A congregation of cacophonous starlings
chatters vivaciously in the tops
of two trees only
and because of the birds’ blackness
against an indigo sky
and because they have chosen
for conversation a graveyard
by an ancient priory church
alongside its sister hospital
their chattering seems ominous,
filled with dark knowledge.
Birds whose ancestors witnessed the writhings
of martyrs burning in Smithfield,
now your excitable chorusing
arouses patients in the neighbouring wards
who stare into the night
from deep illuminated sockets:
are you celebrating the survival
of your kind and of your city,
recounting stories of the blitz?
or is your raucous cackle
of untold tribulation still to come?
My first visit I barely made acquaintance,
dragged along by a medic and musician boyfriend
in the hot summer of ’76;
while he discussed diapasons in the organ loft
I drooped around the pillars,
glad of somewhere cool.
My next encounter, more than ten years later,
I was ‘depping’ for a friend who sang.
Late November; I parked in Smithfield
and counted down the minutes to rehearsal.
Then I stepped into caressing darkness
and fell in love with mystery and shadow.
So began the years of Sunday evenings,
rarely unaccompanied by apprehension:
How many sopranos will there be tonight?
Can I cope? Will the final sung Amen collapse?
The organist be charming, irascible, or both?
For three months once I left,
but a longing pulled me back.
I meant to leave entirely when I gave up singing
but somehow never did,
that unpredictable organist, by sudden dying,
recalling and reminding me that love of place
can be as strong as love of persons,
make similar demands. I’m held now
in a firm and mutual embrace.
If we open our story in the year 1530 or thereabouts, we find little to suggest the turmoil to come – apart from the King’s increasing impatience with Rome, and the rise of Lutheranism in parts of Europe. (Soon after Luther’s teachings had been condemned by the Pope in 1521, his works had been publicly burnt in Oxford, Cambridge and at Paul’s Cross – the site of the open-air pulpit outside St Paul’s Cathedral – in London.) Henry was still married to Katherine of Aragon, though becoming increasingly desperate to cast her off and marry Anne Boleyn. He had been insinuating to Pope Clement VII that, if the Pope would not hurry up and make it possible for him to divorce Katherine, a way of dispensing with papal authority must be sought. In 1529 Henry had dismissed Cardinal Thomas Wolsey from the post of Lord Chancellor, under pressure from Anne, and replaced him with Thomas More. The disgraced Wolsey died in November 1530. Earlier that year, in July, John Stokesley, who was supportive of the King’s campaign for a divorce and involved in the making of the case for an annulment under canon law, was appointed Bishop of London in succession to Cuthbert Tunstall, who had become Bishop of Durham.
At the heart of the small community of Augustinian canons living in St Bartholomew’s Priory was William Bolton, who had been the prior since 1505. Now nearing the end of his life, Bolton had in his heyday been not only a cleric but also a builder of some eminence, having been employed as ‘master [or clerk] of the works’ by both Henry VII and Henry VIII. (The word ‘builder’ in this context implies something more akin to architect or project manager in modern terms, rather than someone involved in the physical work of construction.) Bolton’s main work for Henry VIII had involved the rebuilding of New Hall in Essex, which the King had procured from Thomas Boleyn, the Earl of Wiltshire, and grandfather of Anne. The prior had also undertaken large building operations at St Bartholomew’s itself and at Canonbury Tower in Islington, which formed part of the monastery’s possessions (and from where its water supply was derived). Another notable commission entrusted to Bolton had been the ordering of the chimney pots for Cardinal Wolsey’s palace at Hampton Court. But by 1530 Bolton’s active life was over; in addition to his post at St Bartholomew’s, he had for the last eight years been Rector of Harrow on the Hill, in Middlesex, but he was by now about eighty years old and virtually immobile. He died in April 1532.
