, stood round to see that all these matters were carried out according to tradition. The victim was not strangled, as was sometimes done out of mercy, but she was literally burned alive as the judges had ordered and the King had desired.”
E. Parry, The Bloody Assize (1929), page267–9.
So Burton received a pardon as a recompense for his treachery and Elizabeth was burnt alive for her charity.
If you go to St. Oswalds Church in Ravenstonedale you will see a stained glass window behind the altar commemorating her.