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.
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About the Author
VIRGINIA ROUNDING is a translator and writer who lives in London. She studied Russian at the University of London. She is the author of the critically acclaimed Catherine the Great and Grandes Horizontales.
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BOILING, BURNING AND AMBITION
And whereas in the translation of the New Testament [Tyndale] covered and dissimulated himself as much as he could, yet, when he perceived his cloaked heresies espied and destroyed, then shewed he shortly himself in his own likeness, sending forth first his wicked Book of Mammon, and after his malicious Book of Obedience. In which books he sheweth himself so puffed up with the poison of pride, malice and envy, that it is more than marvel that the skin can hold together.
Thomas More, from A Dialogue Concerning Heresies, 1529
On 5 April 1531 a cook, known both as Richard Roose and Richard Coke, and employed in the household of Bishop Fisher of Rochester, was boiled to death in Smithfield. He was convicted of having attempted to poison the bishop, and indeed several people of the household had become ill after eating the pottage or gruel which he had prepared. Two people – a member of the bishop's staff and a widow who had been among the poor people to whom leftovers from the kitchen were distributed – had actually died. The bishop himself had not eaten any of the pottage and so, in the unlikely event of this having been an assassination attempt, it failed.
For this case of food poisoning, the poor cook was boiled in a cauldron. According to Ambassador Eustace Chapuys, reporting the incident in a despatch to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, the cook had confessed to having thrown a powder into the pottage, which he had been told was some kind of a joke – probably involving a laxative – that wouldn't cause anyone real harm. There was no joke about the method of execution; he was immersed several times in boiling water – 'locked in a chain and pulled up and down with a gibbet at divers times till he was dead'.
Not only was it believed that the poisoning was deliberate (and so the alleged crime was given the name of 'high treason' and made the subject of a new statute entitled 'An Acte for Poysoning'), there was even a suspicion of involvement of people very close to the King, Chapuys specifically mentioning the possible involvement of 'the lady and her father' (that is, of Anne Boleyn and her father Thomas). Chapuys's speculation, while based on unreliable or nonexistent evidence, nevertheless gives an indication of the atmosphere surrounding the King and those closest to him at this time, an aura of fear in which such conspiracy theories could arise and flourish. Bishop Fisher, an ascetic ecclesiastic of great personal integrity, thin-faced and clear-eyed, was known to be one of the chief supporters of Katherine of Aragon – and hence one of the greatest opponents of Anne Boleyn. His support for Katherine was based more on his belief in the indissolubility of marriage than on personal grounds, and no threat of poison would be likely to make him change his mind.
Around the same time as the alleged poisoning in the bishop's kitchens, in February 1531, an agreement had been made that a large fine be paid by the Church, all the clergy contributing, to the King in exchange for a pardon for offences committed under praemunire. (Chapuys had implied in his despatch to the Emperor that this decision – along with the clergy being forced to acknowledge Henry as the supreme head of the Church of England 'as far as the law of Christ allows', this latter phrase being added as a result of Fisher's efforts – is what had made the bishop ill, rather than any poison.) The so-called praemunire charge is what had been levelled at Cardinal Wolsey to bring about his downfall. Briefly, praemunire referred to the criminal offence of having introduced into England a foreign or papal authority that might limit the royal authority and, Wolsey having been convicted of it, all the clergy – especially the bishops – were deemed to have committed it as well by the mere fact of their having previously given obedience to the cardinal. It was therefore a word to inspire fear, particularly among the higher clergy, who did not wish to go the same way as the late disgraced Wolsey. And it was the higher clergy who had agreed to the fine, on behalf of their subordinates as well as of themselves. Some of those subordinates did not take this decision well, particularly in London. Meeting some resistance from the London clergy to contribute to the fine, the new Bishop of London, John Stokesley, summoned all the priests of his diocese to St Paul's Cathedral in late August, intending to see them in groups of six or eight and persuade them to have their benefices assessed (so that it could be determined how much they could each afford to pay). But the six hundred or so priests who assembled at St Paul's, encouraged by lay supporters, refused to submit to this effort to manipulate them and, rather than waiting to be invited in small groups, a larger group of them forced their way into the chapter house to confront the bishop. In response to his attempts to convince them that they had inadvertently offended the King through their 'frailty and lack of wisdom' and that the King was being 'merciful' in accepting a fine of only £100,000 to be paid over five years, the priests insisted they had never had anything to do with the cardinal so could not be implicated in praemunire and they neither could nor would pay up. The argument soon got out of hand, several of the bishop's servants were 'buffeted', and eighteen of the priests and a smaller number of the laymen present were arrested and imprisoned. They were eventually charged not only with riotous assembly, but with conspiring to murder Bishop Stokesley. The records of any ensuing trials have been lost – but, whatever else may have happened, the London clergy, like all the others, had to contribute to the fine.
