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The Burning Time: The Story of the Smithfield Martyrs Paperback – Unabridged, 22 Feb 2018
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Gruesomely entertaining (The Times)
Deeply researched and fascinating (Spectator)
Serious, well-researched and well-written (Catholic Herald)
A vivid account of the men and women who were burned at the stake for heresy by the Tudor monarchs.See all Product description
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This fascinating and inspiring - if in places gruesome - and well researched book focuses on the martyrs of both Catholic and Protestant persuasion burned at Smithfield, just outside the walls of the city of London under Henry VIII, a couple under Edward VI and the majority under Mary. Of the 288 people burnt for heresy under her reign, 48 were burnt at Smithfield. Henry (in a much longer reign) and Edward managed the relatively modest totals of 17 and 2.
The book benefits from a relatively narrow scope as we can follow in detail the struggles and courage of very brave individuals willing to die for their faith in the most excruciatingly painful way imaginable. The author's decision to modernise the "transcripts" of their interrogations from the original to something much nearer to modern English is amply vindicated and brings a currency and immediacy to what might other wise be lost in the original. What particularly emerges from this is the extent to which these - often wholly uneducated - men and women were able to quote directly from the Bible in English with on more than one occasion as Rounding points out " a familiarity greater then the knowledge of the learned men ending the interrogations who knew the texts only in Latin and Greek and not very well at that."
Somewhat less successful, and my only major qualification, is the conclusion. Rounding, a liberal Anglo-Catholic is generally balanced throughout. However, the conclusion is somewhat confusing and attempts in my view not all together successfully to apply the lessons from 500 years ago to today. Here the reader will need to draw their own conclusions. But overall the book is well written, well researched and very moving.
Then as now the issue at conflict in the church in England was authority. It was for the priest to decide what the word of God meant. Even when the Reformation came in, in England at least it was for the state to decide, not the individual. For people such as Thomas More, it was the duty of the state to stamp out heresy, if needed by burning individuals to death, to ensure a "strong and stable" society. More for example said "I want to be as hateful to them (heretics) as anyone can possibly be".
This was, explains Virginia Rounding, "why heresy was closely aligned with treason". The sheer courage then of people often of low social classes and especially of women in defying that authority, even to the point of being burned alive, is remarkable and inspiring.
En route to the burnings themselves, we learn a lot about the times. For example, what it was like to be ordained as a priest on the cusp of the reformation. At no point did candidates have to demonstrate any ability to preach, and in fact the vast majority never received any training in doing so. The central point of the service was the mass, not the sermon. This of course was to be one of the main issues that the Reformers were to challenge. But not everyone was a conservative or a reformer and Rounding takes two characters - the priest John Deane and the courtier Richard Rich - who both tacked backwards and forwards in an efforts to keep their position and place. Rich in particular combines cruelty and deviousness to keep the spoils of success. His attitude contrasts with that of his fellow Middle Temple lawyer, James Bainham, who as the faggots were piled up around him, replied to the Town Clerk of London's urging "set fire to him and burn him" with "God forgive thee and show thee more mercy than they showest to me". Possibly stricken by his conscience, the clerk in question then committed suicide.
Rounding is scrupulously even handed and in fairness though the majority burned were Protestant there were also under Henry one who burnt for the Catholic faith with equal courage - the aged friar Forest who went to the stake defending the pope and the "old faith". Most Catholic martyrs though were prosecuted as traitors not heretics so suffered the equally unpleasant fate of being hung drawn and quartered.
The martyrs were indeed courageous and came from a wide variety of backgrounds. John Frith for example was brought up the son of an innkeeper in Sevenoaks and must have been bright as he he gained scholarships at both Eton and Cambridge. Frith, a brilliant thinker and writer, was given repeated opportunities to escape but refused to run away and was burnt along with a young tailor.
Perhaps the most remarkable of all the martyrs was a young woman, Anne Askew. From a very obscure background in Lincolnshire, Anne became convinced of the truths of the new religion through reading the Bible and this led her, perhaps uniquely, to challenge not only the church but her own violent and abusive husband. So off she went to Lincoln cathedral leaving her two young children behind and started reading the Bible (in English of course) out loud to the consternation of the assembled male clergy. Next thing she is repeating this in London, promptly arrested, eventually tortured on the rack by none other than Richard Rich ( highly illegally) and running theological rings round her male persecutors. Her refusal as a woman to submit to all the assembled ecclesiastical dignitaries infuriated them. Her courage is simply, even five hundred years later, astounding. Replying to Bishop Gardiner she said " the Bishop said I should be burnt. I answered that I had searched all the scriptures yet could I never find there that either Christ or his apostles put any creature to death". So weakened was she by her torture that she had to be carried by chair to the site of the execution.
