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Anniversaries The Burning Time

19 February 1555: Writ for John Bradford’s execution withdrawn

Bradford 'portrait' from FoxeOn this day in 1555 the prominent Protestant preacher, John Bradford, who had been condemned to death for heresy on 30 January, had the writ for his execution temporarily withdrawn. He had expected to be executed in short order, but the authorities were delaying the carrying out of his sentence while they sought to find ways to diminish his influence – preferably by securing his recantation, even at this late stage. If Bradford could be persuaded to recant, it would have a very demoralising effect indeed on the Protestants.

After the writ for his execution had been withdrawn, Bradford was subjected to numerous attempts to get him to change his mind, a number of eminent churchmen and theologians, including Nicholas Heath (who would become Archbishop of York later that year), George Day (the Bishop of Chichester) and two Spanish divines, being enlisted in the exercise. With the Spaniards, one of whom was Alfonso de Castro, the Franciscan theologian who was highly respected by King Philip and who had recently preached a sermon urging caution over the burning of heretics, Bradford discussed the question of how Christ could be present both in heaven and in the bread on the altar, deliberately poking fun at the Catholic position.

‘How does this hang together?’ he demanded. ‘It is as if you should say because you are here, you must therefore be in Rome. And so you reason that because Christ’s body is in heaven, it must therefore be in the sacrament in the form of bread. No wise man will agree with that.’

Alfonso got to the heart of the matter when he asked: ‘So will you believe nothing that is not expressly said in the Scriptures?’

‘I will believe anything you like,’ responded Bradford, ‘provided you can demonstrate it through the Scriptures.’

Details of the life and death of John Bradford can be found in my book, The Burning Time.

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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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14 February 1540 – Stephen Gardiner preaches at Paul’s Cross

Gardiner by unknown artistOn this day in 1540 (a Sunday), the Bishop of Winchester, Stephen Gardiner, preached the first of that year’s Lenten sermons at Paul’s Cross. These occasions drew large crowds and whatever was said at Paul’s Cross would be heard in the highest quarters. Bishop Gardiner used the opportunity to attack the doctrine of justification by faith, arguing that those who said good works were not necessary for salvation were guilty of misinterpreting the scriptures. This could be seen as an act of deliberate provocation, intended to goad the emerging Protestant clergy of London to contradict him and thereby land themselves in trouble with the authorities (King Henry VIII at this time was showing himself to be increasingly conservative in matters of religious doctrine and practice). The reformist preacher Robert Barnes duly rose to the bait, taking issue with Gardiner and accompanying his argument with personal insults in his own Paul’s Cross sermon, preached a fortnight later. Gardiner complained to the King, who ordered both preachers to be examined before him. Thomas Cromwell (previously a protector of Barnes, but now feeling the threat of the King’s displeasure himself) realised it would be impolitic, and probably useless, to intervene and so did nothing.

The French ambassador, Charles de Marillac, was following – and reporting on – these events with interest, not least because Bishop Gardiner was well known to the French court:

A private matter, which might become of public consequence, has occurred in the shape of a great contention about religion between the Bishop of Winchester, formerly ambassador in France, and a great doctor of the law, called Barnes, principal preacher of these new doctrines. The Bishop, one of these Sundays in Lent, did marvels of preaching in St Paul’s Cathedral against the said doctrines, confirming wisely the old and sharply refuting the new. This Barnes could not endure, so that, some days after, although another was appointed to preach, he mounted the pulpit and, after long insisting on the contrary of what the Bishop had said, angrily threw his glove upon the people, as a defiance to the Bishop, against whom he would maintain what he said to the death. The King, much scandalised by this farce, has ordered both to dispute before him and the Council, in order that it may be seen who is right and who is to suffer punishment.

