I, Roger Williams: A Fragment of Autobiography

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Overview

Roger Williams, through whose eyes this novel is told, was the most compelling figure in Colonial America. Plucked from obscurity to clerk for the celebrated English jurist Sir Edward Coke, Williams had a ringside seat on the brutal politics of Jacobean London. He was witness to the pomp of the Star Chamber; the burning of a dissenter; and the humiliation of his master by King James and his favorite, the dangerously beautiful Buckingham. Haunted by ambition and love for a woman above his station, he fled to New ...
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Overview

Roger Williams, through whose eyes this novel is told, was the most compelling figure in Colonial America. Plucked from obscurity to clerk for the celebrated English jurist Sir Edward Coke, Williams had a ringside seat on the brutal politics of Jacobean London. He was witness to the pomp of the Star Chamber; the burning of a dissenter; and the humiliation of his master by King James and his favorite, the dangerously beautiful Buckingham. Haunted by ambition and love for a woman above his station, he fled to New England, where repression and conformity wore different clothes.

Mary Lee Settle's arresting narrative layers the approaching civil war in England with the emergence of a new order in Rhode Island, the first colony grounded in freedom of conscience and in the separation of church and state. Williams was, first and last, a champion of the individual against the entrenched power of any establishment, but such commitment had a cruel price. Banished by his fellow colonists in the dead of winter, he endured years of exile among the Narragansett Indians, during which time he wrote the first book on the language and customs of the native North Americans.

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Editorial Reviews

Anthony Day
, Roger Williams is a beautiful work of art. Daring in conception, elegantly deft in execution, this novel about early life in the American colonies makes vividly present the doughty character of the English Puritan who rose above his time and place to create, with his own work-worn hands, the king post of American liberty....The reader comes away from this novel realizing that Roger Williams deserves to be in the forefront of American historical consciousness. And the portrait that Settle has so artfully and attractively painted in I, Roger Williams may just put him there.
Los Angeles Times
Seattle Times
An example of the historical novel at its best.
Los Angeles Times Book Review
A beautiful work of art. Daring in conception,elegantly deft in execution.
From The Critics
The narrator of this hurried historical novel is, by his own admission, "a master of passionate prolixity." And it shows in a book that never fails to describe each moment as if it were the last, with all rhetorical guns blazing. The Roger Williams of the title was a real man, and Settle fills in the holes left in the historical record and Williams' own writings with a grand tale of intellectual and emotional adventure. Williams, who grew up in seventeenth-century London, worked as an assistant to a controversial judge before joining the clergy and becoming a Puritan reformer in the Church of England. The first two thirds of the book vividly describe the sights and sounds of Jacobean London, with all its degraded politics and ever-shifting conspiracies. After Williams is banished to America for his zealous efforts to initiate reform, the book's tone shifts abruptly, treating the rest of Williams' full life as if it were an afterthought. With Williams in the thick of colonial strife, it seems strange that Settle would pay less attention to this tumultuous period. This deeply felt novel truly feels, like its narrator, "drunk with events."
—Chris Barsanti

(Excerpted Review)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393049053
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 4/28/2001
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 312
  • Product dimensions: 6.59 (w) x 9.58 (h) x 1.08 (d)

Meet the Author

Mary Lee Settle won the National Book Award for her novel Blood Ties and was the founder of the PEN/Faulkner Prize. She died in 2005.

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Read an Excerpt



Chapter One


I was unmercifully driven from my chamber to a winter's flight. A monstrous paradox that God's children should persecute God's children, and that they ... should not suffer each other to live in this common air together.
— Roger Williams


I, Roger Williams, once called passionate, precipitate, and divinely mad, New England's gadfly, firebrand in the night, do slump upon the ground this day in late June of the most disastrous year of my life, 1676, like a stove hulk. Now in my age I am a little old spindled weak bruised man, with rupture and colic and lameness in both my feet. I own nothing, no fine house, no fame, no power men care so for they act the brute in their God's name. Well, at long and blessed last, I care not nor need any of these temporaries and trivials. I would keep my mind on the business of eternity, if my memory did not play me impish tricks.

    For it was only three months ago that this work of smoke, flame, and blood of those I loved was done. Oh Father of Lights, we went to war. I too went to war, and that lower self of me, dress, sword, and gun, called myself as they did captain, Captain Roger Williams. For the last time that still brings heated anger and tears, I tried to treat with the Narragansetts who for fifty years I had loved and protected against the fear and greed of my own people.

