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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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The Burning Time

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.

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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 …

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