Gardiner and Barnes both appeared before Henry on 5 March, when the King declared Barnes to have lost the theological argument (there can never have been much doubt as to whose side he would come down on). He ordered Barnes to apologise to Gardiner and preach a recantation sermon, which order Barnes initially complied with, again at Paul’s Cross, on 12 March. Eighteen days later, however, unable to live with his conscience, he publicly withdrew his recantation – despite also begging Gardiner for forgiveness – in another sermon, preached at St Mary Spital in the presence of the Lord Mayor and members of the Court of Common Council. (The ‘Spital sermon‘ is a civic tradition that continues to this day, though it rarely generates such excitement as in 1540.) Barnes seems to have wished to distinguish the personal insults he had made to Gardiner, for which he was sorry, from the statements of his faith, for which he could not apologise. Gardiner, his actions almost as ambiguous as Barnes’s words at this point, was slow to respond to the request to indicate his forgiveness and, after hesitating, held up a finger rather than the hand Barnes had asked for. He explained later that he had been taken aback by the request and embarrassed, though also rather put out. His apparent lack of generosity, along with his whole role in the undoing of Barnes – with whom he was reported actually to have been friendly in their younger days at Cambridge – contributed to the reputation for treacherous cruelty he acquired among Protestants as one of their chief persecutors, to be forever remembered (by the name of his see) as ‘Wily Winchester’.

More about both Stephen Gardiner and Robert Barnes, and their respective fates, can be found in my book The Burning Time.

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11 February 1526 – Robert Barnes recants

Robert BarnesOn this day in 1526 (a Sunday) Robert Barnes, a prominent early advocate of Protestantism in England, was forced to recant his beliefs in public at Paul’s Cross.

Robert Barnes was born in Bishop’s Lynn in Norfolk in about 1495 and entered the house of the Austin Friars in Cambridge while still a boy. He subsequently studied under Erasmus at the University of Louvain, which was at that time a distinguished centre of academic humanism and where Barnes developed humanist sympathies. He returned to Cambridge in the mid-1520s, where he became prior of the Austin Friars and, as a result of his studies at Louvain, initiated a series of educational reforms in the house, including the introduction of various classical Latin authors into the curriculum. One of his pupils was Miles Coverdale, who would go on to produce the first complete translation of the Bible into English. Barnes played a significant role in the meetings of young intellectuals that took place at the White Horse tavern in St Edward’s parish in Cambridge. Just about everyone who was anyone in the church reform movement seems to have encountered and been influenced by Robert Barnes. The conservative Stephen Gardiner, who knew Barnes well and had himself been a devotee of Erasmus from an early age, does not seem to have been overly impressed, thinking of him as a typical friar of his period, albeit a very entertaining one – ‘a trim minion friar Augustine, one of a merry scoffing wit, friarlike, and as a good fellow in company was beloved of many’.

Barnes received the degree of Bachelor of Theology in 1522 and a doctoral degree a year later. He first attracted adverse attention from the wider authorities towards the end of 1525 when he preached a Christmas Eve sermon in the Cambridge church of St Edward King and Martyr, in which he criticised various aspects of traditional religion, decried the way festivals were observed and condemned the ostentatious splendour of Cardinal Wolsey. The sermon had been planned in advance, Barnes being encouraged to deliver it by Thomas Bilney and his other friends. Once in the pulpit, however, he departed from the prepared discourse, based on Luther’s sermon on the epistle for the day, and went further than any of his friends had anticipated, particularly in lashing out at the cardinal himself. On this first occasion of his getting into trouble, Barnes was brought to London where he was examined before Bishop Cuthbert Tunstall and Wolsey himself and persuaded, though not without protest, to recant his opinions. He was assisted in his trial by Miles Coverdale, who subsequently abandoned his monastic vows and went abroad.

