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.

Reviews of The Burning Time


David Aaronovitch in The Times

“This gruesomely entertaining book examines the Tudor zeal for burning people in the name of religion, says David Aaronovitch.”

Steve Tomkins in The Church Times

Reviews at

Bob Duffy in The Washington Independent Review of Books

“An authoritative chronicle of the gruesome era when religious dissenters met their end at the stake.”



Crowd-funding The Burning Time


When I was working on my last book Alix and Nicky: The Passion of the Last Tsar and Tsarina, I initiated a form of “crowd-funding” to help me finish it, and was fortunate that this met with a good reception from a number of friends who, in return for a contribution of £50, received the dubious honour of being listed in the Acknowledgments. Nearly one book further on, I am issuing another “call” to my long-suffering friends and acquaintances to assist me in reaching completion. And, again, if as many people as possible were able to contribute £50 to my “writer’s survival fund”, in return for my gratitude and a mention in the Acknowledgments, I would be able to spend the next few weeks (or months, if I’m being realistic) in concentrating on bringing it to completion. Without assistance, it will be difficult for me to find time to work on it properly, as I will constantly be needing to find other ways of earning enough money to pay the bills. What, you may ask (if you don’t already know) is the next book about, and is it worth being assisted to see the light of day? As you may indeed already know (or have worked out from the heading of this email) its title is The Burning Time and it is mainly about the people known as the Smithfield Martyrs, men and women who, in the mid-16th century, during the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI and Mary I, were burnt at the stake in the area of London now known as West Smithfield for refusing to abandon their particular set of religious beliefs, which did not happen to accord with the prevailing orthodoxy (an orthodoxy that kept changing with the change of monarch, or merely with the change of the monarch’s mind). The Burning Time (provided I manage to finish it!) will be published by St Martin’s Press in the US and Macmillan in the UK. The book will, I hope, be more than a compilation of biographies of the martyrs, for during the course of my working on it, the questions it raises have become ever more pertinent – questions such as:

  • What makes people kill other people in the name of religion?
  • Why are some people prepared to die for their beliefs, while the rest of us are content to muddle along with compromise and uncertainty?
  • What led to this awful period in English history and how did we get over it? (if we have)
  • Are there any wider lessons we can draw to help bring an end to continuing, or new, deathly religious conflicts?

I can’t promise to come up with the answers – or satisfactory answers, at any rate – to all these ‘burning’ questions, but 16th-century Smithfield is certainly a good place to start. If I were American, I would apply to the Public Scholar Program of the National Endowment for the Humanities as I think this book will rise to the challenge to “make sense of a significant topic in a way that will appeal to general readers”. But, being British and lacking such opportunities, I am going down the path of friendly crowd-funding instead. (I did initially receive a fairly modest advance from my publishers – but, as is generally the way with these things, it’s enough to get a writer started but not enough to enable one to finish.) If, after reading this, you feel able to assist me with a contribution of £50, please let me know and I will send you details of my bank account. Alternatively you can contribute via PayPal (to email address: I will of course be immensely grateful and will ensure you get a mention in the Acknowledgments of The Burning Time. But if you don’t feel this would be appropriate, or possible, then I hope you have nevertheless found this message interesting and non-intrusive – and please don’t feel under any pressure to respond. (Some of you will already have had an individual email from me with the same information – and I am very grateful to those of you who have already responded positively to my request.)