    Even while we parleyed as I had done with their fathers, their grandfathers, the young warriors ran with torches and touched thatch, hayloft, home, hearth, cut the throats of what beasts we hadnothid, killed and killed. Oh how delicately did this begin with a little lick, a kiss of fire, and then a wild destruction, providence aflame, and I old fool still did not give up, parleyed on with the heat upon my back.

    Tribe. Tribe of the English, the Yengees as they called us. I had known the Indian fathers and even the grandfathers, but the sons and grandsons knew not me. They had, for cheating, stealing, and betrayal on both sides, grown as dangerous as wolves, more dangerous than wolves for as men they suffered hurt.

    As I did. I betrayed them out of fear and fury. The flames flew up as we say prayers do and burned all love from my soul. I killed. I even, God help me, went along with selling the captives, who I had loved for all the years. In weak explanation, I did insist that they be sold only as indentured servants for eight to fourteen years, as white prisoners were, not into perpetual slavery as the other colonies did.

    When I think of it I want to crawl to the light of the Father of Lights and bay like the wolf I accused them of being when they went mad with grief and slaughtered us. Our turn. Their turn. Our turn. Their turn.

    So once again, as it was so long ago, my home for this fine morning is a sycamore as old as Adam, so huge that four men span it with their outstretched arms. Its hollow trunk is always cool in summer and warm in winter. Many a family have lived in it while they built their cabins. Truth to tell, many a man has come here to sleep when he has quarreled with his wife. Though it is on the land parceled to me it is free for all, a cave to pray and live in.

     As we try to rebuild after the burning, it is our town meetinghouse, as it was forty years ago before a house was built. My neighbors sit along the ground and argue as fiercely as if they spoke in the great halls of Westminster, it, too, by the water, there the Thames and here the Moshassuck. I know both rivers like the palms and calluses of my hands. This one has written a history of paddling mile on mile on mile through summer and winter on my lawful occasions of teaching and trading. The very bark against my back makes me remember, as I do often when I stay here, when once I burrowed here in the deep snow of winter, before Mary came to be with me.

    My work with my native friends lies failed, all failed, since I made friends with what my tribe, the Yengees, call the savage native men. I have spent years with them, a profligate of time. I slept by the filthy smoke holes of their wild houses, warmed by their barbarous fires, and often wrote my passionate arguments by their firelight while they slept around me, and I argued with the night. My life was saved by them when the other savages, my own countrymen, condemned me to a white death.

    I was driven from my house in Salem, from Mary and the children, at twilight of a winter day forty years ago into a storm of snow, in January of a New England winter when I was already sick abed from the persecution of my own kind. I had suffered since I was a child until I heard God's reasons for my suffering. My body was so impatient for guidance that three times in my life I have sunk into a futility and a heartbreak that took my strength and froze the sinews of my back and feet.

    But I have had, every time, light and voices to save me, oh, not fantastic visions and holy ghosts, for I am, and have always been, a practical man. No, my voices were those of my conscience, ever lodged within me, two above all to guide and save me, one called heretic, another called arrogant and proud-tongued.

    That time I remembered to my strength that Sir Edward Coke, the greatest lawyer in England and my own mentor in my youth, was sent himself to the Tower and accused of treason that near cost him his blessed head in the same unjust way. His real crime, so long ago, was that he was too much honored by the people. He saved himself by wit and knowledge, and those fine-honed weapons of anger and memory. Ever to his death he taught that to accuse and then seek out a cause is the greatest perversion of the law. He thundered it; he wrote it; he suffered for it. And by his life and work struck the first blow to bring down an absolute monarchy.

    The Saints of Boston, to rid themselves of me, their gadfly, imitated the very intolerance that sent their own selves forth from lost estates, lost lands, lost preferments in England to such a wilderness as this. "Tolerance" is a word they, too, despise. They accused me of heresy and thrust me out. At least I think they said heresy, that or another thing or many things; there were many words to cover their act. It is hard to remember what it was truly about so long ago. I was sent forth over a mass of separate argument. But the true reason that boiled beneath it was that I pointed out that in law the Indians owned the lands the Saints of Boston said God had given them, God or the king, sometimes I forget, and that they should pay the Indians for their land. That was my real heresy in their Christian eyes, heresy in their worship of God Land.

