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A Precedent Whilst the World Stands

By (October 1, 2017) No Comment

The Tudors captivate our imagination, and they cultivate our multi-media screens—and in honor of Open Letters Monthly’s 10th year of publication, Steve Donoghue revisits one of the journal’s most popular features by embarking on A Year with the Tudors: The Second – looking at the year’s crop of new books telling the gaudy, fascinating stories of the Tudor dynasty.

The Burning Time: Henry VIII, Bloody Mary, and the Protestant Martyrs of London
By Virginia Rounding
St. Martin’s Press, 2017

The crucial starting point for the horrifying events described in Virginia Rounding’s new book The Burning Time: Henry VIII, Bloody Mary, and the Protestant Martyrs of London, is the often-overlooked fact that when England’s King Henry VIII broke with the Church in Rome, he did so as a religious reformer. The familiar narrative of Henry’s break with the Papacy in the late 1520s typically concentrates on an entirely different kind of zeal: Henry’s desire to secure an annulment from his wife, Queen Katherine of Aragon, so that he might marry his mistress, Anne Boleyn, and with her have the male heirs he believed he needed in order to secure his dynasty.

But in truth Henry had a multiplicity of motives, some dynastic, but some financial, since taking personal control of the Church in England would make him at a single stroke the wealthiest prince in Christendom, some political, since several of his main rival powers were staunchly conservative in matters of religion … and some, though it’s a strange word to use in connection with Henry, matters of principle and ethics. Like everyone else in the Western world, Henry had read and absorbed The Praise of Folly by Erasmus, with its surgically-accurate lampooning of the many abuses of the Church. And Henry had read much else besides, tracts and sermons excoriating every degenerate bit of simony and idolatry and hypocrisy conducted by a guilty clerisy. It clearly outraged him personally and partly fueled his actions in beginning to break England from the rule of the Church in Rome.

That fuel was purified in the next generation; Henry’s son and heir, the boy-king Edward VI, was a strident adherent of the new, reformed faith that had since been given a voice and a founding text by Martin Luther and the other architects of the Protestant Reformation. Edward died young, but even in his formative years he showed signs of a Torquemada-intensity not for converting his opponents but for killing them. And that intensity was even sharper in Edward’s successor, Queen Mary Tudor, but much to the misfortune of the Protestants who’d been encouraged by Edward’s Protestantism, Mary held to the ardent Catholicism of her mother and her persecution of the reformed faith was such a dramatic part of her five-year reign that it gave her the kind of nickname – “Bloody Mary” – that tends to stick. In less than one generation, professing the reformed faith had gone from perilous to sanctioned to further sanctioned to even more perilous.

The Burning Time tells the stories of the men and women who tried to navigate these incredibly treacherous ideological times, and although Rounding says that she hopes her book will amount to more than just a collection of biographies, and it does, but she has a real gift for delving into trial records of these unfortunate men and women and bringing their stories to life. And it’s an important angle, since it serves as a reminder that although Henry’s motives were complicated, the motives of the heretics he killed were heartbreakingly simple. They had read Luther’s demolition of the Church’s corruption, they had read Erasmus’ ad fontes call for Christianity to rediscover its scriptural roots, and, thanks to the pioneering efforts of the men who martyred themselves to translate the Bible into English, they had read the New Testament itself and were beginning to prize their ability to interpret it according to their own lights. If we lose sight of the loneliness, conviction, and terror of these individual believers, we lose sight of what “the burning time” was all about at its core.

Every one of the individual stories Rounding conveys serves to dramatize almost unbearable pathos. The priest John Lambert, for instance, who’d been ordained in Norwich after graduating from Cambridge in 1519 and quickly deepened his attachment to the reformist teachings seeping into all corners of the realm, was charged with heresy in 1532, having been turned in to Archbishop Cranmer (himself destined to go to the stake in his own time) by his own fellow reformers, who were worried that the state backlash against his extremist views would hamper their own ability to teach and convene. His judges interrogated him at length on his views of baptism, clerical celibacy, ordination, confirmation, extreme unction, and about whether or not the bread and wine consecrated at Mass were literally “the very body and blood of Christ.” Like so many of his fellow heretics, he was questioned about Purgatory, about images in churches, about the intercession of saints and martyrs – in short, about all the whole of the great, complex magisterium of supernatural efficacy the Church had constructed around itself for a thousand years. He was asked if he owned any books by Martin Luther. “I have certainly studied them, and I thank God for that,” he answered. “For through them God has shown me, and many others, a light that cannot be borne by the deceitful darkness of those who – wrongly – call themselves the holy Church.”

In a comparatively rare gesture that demonstrates both a judicial heavy hand and the point-parsing of a born seminarian, Henry VIII subjected Lambert to a show-trial in large part so that Henry might personally pick apart the hapless prisoner’s doctrine. Rounding includes a contemporary account:

The King’s Majesty reasoned with him in person, sundry times confounding him, so that he alone would have been sufficient to confute a thousand such. It was not a little rejoicing unto all his commons and to all others that saw and heard how His Grace handled the matter; for it shall be a precedent whilst the world stands; and no one will be so bold hereafter to attempt the like cause. After the King had confounded him by Scripture, so that Lambert had nothing to say for himself, the bishops and doctors exhorted him to abandon his opinions, as His Grace did also: but he refused, and will have his deserts. The matter lasted from noon till 5, when he was conveyed to Marshalsea.

