Friday, June 9, 2017

The Fires of Smithfield

Simon Caldwell reviews an upcoming book about the Protestant (and one Catholic) martyrs of Smithfield for The Catholic Herald:

Although it is possible to detect that the author’s own sympathies tend to lie with the Protestants, it is generally even-handed. St Thomas More does not come across marvellously for his persecution of heretics, for instance, knowing what their fate was likely to be, but Rounding does not accept the slur that he tortured them.

Nor does she uncritically accept Protestant martyrologist John Foxe’s sneering interpretation of the death of Blessed John Forest, the Franciscan friar burned as a heretic in 1538 because of his fidelity to Rome. Forest was the only Catholic to suffer this fate at Smithfield, yet nearly a full chapter is dedicated to his execution, with a description of how he was suspended by chains for slow-roasting over a fire fuelled in a large part by a huge wooden statue of Derfel, a Welsh saint, while either Thomas Cromwell or Hugh Latimer (a Reformer who was to suffer immolation under Mary I) reportedly yelled: “Burn him! Burn him!”

To Rounding, Forest, like the other Smithfield martyrs, was an example of the rare type of person willing to die for his or her convictions. She reflects on what could have possibly motivated them to endure such agonies and also examines the evolution of the social and cultural contexts in which violent executions were considered the norm. Again, the Catholic Church does not come off too well in this respect, given that burning for heresy was given papal approval in the 13th century.

Yet in this balanced account, Rounding rightly points out that Protestants were not only burned by Henry VIII and his pyromaniac
[sic] daughter but were also burned by Protestants for being the wrong kind of Protestant, with Anabaptists sent to the stake under both Elizabeth I and James I, even in the 17th century.

Please read the rest there

I object to the term "pyromaniac" being applied to Mary I. A pyromaniac is one who cannot resist impulses to deliberately start fires because of the emotional or psychological release and satisfaction. She did not start fires; Mary did not witness these executions and enjoy them. Her Parliament revived the Heresy Laws (previously aimed at suppressing Lollardy). Church tribunals and secular courts dealt with those who were found to hold heretical views, and we know that some of those burned alive for heresy would have been heretics according to either Lutheran or Reformed doctrine (denying the divinity of Jesus, for example). 

From the publisher, St. Martin's Press:

Smithfield, settled on the fringes of Roman London, was once a place of revelry. Jesters and crowds flocked for the medieval St Bartholomew's Day celebrations, tournaments were plentiful and it became the location of London's most famous meat market. Yet in Tudor England, Smithfield had another, more sinister use: the public execution of heretics.

The Burning Time is a vivid insight into an era in which what was orthodoxy one year might be dangerous heresy the next. The first martyrs were Catholics, who cleaved to Rome in defiance of Henry VIII's break with the papacy. But with the accession of Henry's daughter Mary - soon to be nicknamed 'Bloody Mary' - the charge of heresy was leveled against devout Protestants, who chose to burn rather than recant.

At the center of Virginia Rounding's vivid account of this extraordinary period are two very different characters. The first is Richard Rich, Thomas Cromwell's protégé, who, almost uniquely, remained in a position of great power, influence and wealth under three Tudor monarchs, and who helped send many devout men and women to their deaths. The second is John Deane, Rector of St Bartholomew's, who was able, somehow, to navigate the treacherous waters of changing dogma and help others to survive.

The Burning Time is their story, but it is also the story of the hundreds of men and women who were put to the fire for their faith.

Due out in the UK: 10/31/2017


  1. "Her Parliament revived the Heresy Laws (previously aimed at suppressing Lollardy)."

    I thought they simply remained in force from 1401 to when James I applied them in 1612 against Baptists, for the last time, and God knows how long after that?

    Had "de heretico comburendo" been abolished for a while?