Within the Priory Church, as was common in monastic churches, a chapel was set aside for the use of parishioners – the lay people who lived and worked in the monastic close. The parish also had its own priest, who would celebrate Mass in the chapel and look after the general spiritual welfare of the parishioners. It is not known who was fulfilling this role around the time of Prior Bolton’s death, but by the end of the decade the post was held by a man who remained a constant presence at St Bartholomew’s throughout all the turmoil of the burning time. This was Sir John Deane, the last parish priest of the chapel and subsequently the first rector of the parish church. In the early 1530s, Deane was already connected to the monastery, being Rector of Little Stanmore in Middlesex, one of the possessions of St Bartholomew’s.
Meanwhile, steadily making his way up a different professional ladder, negotiating the twists and turns of Tudor politics, was a lawyer of the Middle Temple called Richard Rich, in 1530 aged thirty-four and recently returned as Member of Parliament for the borough of Colchester in Essex. His is a name that is already well-known, if in fictionalized form, to readers of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and of C.J. Sansom’s Shardlake series – where he appears as the principal villain – as well as to viewers of Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons. Rich’s life would intersect with that of John Deane at many points over the following years, and both men would be witnesses at close quarters to all the horror of the burning time.
Nothing they had known before 1530, in their respective careers, could quite have prepared them for the sights, sounds and smells they would encounter over the next thirty years, as many of their closest acquaintances were consumed in the fires of Smithfield.
Percival and Agnes stare from neighbouring frames.
She outlived him thirty years, as her lined face tells.
Stern in starchy Tudor collars, how remote they seem,
as though their eyes would barely recognise our world.
Yet underneath, their naked bodies tell another story
and inform the formal faces with more sympathy,
till hers seems sad, not stern, and his enduring:
seeing them lie dead has made them live.
Supine on a narrow couch, no throne
or wreathes for them, they leave no narrative,
unclothed, they’ve put aside all earthly glory
and rest unmoved by ritual, sermons, hymns.
Exposed through time, they illustrate surrender
of their bodies to the grave, their spirits to eternity.
Fragile, beautiful, such nakedness could be of any age,
including ours. Now we hear the man and woman speak: Behowlde youre selves by us, sutche once were we as you
And you in tyme shal be even duste as we are now.
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.
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 …
At the shrine of Rahere the cowled monks read
the same pages from Isaiah for eternity;
little heads cluster like buds around the canopy
and a winged creature with bestial but not unfriendly face
recalls the monster who seized Rahere in dream
before Bartholomew appeared to issue his commission.
With our worldview, sophisticated – so we think – by modern medicine
and psychology, we’re likely to dismiss such visions
as malarial delirium, chemical disturbance in the brain,
imagining Rahere through fever and a medieval fear of hell
hallucinated the encounter which guided him to Smithfield,
unconsciously bargaining with God for his salvation.
Whatever really happened, whatever ‘really’ means,
the fruit of Rahere’s vision can never be denied:
here lies King Henry’s jester, first prior of this church,
in the holy place he founded, adjacent to his hospital,
and for the work of healing practised here for centuries
the name Bartholomew is honoured through the world.
what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead … [T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding]
Mildmay, in the dark you look ornate
but barely comprehensible, and so dead;
the tokens you’ve chosen to be remembered by
far less eloquent than the naked Smalpace bodies.
Your heavy marble out of place amongst the stone:
you intended to impose.
But now you know – if you know anything –
that evidence of the world’s approval
counts for nothing after death.
It is your soul that matters now,
not how many kings and queens you served
or colleges you founded.
And since you know, and cannot even answer back,
your boasts reveal unguessed humility.
I recognise you now: we’re kindred spirits.
Instead of shields, I’d spread my poems round a monument,
listing where they’d all appeared, the prizes won:
I’d never be content.
You meant to brag, show off, belittle me;
but wiser dead than you ever were alive,
we’ve had a conversation. You’ve reminded me
how trivial is the heaping up of honours,
of how success slips through our fingers
like the dust we must become.