There are many other inspiring examples as well in the book of very ordinary men and women, as well as learned scholars, willing to go to the stake for consciences sake. It was actually relatively easy in the first instance of a trial anyway to avoid the stake. As time went on, especially under Mary, the more thoughtful Catholics became aware that the constant stream of brave men and women being burnt alive in Smithfield was having a completely unexpected reaction. Far from intimidating the population of London, it was having the exact opposite effect of creating huge sympathy and indeed wonder that people would die with such dignity. Over time the authorities became more and more concerned about popular reaction and large crowds of soldiers were needed on occasion to restore order.
Rounding poses some very pertinent questions - why are some people prepared to die when most people muddle along? What led to this "burning time" and what can we learn from it? She points out rightly the word "martyr" has acquired with extremism some negative connotations. But (most) of these C16th men and women didn't want to hurt let alone kill anyone else. They were exceptionally brave and even unusual by the standards of the time to be willing to endure a horrific death for what they believed to be true.
However, her attempt at the end to apply all of this for today, while I think a very relevant question, is in places a bit of a muddle. I am not sure really of Rounding's flow of argument and in places she appears to contradict herself. But despite this, she in fairness makes some good points. She stresses that we have to take the religious beliefs of the martyrs seriously and on their own terms. Our modern indifference and disbelief make them hard to understand if we view them as "proto liberals and relativists." They were the opposite. She also points out rightly that much of the courage seems alien to our modern life where everything is tolerated. Do we care enough for anything to die for it? Do we care enough for the life to come (if we believe there is one) to echo Nicholas Ridleys words shortly before his martyrdom " let us not fear death, which can do us no harm...for our faith, which is surely fastened on to the word of God, telleth us that we shall be after death in peace in the hands of God and that from death we shall go straight into life"?
what does the book suggest are the applications for today?
Firstly, that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church. The normal Christian experience includes persecution, as our founder warned. Fortunately, none of us face the prospect of being burnt alive for we believe, although I guess its not impossible, sadly, that one of us might be asked at the point of a gun "are you a Christian?". This is quite normal for Christians in many other countries: in fact our experience in the West, is to a very limited extent, now being aligned with that of most Christians. Much more likely though is ridicule. If these people were willing to die, cant we take a bit of abuse? "Sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me". We should not return evil with evil when people abuse us, but rather adopt the spirit of someone like James Bainham.
Secondly, that onlookers are struck when Christians are persecuted and abused precisely if they show the Christ like love and forgiveness. Rodney Stark's work on the early church shows for example that the (usually mute) testimony of Christians in the arena signally impressed the watching pagans. "Why are these people willing to die when for a tiny concession they could get off?". So in the C16th and so today if we are honoured to in some tiny way "suffer" (I hardly dare use the term in comparison to previous ages).
Thirdly, one thing that jumps out of the "Burning Time" is that in many ways the bravest people were the uneducated and especially the women.Histories of the Reformation tend to focus on the Luther and Calvin (brave men, both died in their beds). But women were extremely prominent in the Marian persecutions and the Smithfield burnings and our view of the Reformation is not sufficiently rounded if we don't give them equal prominence with much better known men. Just to take almost at random four women from Essex who were condemned to burn at Smithfield in May 1556 - Katherine Hutt, Joan Horns, Elizabeth Thackwell and Margaret Ellis (who died in prison before she was executed). These four poor unlearned women were soon being abused by the Marian bishops for daring to challenge the status quo. Tenaciously, they held their ground. As Rounding makes clear, they did not understand everything they were being asked. But this they did understand: that they were not going to deny the gospel of Christ that they had understood and newly received in their native language
I would have given five stars but for the conclusion by the author that it is belief in absolute truth which leads to persecution. She seems to end with a mystical Christian experience, a sort of postmodernism where there are absolutely no absolutes. None of those she has so well described would have agreed with her. Nor do I.
The book concludes with a very helpful chronology which puts all the events described into context.