    I am sick at heart when these memories come unbidden, even though I felt the warmth of someone's love when Governor Winthrop sent me a secret warning that a ship rode anchor at Nantasket and had sent men by pinnace to arrest me and take me back to England. Every child here in Providence knows how I last saw my house as a ghost blown by the wind, then fading into night. I trudged and fell and trudged and fell again in snowdrifts to my waist in a hell that was frozen and white, not burning. The burning came in my life both earlier and later.

    I walked long after dark into the night. I knew my way and God guided me. When the moon rose and reflected on the snow it was like some day in night without warmth or kindness. The wind blew ghosts in my path, but it was so familiar to me that I could not be lost for I had thought of it as my private road to those who loved me for I had spent six years becoming their only friendly tie with the avalanche of English, hungry or God-driven, thief and saint, that were pouring onto their shore. They were as honest and full of guile as animals, as far from us who are as strange to them as the infidel Turk or the Chinee of Cathay. My long friendship and curiosity about them saved me, as John Winthrop and I and Governor Winslow of Plymouth Colony knew they would. That is, if they found me in that snow-covered sleeping time of winter, for the tribes and their villages went into the swamps in winter to quarters where they were as warm and safe as bears in their caves, or the legions of animals underground. I remember sensing, with a kind of other hearing and smelling, the vast life hidden under and around me as I walked my road, as formal as a carriageway for a king, among the virgin trees so vast that no undergrowth could chain me.

    My road, which had long been my own private shortcut to Boston, away behind the settlements where few English ventured, took me by a small, poor village of Pennacooks. We knew each other well. It was empty, the wigwams long gone, leaving only a clearing in the woods. I found a place beneath a tree, lit a small fire from fallen branches, and rolled in my bearskin coat, lay and watched the stars that came and went with the wind above the forest ceiling. No sleep. I lay in a kind of shock at what had happened. Gradually my mind cleared and I saw my way ahead toward Narragansett Bay, where Mary and I could make a home.

    I walked on through days and nights, I never knew how many, for after a while I was simply there and then not there and no time passed any more, only the rising of the sun and its lowering or the day storms or the night storms of snow, or the moonrise or those blessed nights under a black sky filled deep with stars. Some friendly Indians of Massasoit, sachem of the Wampanoags, an old friend, found me asleep at midday, as one given up and waiting to freeze to a quiet death. They carried me to Massasoit's village. It saved my life.

    How can I forget my exile? My feet froze. I walk upon my exile every day of my life. And must needs walk lest I become a chairborn crippled man, even forty years later. I had traveled several hundred miles, who knows how much, like a ship's captain by the place of the sun, the growth and waning of the moon, and by a small compass which I still have. It is ever in my pocket, for once it led me when I was lost I could not ever part with it. More than anything else the feel of that small metal disk in my pocket has reminded me that the Father of Lights watched over me.

    It was the Indians who guided me to the Narragansetts and my dearly loved old man, Canonicus, their sachem, and Miantonomo, his nephew. That was near Seekonk, which they call now Rehoboth in the patent of Plymouth. I found not until years later that Massasoit had made a contact for me with Governor Winslow there, and Indians took my bearings to him and to my dear John Winthrop, so that I was less abandoned than I knew while I was walking toward where I sit now.

    John Winthrop's part was secret for he was the head of the colony, its governor for most of his life in America. But he never lost touch with me until land hunger forced him to an opposite camp. The other Visible Saints in Boston were not so kind. Mr. John Cotton wrote me, "Had you perished your blood would have been on your own head; it was your sin to procure it, and your sorrow to suffer it."

    I would not think of this on this fine morning late in life but that the word of the burning of Providence has reached Boston. It seems that after forty years, those who were taught with their mothers' milk that I was a dangerous firebrand in the night, whose fathers had once conspired to throw me back into the teeth of the English law, which was in those days Bishop Laud, God rest his sorry soul, have offered me a home in Boston! That is, of course, as they point out, so long as I keep my dirty contentious old mouth shut. But alas for their kind offer, I am still as young, still as disputatious, and I fear as much a master of passionate prolixity as when I burned my bridges so long ago in England lest Archbishop Laud tan my heretical hide. His Orthodox Church of England Christian solution to what he termed heresy was a room in prison or a whipping at the cart's tail, H branded on both my cheeks, or to have my ears cropped like a pit bull.

