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.

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 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

Reviews of The Burning Time

IMG_20170407_110356.jpg

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 Goodreads.com

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

Martyrs

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: Virginia.Rounding@btinternet.com). 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.)

Barts Square

Yesterday evening, along with fellow Ward Councillor Clare James, I attended a meeting at 200 Aldersgate, arranged by DP9 & Helical Bar, when new preliminary designs for the external appearance of the building known as NBC3, & part of the proposed Barts Square development, were presented to residents, as part of an informal consultation exercise.

The proposals for Barts Square have been a source of contention from the outset, but this is no case of ‘nimbyism’. There is general agreement that a major development is needed on this site, to replace disused former hospital buildings & to enhance the Smithfield Conservation Area at a time when, with the advent of Crossrail set to turn Farringdon Station into a vital transport hub, footfall is likely to increase dramatically and the character of the area will inevitably be subject to change. The issue has always been that residents, local business owners, councillors, local health professionals, clergy, congregations, historians – the types of people who care about Smithfield & its environs are limitless – that all these people want the very best development, something consonant with the Conservation Area, that will make us proud of 21st-century architecture, that will both integrate with & relate to the architecture of previous centuries. Second to that overwhelming collective desire both to protect & enhance the area we love, & love to live in, are the very legitimate concerns of existing residents about potential loss of light & overlooking.

Images from Helical Bar's previous presentations
Images from Helical Bar’s previous presentations

The original planning application submitted by Helical Bar attracted many objections – they can still be read here  – including significant concerns raised by bodies such as The Victorian Society and the Design Council. It was the subject of two (well, actually one & a half) Planning Committee meetings, during which the committee became depleted (though remaining quorate) as more & more councillors had to leave for other pressing engagements. In the end the matter was decided by 11 members of the  (33-strong) committee, & Deputy Richard Regan encapsulated many people’s views when he stood up to declare that the process had been a ‘travesty’.

Nevertheless, the volume & quality of objections did achieve something – though quite what that achievement was remains open to interpretation.  When consent is officially given (& this is expected to happen within the next couple of weeks), a condition will be attached which, according to the minutes of the adjourned Planning Committee meeting of 20th November, requires that ‘the external appearance of [Buildings BC1, BC4, LB1, LB2, LB3 and NBC3] be redesigned and brought back to Committee for approval’.

Unfortunately the recollections of most people at the Planning Committee meeting, particularly the observers, recollections in some cases bolstered by subsequent discussions with City Planning Officers, do not entirely tally with the terse wording of these minutes. The crux of the matter lies in the words ‘external appearance’ & how that phrase is to be interpreted. We, the objectors, including the Ward councillors, believed that the re-designs in question were to include aspects of scale, massing & height. The developers are quite clear that this is not the case, & that they have consent for what they call the ‘envelope’, & that ‘external appearance’ refers only to ‘facades’, with nothing else up for discussion.

So there’s something of a stale-mate here. Having said all that, I must stress that yesterday evening’s discussions were extremely amicable & that, on first presentation, the designs for the facades of NBC3, as presented by the architects Piercy & Company, appear to be a considerable improvement on the earlier efforts by Sheppard Robson – both more imaginative & more sympathetic to the existing buildings. We were somewhat dismayed to discover that Sheppard Robson remain the ‘executive architects’ for this part of the project, as for all the rest, & the argument over the precise meaning of the condition will continue – but we still have progress of a sort.