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Burning at the stake

Coming up at 1:24, I describe the burning of heretics in Smithfield:

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Anniversaries The Burning Time

18 February 1516: Birth of Mary Tudor

Mary-I-Hans_Eworth_Mary_I_detail2On this day in 1516 a child was born to Henry VIII and his first wife Katherine of Aragon who would become known to history as ‘Bloody Mary’, the scourge of English Protestants, ultimately responsible for the death by burning of scores of her subjects with whom she had profound disagreements over matters of religion.

Of the 288 people estimated to have been burn for heresy during Mary’s five-year reign (1553-58), 48 were burnt in London’s Smithfield. Originally known as ‘Smoothfield’, this had been a place of public execution for over 400 years; many witches and heretics had been burnt, roasted or boiled alive here. 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 here, 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.

Accounts of the lives and deaths of many of those burned in Smithfield during the reign of Mary Tudor can be found in my book The Burning Time.

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The Burning Time

THE BURNING TIME Introduction: Setting the scene


Anne Askew was burnt at the stake along with John Lascelles (a lawyer and Gentleman of the King’s Privy Chamber), John Hadlam (a tailor from Essex) and John Hemsley (a former Franciscan friar), on 16 July 1546. A great stage was built at Smithfield for the convenience of Chancellor Wriothesley, other members of the Privy Council and City dignitaries, to watch the burning in comfort. Anne herself, having been broken on the rack, was unable to stand, and was chained to the stake in a sitting position. John Louth, the Archdeacon of Nottingham, who witnessed the execution, described Anne as smiling throughout her torment and looking like an angel, and insisted that, at the moment of her death, there was ‘a pleasant cracking from heaven’. Whether that was the sound of the flames, or summer lightning, or merely a figment of the imagination, cannot now be determined; nor can we know how, or if, the witnesses could actually have identified the precise moment of death.

So what was the terrible crime that Anne was deemed to have committed and that led her to this appalling end? Why was being a ‘Protestant’ or ‘reformer’ considered so heinous, and what was this ‘heresy’ with which she was charged?

A word deriving from the Greek, ‘heresy’ originally meant merely ‘choice’, but by the Middle Ages it had come to mean ‘wrong choice’, especially in matters of religion. In Europe, and particularly Spain, the ‘Inquisition’ had been set up to identify heretics, with the aim of their contaminating heresy being cut out of society, like a cancer. Heretics were given one chance to ‘abjure’ or ‘recant’ – effectively, to make a public confession that they had been wrong, to accept some kind of ‘shaming’ penance (such as standing in front of a church congregation wearing a white sheet or being paraded through the streets on a cart), and to agree to follow ‘orthodox’ belief (‘orthodoxy’ meaning both ‘right doctrine’ and ‘right worship’) from now on. If a heretic, having recanted, fell back into his or her old ways, there was to be no second chance. They were to be handed over by the Church to the civic authorities for punishment – which meant death by burning.

But the nature of what constituted heresy kept changing, particularly in England during the tumultuous years of the mid-sixteenth century. There were several types of possible heretical belief under the respective reigns of the three monarchs which constitute the burning time (the period which saw the greatest number of burnings for heresy) in Tudor England – Henry VIII, Edward VI and Mary I. Some were based entirely upon interpretations of religious doctrine; some hinged on changes in society and questions of authority and were linked to the increased availability of the printed word; others were dictated by the whim of the individual monarch …

Read more in The Burning Time