    For fourteen weeks I wandered south from Salem, mile after mile, from tribe to tribe, shelter to shelter. In the six years I had been in New England, I already spoke their language, and could serve them as peacemaker between the tribes, for the Father of Lights gave me the art to pick up languages with ease, or better, taught me to listen, which is the same. In their filthy hospitable sinkholes I had long since found a lifelong friend, yet another of the fathers God has sent me for my guides. Canonicus, sachem of the Narragansetts, was a shy, wise man who distrusted the new foreigners who came to his shores. Thanks be to God he never saw this day.

    So I did then come to this place by the water, and here I will stay until death releases me and gives me glory. That is, of course, if I have earned it. Who knows? Who ever knows?

    I plowed and rowed and built and taught and wrote and begged peace between the English and my friends the native savages. I did save many lives between them over the years until it was too late and came at last to this day, when I and my dear wife, Mary, live with my son, Daniel, who plows the far fields while I keep watch lest those I loved and love with all my heart fall on us again like wild beasts. On this long day while I lie here against my home tree, I am the watchman as I have always been while he and the others work the fields around me as far as I can see. There has been many an ambush. Some have been murdered as they worked and left along the ground, poor souls, without their hair, some in their kitchens, some with their mouths full of chestnuts, some asleep.

    But the English who have hated the natives as savage beasts came from a place where they took as a fact of life that men made holidays of watching living men be cut into quarters like meat at Tyburn, and baited bulls with dogs, and had a king who, being king, baited the lions in the lion tower as dog after dog died in service to his majesty's ease and pleasure. Men were whipped from Westminster to Paul's Cross while a crowd jeered as if it were their duty, or beheaded at Westminster like Raleigh or so many others whose heads were cured by weather at the gates of London as a warning to obey King James's and then King Charles's law

    King James took pride in his thinking on grave matters. He really saw himself as the defender of the faith when in truth he was the defender of his own opinions, for like God, as he said so many times, he was sent to judge but not to be judged as ordinary men. In other men such leanings would have sent them to Bedlam as mad as beasts in cages, but when the king spoke I saw men I was taught to honor bow before his words.

    I, to my shame, when a boy, twisted and shoved my way through crowds watching men drawn and quartered alive, when I was delayed on my own errands. Annoyed at the delay, I said a learned prayer, as thoughtless as a hiccup, for one who had not ceased screaming. We take the world around us without thought. It is our shame to be blind and our sin to care not.

    Now I look out on these ash-strewn, ruined house shapes, with only the mud and stone chimneys, spires of loss against the sky, left of Providence. All through the spring we strove to build our houses back, not brave, not despairing, having no choice. I have seen God's insects do this, build back when their homes are destroyed by a careless foot. Daniel, who, like the rest, must depend on hope of a late winter, is trying to plant in early June, praying that enough grows in the rich burned ground to feed us this winter. He and his mule Hiram plow a straight furrow, their minds only on that.

    I tried to stop it happening but no one listened. After the years of English stealing and lying and breaking of promises to the Narragansetts, the men of Massachusetts Bay Colony came upon them in the late winter and massacred them in the swamp where they thought their wives and children safe. Those they captured they sold for slaves to the new plantations in the Bermudas. No Indian nor anyone can be sold as a slave in Providence Colony, being equal before the law.

    After over forty years of resentment built up by English greed, the Narragansetts were maddened with grief, and they ranged up and down the new colonies and set our little hard-earned world afire with their fury, not knowing that their true enemies were not these weak and distressed souls who have flown thither over perilous seas, as I know well. They are the ones who have plowed and planted and hoped and prayed, not those who worship God Land and God Money and want more and more and more.

    Many an impotent man says, "I have tried." I have tried. I can hear the empty sound of those words.

    Now I must know within my soul that I have as gain only what the Father of Spirits who loves me leaves me. A stick to chastise me. A little stick that Joseph carved for me in winter with a wolf head for a handle. The children call me the old man with a stick. Fine title for a man who cast away preferment, ease, and all ambition to follow a voice often too faint to hear. Or to be honest, since I am alone and it is late in life, preferment cast me away.

    If only I could have saved the books. My only jewels to hover over and caress, gone, my years of handprints on them, up in fire, Bible, Bacon, my dear Coke, beloved Milton I kept good company with, sweet Andrew Marvell, disputatious Freeborn Jack Lilburne, profane Greeks I had to hide and all lest they tempt my neighbors to jealousy at my learning. Mary's knittings and weavings could not be rescued; each row a minute, each blanket a winter, as the Indian women, too, spend the cold months, the years of warmth piled high. Well, it is all gone and there's nothing to be said about it, after all.

