Fire and Brimstone In York Minster
You may not have heard of Jonathan Martin, born in 1782 near Hexham, but his life was so colourful and traumatic, it’s surprising no one ever made a film about him.
Subject to an over-zealous Christian grandmother as his main care-giver, he witnessed his sister being murdered at the hands of his neighbour, when she was pushed downstairs to her death.
Moving to London as a young man, he was apprenticed to a tanner, before being press-ganged into the navy. He managed to escape after several years but not before he sustained terrible head injuries while fighting.
Later, he became a Wesleyan preacher and got married. Sadly he would lose his wife to illness, but not before he had threatened to shoot the Bishop of Oxford – a headstrong act which led to him being thrown into an asylum. Throughout the time from being in the navy Jonathan Martin had experienced disturbing dreams and prophetic visions. Now incarcerated in Gateshead, the death of his wife affected him deeply. He managed to escape the asylum twice and the second time, he started a new life in Boston.
Here he met his second wife, a girl twenty years younger than him. They moved to York.
Trouble in York
Once in York Jonathan set about writing a series of angry letters to the local clergy, which he signed!
On 1st Februay 1829, Jonathan Martin attended a service in the Minster. He was distracted and distressed by the buzzing, which he thought came from the church organ. He waited until the building had cleared and when everyone had gone, he dragged what furniture he could carry and heaps of books across the floor. Stripping off his clothes he set fire to the pile and left the cathedral.
Early the following morning, a passing choir-boy spotted the smoke in the distance. The child alerted the fire brigade. It took them two days to put out the fire. Immediately Jonathan Martin was under suspicion and was arrested and thrown into York Castle prison.
When the case came to trial, Martin would have paid for the deed with his life, by being hung at the galllows, but the judge took pity on him and pronounced him insane.
Subsequently, Martin was committed to the notorious Bethlehem asylum in London (known as Bedlam). It is said he lived there for nine years, happily spending his time painting artworks until his death.
According to accounts, there have been sightings of Martin capering about naked in the Minster. Clearly this is one ghost you would definitely remember seeing. Many people complain that they have never seen a ghost and would like to, but in this case, perhaps you would rather not!
Jonathan Martin’s ghost has rarely been discussed in York literature but you would rightly expect that ghosts would abound in this famous building in the reputedly most “haunted city in Europe.”
The only other ghost stories I have heard of, include a tale of a former minister called Dean Gale haunting the pews and the sighting of a mysterious blue light by a member of the Minster police.
These constables regularly inspect the building. One night, one entered, accompanied by his dog. The animal growled on sensing something and the policeman saw the eerie blob of light which was bright blue and man-sized. Some writers have now theorised this was the presence of Martin.
Jonathan Martin’s tortured character and his twisted actions make his story compelling. What mark him out as worthy of note are the many mishaps he suffered as well as – to my way of thinking – the astonishing fact he persuaded not one, but two women to marry him.
Passionate about his religious path to the point of enraged mindlessness, his escape from Gateshead Asylum left him free to attempt to destroy one of the most iconic pieces of architechture in the UK. Thankfully he did not succeed, but if spirits are real, it seems perfectly reasonable to assume that a relentless and obsessive man such as he, would be as restless in the afterlife as in his natural life.