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THE BURNING TIME Some more from the Introduction: Setting the scene

             

Of the burnings which took place in England between 1529 and 1558 by far the largest number occurred in one small area of London – the area known as (West) Smithfield. Just outside the City walls though still within its bounds, not far from Newgate prison, ten minutes’ walk from both the Guildhall and St Paul’s Cathedral on Ludgate Hill (the old pre-Fire of London cathedral, over 600 feet in length and with a spire rising to some 500 feet), this was a convenient place to take people to die, with space enough to erect viewing stands from which ‘the great and the good’ could watch the spectacle. Smithfield, originally known as ‘Smoothfield’, had been a place of public execution for over 400 years; many witches and heretics had been burnt, roasted or boiled alive there. It was here that the Scottish hero and patriot, Sir William Wallace, was hanged, drawn and quartered in 1315, and where Wat Tyler, the leader of the Peasants’ Revolt, was fatally stabbed by the Lord Mayor in 1381. Many tournaments had also taken place there, royal jousts having begun in Smithfield in the reign of Edward III (1327–77). The other activity for which the area was (and is) famous was the craft of butchery, meat having been traded in Smithfield since the tenth century.

Adjacent to the open space of Smithfield was the great Augustinian Priory of St Bartholomew, one of the City’s most important monasteries. The annual Bartholomew Fair was held on the priory’s land, attracting all manner of people – cloth merchants from all around Europe mingling with jugglers, acrobats, innkeepers and pickpockets. It was also an area which drew the poor and the sick, the monastery’s sister-foundation, St Bartholomew’s Hospital (still world-famous as ‘Barts‘), offering relief for the body while the prior and canons (as the members of an Augustinian community were known) offered prayers for the soul.

Of the 288 people estimated to have been burnt for heresy during the five-year reign of Mary Tudor, forty-eight were burnt in Smithfield. The next-highest numbers were eighteen in Lewes in Sussex, seventeen in Stratford-atte-Bow (now Bow in East London), fourteen in Canterbury and seven in Maidstone (both these latter in the county of Kent). Some seventeen people had suffered the same fate in Smithfield under Henry VIII, as had two ‘Anabaptists‘ (extremists whom even Protestants regarded as heretics) during the brief reign of Edward VI.

However interesting and harrowing, the lives and deaths of individual ‘martyrs’ (and the meanings of that emotive word will be considered in due course), my hope is that this book will be more than a compilation of biographies. During the time I have been working on it, the questions that the stories of the Smithfield martyrs provoke have become ever more pertinent, the need for answers (if any exist) ever more urgent. What is it that makes people kill other people in the name of religion? Why are some people prepared to die – or kill – for their beliefs, while the rest of us are content to muddle along with compromise and uncertainty? What led to this ‘burning time’ in the history of England? Could it have been avoided and how was it overcome? Could it happen again? And, most importantly, is there anything we can learn from this dark period in our history to help bring an end to today’s deathly religious conflicts – or are we doomed to go on repeating the same mistakes, in different parts of the world, until we finally succeed in annihilating humankind altogether? The instances of heroism that emerge from the stories of the martyrs, the occasional glimpses of a different kind of light from that produced by flames, suggest it is worth struggling on …

Read more in The Burning Time.

The Vision of Rahere

Rahere #3

At the shrine of Rahere the cowled monks read
the same pages from Isaiah for eternity;
little heads cluster like buds around the canopy
and a winged creature with bestial but not unfriendly face
recalls the monster who seized Rahere in dream
before Bartholomew appeared to issue his commission.

With our worldview, sophisticated – so we think – by modern medicine
and psychology, we’re likely to dismiss such visions
as malarial delirium, chemical disturbance in the brain,
imagining Rahere through fever and a medieval fear of hell
hallucinated the encounter which guided him to Smithfield,
unconsciously bargaining with God for his salvation.

Whatever really happened, whatever ‘really’ means,
the fruit of Rahere’s vision can never be denied:
here lies King Henry’s jester, first prior of this church,
in the holy place he founded, adjacent to his hospital,
and for the work of healing practised here for centuries
the name Bartholomew is honoured through the world.

 

©Virginia Rounding, 1996

[First published in Awaiting an Epiphany, 1997]

My friend Walter Mildmay

Mildmay

what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead …
[T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding]

Mildmay, in the dark you look ornate
but barely comprehensible, and so dead;
the tokens you’ve chosen to be remembered by
far less eloquent than the naked Smalpace bodies.
Your heavy marble out of place amongst the stone:
you intended to impose.

But now you know – if you know anything –
that evidence of the world’s approval
counts for nothing after death.
It is your soul that matters now,
not how many kings and queens you served
or colleges you founded.

And since you know, and cannot even answer back,
your boasts reveal unguessed humility.
I recognise you now: we’re kindred spirits.
Instead of shields, I’d spread my poems round a monument,
listing where they’d all appeared, the prizes won:
I’d never be content.

You meant to brag, show off, belittle me;
but wiser dead than you ever were alive,
we’ve had a conversation. You’ve reminded me
how trivial is the heaping up of honours,
of how success slips through our fingers
like the dust we must become.

 

©Virginia Rounding, 1996.

[First published in Awaiting an Epiphany, 1997]

Creativity, as captured by Lawrence Durrell

The solace of such work as I do with brain and heart lies in this – that only there, in the silences of the painter or the writer can reality be reordered, reworked and made to show its significant side.

 

David Grossman on consumer society

The values and horizons of our world, the atmosphere that prevails in it and the language that dominates it, are dictated to a great extent by what is known as mass media, or mass communication. The term ‘mass media’ was coined in the 1920s, when sociologists began to refer to ‘mass society’. But are we truly aware of the significance of this term today, and of the process it has gone through? Do we consider the fact not only that, to a large extent, the ‘mass media’ today are media designed for the masses, but that in many ways they also turn their consumers into the masses? They do so with the belligerence and the cynicism that emanate from all their manifestations; with their shallow, vulgar language; with the oversimplification and self-righteousness with which they handle complex political and moral problems; with the kitsch in which they douse everything they touch – the kitsch of war and death, the kitsch of love, the kitsch of intimacy.

 

Fred Vargas, and the importance of coffee

Last night, Charles had felt her face with his fingers. It had been rather nice, she had to admit, those long hands scrupulously exploring all the contours of her face, as if she were printed out in Braille. She had sensed that he might have liked to go further, but she had not given him any encouragement. On the contrary, she had made some coffee. Very good coffee, in fact. That was no substitute for a caress, of course. But in a way a caress is no substitute for a good cup of coffee, either.

 

Michael Novak on the Judaeo-Christian roots of modern progress

From Aquinas and the heretics:

Apart from the guardianship of the Church over many centuries, it is hard to see whence would have derived the resources that later gave rise to modern science, the Renaissance, and the Enlightenment. The fundamental conceptions of progress, truth, compassion, the dignity of the individual, and the centrality of personal liberty on which modern progress rests are rooted in Jewish and Christian beliefs about human nature and destiny.