    Little did the young boy that I was, praying and prattling, dream that I would end here by this river this June morning, and watch an ant climb a blade of grass. Fail and try, fail and try, fail and try, and when his journey ends, be only at the pinnacle of his world, the top of a blade of grass.

    My blade of grass is here and I have tried and failed and tried and failed again, and will be forgotten. But I still am rich as Tyre and Sidon with voices and places that cannot be taken from me, my world within as great as yours or his or hers who has memories, found again in age as clear to me as when I fled from them in youth. Who among you ancient men hide not your night dreams of old loves, old desires, old terrors, and old losses you thought had released you long ago?

    The sun is high. Daniel and Hiram have lost their shadows. I have been asleep. Asleep on watch. Well, like the animals, the savage men do not come at noon. I dreamed that I was ... where? Fog. Fog from another river. Over and over in my life the time has come to bring the day of burning in London back to me. It came again when I watched my house and buildings that had sheltered so many lick the sky with their flames. My house gone that friends and I did build with our own hands and felled the trees and smoothed the floors, I who had made a courtly leg as I was taught before a spavined and drooling king. For all the years it was a welcome place and sign of love between us to those very ones who have done this deed and often as many as fifty or so wigwams graced my home field. I watched it all burned by those men with wolves' hearts I honored and so long tried to understand. Though we may for all that have been on different stars.

    Before God my beloved Bartholomew appeared to me that day within the burning of my house, as tall as a great tree, only for an instant. Did he speak? Did he speak then so long ago at Smithfield when I was a boy of eight years? I kept on asking one and then another as I shouldered past their legs to go nearer that burning, for I was too small to see over their heads, but was hearing or thought I heard something. How can I ever know?

    I am in that morning as if it covered this one an ocean and a time away. The mist from that far river blots out this sun, turns it to dark gray fog. There is still the smell of death from the sea coal burning, or was it he? It was a cold day in March then, too, the other time of fire. I was a child in London. I could hear through the fog the lowing of cattle brought to Smithfield market, the neighing and restless moving of many horses, and the crowing of a late-arisen rooster in the distance. It was, I know, eight of the clock. I could smell the dung of creatures and the old sweat of the crowd who still wore their clouts of winter, huddled together as if they could warm themselves by Bartholomew's fire. I knew then that I heard the animals because there was no sound of people, only a vast breathing that mingled in little clouds with the mist, all the terrible silence and the fear. I had never heard such loud silence. It stilled even the cutpurses and the whores who earned their meager living there; it wrapped us around in some strange comfort, as if we were blessed to be part of the burning.

    How could it be? It was. I remember that it was. It comes back as it has today, and always did and will. Dancer in the flames. Horror like something white and still. Nothing. Nihil. The cold smell of despair.

    My father sent me there. He told me I needed the lesson of what befell those who did not obey, no, honor he said, honor their fathers and their mothers, after the commandment, because I would not listen. But I had listened and listened well, and stored it in the private parts of my small mind where no one could come and berate me.

    The new Bible was printed the same year in the king's name, and put in gold upon the cover, as if he were the author of that beautiful flowering of simple words. I knew then, boy that I was, that it was wrong and blasphemous to call such a one head of the church as of the state, but I said nothing. There was no one I could trust to say it to, even Bartholomew Legate, who had made his own leg to the king and honored him with argument.

    Bartholomew Legate. I learned to love with knowing him. So did others but he was to me another father. He was a comely man of black complexion in his beard and curly hair; strong, too. He could lift children high. He laughed much. He was a merry fellow even when he taught us, who would creep to him in an upstairs room that he said was like the poor rooms where Christ Jesus taught too. There were only a few people, old women, children, some brave men who had dared to come or were too old to care or were zealous to learn, and some more dangerous, who would use his words to spread their own anger. All over London there were such small rooms to hear the new Bible, for the official state church of the nation took over the churches that had been built so long ago by the Papists and then taken by the old king, Henry.

    I went then because the new Bible was too costly and my father would not buy it. Bartholomew read to us from his copy, with the king's name on it in gold, the most dangerous book that has ever been released upon a people, and in those days and all this wild tumultuous century has caused more death, more life, more blood let, more hope and more despair than any other. It came as something new to those around Bartholomew, and they acted on what their attention caught and kept, no more. He planted words of fire.