Lambert was condemned to death, and Rounding’s narrative unflinchingly follows him through to his particularly gory end:

When breakfast was ended, he was taken to Smithfield, where he was very cruelly treated. For after his legs were consumed and burnt up to the stumps, the wretched tormentors withdrew the fire, leaving but very little under him. Then two men that stood on each side of him thrust their halberts into his body, and raised him up as high as the chain would permit. Then Lambert, lifting up such hands as he had, his finger ends flaming with fire, cried unto the people in these words ‘None but Christ, none but Christ’; and being let down again from their halberts, he fell into the fire, and ended his mortal life.

By the time the hour of their ordeal arrived, most of the condemned had worked themselves into such a pitch of disjointed religious ecstasy that they could, like Lambert, face their execution with mind-boggling serenity and even a prayer on their lips – and most weren’t spiked, hefted, and shifted like logs on a dying fire. If the wood blocks were dry and the wind was favorable, they might expect to writhe in agony for only a quarter of an hour, although much, much more protracted immolations are on record.

Amazingly, considering the staggering barbarity of this end, Rounding’s book has occasional glints of humor. When John Philpott, former Archdeacon of Winchester, was undergoing his eighth heresy examination in 1555, he growled at his judges, “Knock me on the head with a hatchet, or set up a stake and burn me out of hand without further law; as well you may do, for all is without order or law. Such tyranny was never seen, as you use nowadays.” When he was, inevitably, condemned, one of his judges, Bishop of London Edmund Bonner, was half-way through reading out the awful sentence when another judge, the Bishop of Bath, said, “My Lord, my Lord – first ask him whether or not he will recant.” To which Bonner replied, “Oh leave me alone.”

“At least Philpot did not now have long to wait,” Rounding writes,

He was condemned on 16 December, and on the following evening the message came from the sheriffs that he was to prepare himself for execution the next day. When the sheriffs duly arrived at eight o’clock in the morning, Philpot came down to them ‘most joyfully’. Outside, the wintry streets had turned to mud. When two of the sheriffs’ officers attempted to lift Philpot above the mud on his way to the stake, to stop him getting his feet dirty (as if the state of his feet could really matter at this point), he had the presence of mind to joke: ‘What! Will you make me a pope? I am content to go to my journey’s end on foot.’

And one of the consistently satisfying features of The Burning Time is its steadfast refusal to make one-dimensional heroes or villains out of its characters. Even when he’s in the act of passing one of the most terrible sentences any one person can pass on another, Rounding’s version of Bonner is much more frustrated than fanatical:

For Bonner, this whole long-drawn-out procedure had been a failure; he had tried everything he could think of, from courtesy to bullying, from engaging in argument himself to enlisting the help of other learned men, from cups of wine to confinement in the stocks, to get Philpot to recant(.) Philpot had never wavered and had proved difficult, stubborn and repetitive throughout, as well as apparently impervious to fear of the consequences. By the end Bonner had just had enough of the whole business.

Queen Mary burned nearly 300 heretics in her short reign, although, as Rounding points out, if the goal was to turn other heretics away from their convictions, “the strategy had signally failed.” In fact, the grinding brutality of all those burnings, all those high-pitched howls of agony, all those spectacles on the killing-ground of Smithfield and elsewhere in the kingdom, all that black persecution only strengthened the things it was attacking. And this fact haunts the personal, contemporary elements of Rounding’s book, the elements she sketches out in the terrorism-haunted world of the 21st century. “What is it that makes people kill other people in the name of religion?” she asks. “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?”

“By and large,” she goes on, “we – by which I mean the majority of twenty-first-century inhabitants of what we think of as our world, and leaving out the adherents of IS, ISIL, Daesh or whatever acronym the promoters of an Islamic caliphate are currently to be known by – would concur with the French chansonnier Georges Brassens that ideas are not really worth dying for” – and yet people die for ideas every single day; ISIS commandos die for ideas, displaying what Rounding refers to as an “awful purity, an intransigence, a refusal to live with compromise or to accept and make allowance for human imperfection.” And their victims also die as a result of ideas; the whole question is as active in the 21st century as it was in the 16th.

These contemporary grapplings give The Burning Time a surprisingly effective added punch, leading Rounding to ask what, if anything, she herself might be prepared to die for, in the “post-postmodern age”:

Not for nuances of definition of the doctrine of insubstantiation, that’s for sure (or perhaps it’s not as sure as all that). But for the right of people to disagree about it, perhaps? Do we really care that much about freedom of speech and freedom of thought? Certainly we care – but do we care enough to die for it? On the contrary, we seem to care rather less than we used to, given the way we allow our civil liberties to be eroded in the cause of the unattainable, elusive and illusory ‘security’.

It’s a sobering question, whether or not the valiant-sounding lions of Twitter and Facebook debates have the moral courage possessed by even such a mewling fusspot as Thomas Cranmer. But Rounding is right: it’s also an increasingly pressing question, and the fires of Smithfield provide no answers.

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Steve Donoghue is a writer and reader living in Boston. He reviews for The National, The American Conservative, The Washington Post, and The Christian Science Monitor. He is the Managing Editor of Open Letters Monthly and hosts one of its blogs, Stevereads.