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Martin, Jonathan

Methodist arsonist, brother of the artist John Martin (1789-1854). A tanner from Hexham, his early years were traumatic: he witnessing his sister's murder, was pressed for the Navy in the Napoleonic period, and became a Wesleyan. After the war he became convinced that he was called to warn England of divine judgment, and in particular the clergy for their worldliness and the formality of their worship. He was committed to a lunatic asylum for threatening to murder the bishop of Oxford and twice escaped. He began to preach and published an autobiography, but both the WM and the PM distanced themselves from him. After his second marriage in 1828 he settled in York, attending both Methodist and Anglican services. He suffered a further mental breakdown and after Evensong in the Minster on 1 February, hid in the north transept. From there he got into the choir, where he started a fire before escaping through a window. The fire was not discovered until 7 a.m. and continued to burn all that day, destroying the 14th-century carved oak roof of the choir, stalls, archbishop's throne, pulpit and organ; but the nave, central tower and east window were saved.

Arrested on 6 February near Hexham, Martin was unrepentant. In his trial in March where he was represented by Henry Brougham, he was found guilty but insane. 'The prosecution took pains to exculpate Methodism, for some had rumoured that Methodist ranting caused such madness.' He was committed to a London asylum, where he died nine years later on 3 June 1838.


'The burning of York Minster by the act of a demented Local Preacher, Jonathan Martin, brother of the already famous painter, John Martin, created an intense excitement in our little Yorkshire manse. As Jonathan had been a close friend of my father's during his successive terms of service in the York District, the conflagration cast a lurid light upon our quiet homestead. My father's distress was distressing to behold, as he had formed a high estimate of Jonathan Martin's intellect and character.'

Benjamin Gregory, Autobiographical Recollections (1903), p.74


  • The Life of Jonathan Martin ... written by himself (1826)
  • Benjamin Gegory, Autobiographical Recollections (1903) p.74
  • T. Balston, The Life of John Martin (1947)
  • G.E. Aylmer & R. Cant (eds.), A History of York Minster (Oxford, 1977)
  • Oxford DNB

Entry written by: ER
Category: Person

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