    My father said that common people should not read it for themselves, that they needed church ministers to guide them on what to know and what not to know, as the king the country and a father his house, not some foolish purveyor of goods like Bartholomew. He knew him from a child. I said nothing when he spoke so. Was not there. A little pitcher.

    That year the Jesus I heard and saw around me was, as He had taught, not peace but a sword. My father said it was that book that caused riot and danger but it was a danger of freedom no matter how wild, the beginning, as if a lid had been taken off a muttering pease porridge. Once as I walked past a tavern, two carpenters rolled drunk at my feet and gouged each other's eyes and yelled at one another that one was more like Jesus and then that the other was more like Jesus, they being carpenters. One called the other Amos because he used a plumb bob when no good carpenter had so faulty an eye, because the word "plumb bob" was from the prophet, Amos, in the Bible.

    Bartholomew said that Jesus was a man like us who lived in a far country, who walked barefoot on the sandy road and gathered a few to follow Him, a fanatic among many, but this one in God's image, a seeker after truth, not to be caught like flotsam on floodwater, clinging for safety to one word among so many. No. He told us the man Jesus became as God, he said part of God not son or begotten of God, but one who came most near to the terrible simplicity of His love.

    The women and the children around me turned to one another and murmured, not understanding. They had been kept sober and docile by being told in the churches of a great judge who would come and judge their simple sins, and send them tumbling down to hell. He let them dispute together and then he said as if he answered all of them:

    "No. The man Jesus walked nearer and nearer the love of God He sought until He too was love itself and that is why the gates of hell cannot prevail against us."

    My father said he was mad to lose his family and a good living selling cloth, because he had left silk and damask and linen and such, to be a fanatic and a heretic fool, though I knew already that if he was, he was God's fool, though mistaken and half blind as we all are. My father said he had no business with thinking himself an equal with the preachers who had been to Oxford and Cambridge and spoke languages not meant for common people.

    Bartholomew, he said, deserved what happened, but I knew the man too and saw because he told me the miracle of being alive each day, even that day in that place and among those people, crowded together against the morning and his death.

    I was almost there when I heard a boom, as of small cannon, and a vast sigh. Someone of the soldiers or the executioners had taken pity and put gunpowder among the faggots to kill quickly, though I heard someone say above my head that the king had forbade it.

    Then I saw my friend. I saw his face. I saw the stillness of his handsome face. His eyes were open and reflected the flames. He burned there and I thought of course of Jesus hanging. This time his name was Legate, my own Bartholomew. Once he had placed that burning hand upon my head and I felt blessed.

    He danced behind the pale flames, made surly-colored in the fog-bound morning, danced behind a veil now of fog, now of my tears. I could not tell if it was his writhing or the writhing of the flames that tossed his body in a dance. He smelled of meat burning and of a sudden I thought of holiday meat on a great spit.

    Above me someone said in a whisper, "He is dead. It is only the burning."

    I never knew who spoke so to me; maybe it was within me, maybe above me, maybe another who had been touched by him. Near him women sobbed, but so quiet, so quiet that I thought I heard it in the distance but it was my own sobbing, he who had told me my soul was ever free and no one, even the bandy-legged king, could take it from me or go there, where I am, now, here in this sun, an old man young again, standing before the funeral pyre of one who said he saw in me a fire that once kindled would not go out. He said it to all of us who listened one day, but I took it to mean me.

    It takes a long time to burn a man. Late in the day, one by one they came, as silent as they had been all day, and picked at the ashes and put them in kerchiefs and little boxes they had bought at the stalls of Smithfield. I had no box, only my pencil case. I can see yet my child fingers lingering in the ashes of Bartholomew. I picked up a pinch and put into my pencil case my share of Bartholomew Legate, though it was a pagan thing to do, yet it comforted me that something of him could be touched. Deep in the night I would take it out and wait until my brothers slept, wait abed in the attic room on my pallet, for his words to come again. Sometimes they did, but mostly I could only hear the bellman below call, "Remember the clocks, look well to your locks," and whispered it with him, "Fire and your light and God give you ..." until his voice was lost in the wind and I said the good night. And waited again.

    I kept the candle going and it lit the low ceiling of bare boards, but the wind from the broken plaster between the lathes made it dance as he had danced, and I blew it out and faced the dark.