At his recantation, Barnes was made to perform public penance by processing around the cathedral bearing a bundle of twigs and kneeling while Bishop Fisher preached a sermon. The service was presided over by Cardinal Wolsey himself who, with 36 bishops and mitred abbots, sat on a platform specially constructed for the occasion. Bishop Fisher based his sermon on the day’s Gospel reading (Luke 18:31-43), concerning the healing of a blind man; he likened the blind man to a heretic and declared: ‘Heresy is a perilous weed, it is the seed of the devil, the inspiration of the wicked spirits, the corruption of our hearts, the blinding of our sight, the quenching of our faith, the destruction of all good fruit, and finally the murder of our souls.’

More about the life and death of Robert Barnes, who later repented of his recantation and went to the flames, can be found in my book The Burning Time.

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6 February 1554 – John Bradford imprisoned with Cranmer, Latimer and Ridley

Bradford 'portrait' from FoxeOn this day in 1554, John Bradford, a Protestant preacher who had been imprisoned in the Tower of London after being involved in a ‘disturbance’ at Paul’s Cross, was moved into another room in the Tower, which he shared with Thomas Cranmer, Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley, until these three were taken to Oxford in early March. During the month or so they were together, the four men spent their time reading the Bible, praying and discussing theology together, and were each bolstered by this mutual support and encouragement. The authorities under Mary I had not yet learnt the value to the ‘heretics’ of such fellowship, and seemed to have no clear strategy of how to deal with their prisoners; the arrangements appear haphazard, it being a matter of accident who ended up sharing a cell with whom.

On Easter Eve, 24 March, Bradford was transferred to the King’s Bench prison in Southwark. Here his companions included Robert Ferrar (the former Bishop of St David’s),  Dr Rowland Taylor (Rector of Hadleigh in Suffolk) and John Philpot. In prison Bradford continued his ministry of preaching (twice a day) and administering communion (according to the second Book of Common Prayer, now outlawed), the keepers (who liked him) admitting many visitors so that they could listen to him and take part in the services he conducted. Like that favourite saint of the Protestant preachers, the Apostle Paul, he also wrote many letters from prison, both to individuals and to congregations throughout the country. He was abstemious in his habits, sleeping for no more than four hours a night, eating only one meal a day, and spending much time in reading and contemplation. Lean-faced, with a neatly trimmed beard, he seems to have been a natural ascetic, unconcerned with such mundane matters as food and drink. But he also showed signs of inner distress: ‘In the middle of dinner he used often to muse with himself, having his hat over his eyes, from whence came commonly plenty of tears dropping on his trencher.’ He was known for his generosity and his gentleness (even the Jesuit Robert Parsons, no sympathiser with Protestants, admitted that Bradford was ‘of a more soft and mild nature than many of his fellows’), and was often in demand for visiting the sick and dying, even being allowed out of the prison by its governor, the knight marshal Sir William Fitzwilliam, a Protestant sympathiser, to make such visits. He never attempted to escape, or even to delay his return. And once a week he would visit the common criminals being kept in the same prison as himself, distributing not only advice but also funds that had been received as donations. He did the same among the prisoners of religion, having been elected by the majority of them as their pastor. These distributions led to some argument, in particular with a splinter group of Protestants called the ‘free willers’, a large number of whom were imprisoned in the King’s Bench, and who accused Bradford of discriminating against them in his sharing-out of alms, a charge which Bradford strenuously denied. The ‘free willers’ were fiercely opposed to the idea of predestination, espoused by Calvin in Geneva, and a version of which was beginning to be adopted by mainstream Protestantism in England, of which Bradford was a leading exponent. Much of his prison correspondence had to do with this issue, as he was frequently called upon to reassure believers who were fearful that they were not among the ‘elect’. The prisons themselves became hothouses of debate over these differing interpretations of their faith, to the distress of many evangelicals and the satisfaction of their opponents. Certainly the fact that even in prison, and faced with the possibility of death, rival groups of Protestants vigorously kept up their doctrinal and other differences can have done little to recommend them to the authorities, despite the acknowledged holiness and sympathetic character of a man like Bradford.

More about the life and death of John Bradford can be found in my book The Burning Time.

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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 …

Read more in The Burning Time