    I lay there for long hours in the night in the silence of darkness which was no silence, but the breathing and chomping of my brothers, the call below of the watchman on the hour to comfort and warn and comfort again, the bellowing of one who had stayed too long in the tavern and the whimper of the wind in the rafters. I heard the faint ringing of the handbell at Newgate jail as the guard reminded those who would be turned off at Tyburn by hanging the next day to have a last atonement. I knew by that bell it was midnight.

    I sought his beloved voice as if it were a jewel I could hold in my hand like his ashes, but it, too, faded, like the voice of the night watchman, and I was left alone, seeking still. As I am left here in this morning with only that one word, "seek." I am a seeker to this day. After all the disputations and prolixities, legalities, tables, types and antitypes, and all the other wasted words, I still wait, still seek that love which passeth understanding, not kinds and divisions but pure light. Sometimes I have seen it, and see it as clearly as this noon sun that shines across my eyes.

    Later in the market it was rumored that the king was sore amazed that such a sinner and evil man would garner a harvest of such love as Bartholomew Legate; he had demanded of him when he commanded him to the palace that he state his case, and when he did the king spurned him with his foot and bade them take him away and try him. But the silence in the days after his death was as great as the silence of the burning and no one dared speak but those who called him evil and devil lover, Arian, and such things, warlock and all.

    But some months later men came with great wagons of cobblestones and paved the whole of Smithfield as if to bury where he had been but they said that it was to make a better place of it, so that the fine horses and the cattle would not sink in the mud there. The voices rose again and the sound of the flutes and the calls of the trumpets and the great bells of St. Sepulchre that tolled each death turned off at Tyburn away in the country beyond the city. Toll. Toll. For me they tolled for him who had been to me a father. Taught me fathers could love as well as punish.

    Sometimes when my father had not drunk too much ale at supper, after he had talked to my older brother, apprenticed to a Turkey merchant and learning carpets and weavings, or to my younger, who being the youngest drew forth from him some solicitude, he would turn to me, as if he had forgotten me and suddenly remembered, called me middle son, neither most expected to follow or most loved, and did his duty by me.

    He would explain each time, trying to keep his voice gentle, that the king was God's voice to him as it should be and he was God's voice in the house, being my father, and then he would pause, watching my eyes, and beg an answer and wait for my "Yes, father."

    In those days I was as broke to his words as a horse is broke to the bit. Sometimes my bit was leather. More often it was iron, like the bits and the harnesses that the smiths at Smithfield made while I listened to that different tolling, the ring of their hammers, and watched the color of their fires. My father called me Little Teacher, and Little Ranter, and if he found me listening to the street preachers who vied for customers like the mummers and jonglers at Smithfield, Lord, he grabbed my collar and dragged me home and whipped me till I bled. He said it was to keep me safe because such things were frowned on by the king and the bishops and I could fare as others had. He did not use the word but we both knew I could grow up to be murdered for my thoughts.

    And so I learned to keep my thoughts to myself until the time when they burst forth out of such need that I am accused of never shutting up. A bursting forth as a fountain of words, but at least, I think, they brought some who listened to a trust in their own voices. All that can be given is a chance, an arena, hope of a listener, one among many. The teacher's prayer that all would not fall among stones as prolix nature casting forth seeds.

Buried Alive
The Terrifying History of Our Most Primal Fear


By Jan Bondeson

W. W. Norton & Company

Copyright © 2001 Jan Bondeson. All rights reserved.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 9, 2003

    A Good Rambling Read

    For such a promienant figure in U.S. and world history, very little is taught of him in schools, and if it is, it's done in elementary school where Williams abstract ideals are hard for children to grasp, and therefore tends to be charactherized as just another shoe buckle purtian. After reading this book, I threw out any preconcieved facts or notions I had, and started to see him as a living person, who faced hardships that would scare me to death. The story is told in the first person, Williams as an old man, realting his life and times in a rambling way that gives the sense that one is actually there, hearing it from the man himself. Though at times it seems as if it might indeed be helpful to actually be there to keep old Mr. Williams on track, as his rambling style leads to personal thoughts, anecdotes, and other stories, some of which are helpful and amusing, but can sometimes serve to confuse the narrative course of events. Mary Lee Settle is masterful in her use of Williams natural rhythm and language, having done extensive research through his books and documents held in the British Library Reading Room. All and all a very interesting and unique book.

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