Fears of being implicated in praemunire offences, or of difficulty in raising money to pay the fine, were minor in comparison to the ordeal facing another priest that same year of 1531. On 20 November, a Monday, Bishop Stokesley pronounced these words against one Richard Bayfield, a former Benedictine monk, before a number of high-ranking officials and clerics gathered in St Paul's:
We John by the permission of God, Bishop of London, rightly and lawfully proceeding in this behalf, do dismiss thee Richard Bayfield, alias Somersam, being pronounced by us a relapsed heretic, and degraded by us from all ecclesiastical privilege, out of the Ecclesiastical Court, pronouncing that the secular power here present should receive thee under their jurisdiction, earnestly requiring and desiring in the bowels of Jesus Christ, that the execution of this worthy punishment, to be done upon thee, and against thee in this behalf, may be so moderated, that there be neither overmuch cruelty, neither too much favourable gentleness, but that it may be to the health and salvation of thy soul, and to the extirpation, fear, terror, and conversion of all other heretics unto the unity of the Catholic faith. This our final decree by this our sentence definitive, we have caused to be published in form aforesaid.
Prior to being handed over to the City authorities ('the secular power here present'), Bayfield had to be 'degraded' – that is, stripped of his orders as a priest – the ceremony of degradation not only consisting of words but also including a powerful dramatic element. In a symbolic reversal of the process of ordination, the bishop struck Bayfield on the chest with his crosier as he knelt before the altar, and then pushed him backwards down the altar steps, so forcefully that he hit his head on the floor. He was then handed over to the sheriffs and burnt in Smithfield on 4 December. His was a particularly excruciating death, as the flames were reluctant to take hold, and he stood chained to the stake for half an hour, slowly roasting. According to John Foxe in his Acts and Monuments, 'when the left arm was on fire and burned, he rubbed it with his right hand, and it fell from his body, and he continued in prayer to the end, without moving'.
Richard Bayfield had been born at Hadleigh in Suffolk, took his monastic vows at the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds in 1514, and was ordained priest four years later. In the early 1520s he had the responsibility of looking after visitors to the Abbey (the provision of hospitality being an important aspect of Benedictine life) and this was how he came to be acquainted with the man who would change his life – Robert Barnes, who had come to the Abbey to meet with a former fellow student at Louvain (or Leuven) University in the Duchy of Brabant (now in Belgium). At the time of his meeting with Bayfield, Barnes was based at the University of Cambridge and was one of a group of scholars and preachers who used to gather informally at the town's White Horse tavern to exchange ideas about biblical texts and the new doctrines coming out of Germany. Barnes gave Bayfield a copy of the Latin translation of the New Testament by the humanist scholar Desiderius Erasmus (whom Barnes would have encountered at Louvain). Erasmus's text had been published in 1516, and comprised a new edition of the New Testament in Greek with his Latin translation printed on the facing pages. Conservative elements in the Church had been perturbed at the idea of this new translation presenting a challenge to the old and accepted Latin version by St Jerome, known as the Vulgate, and Erasmus's annotations to his Greek text also at times differed from the tradition. But Bayfield seems to have been hungry for knowledge and soon found himself drawn to the new ideas espoused by Barnes and his friends. In addition to Erasmus's Greek and Latin New Testament, Bayfield was given (by two 'godly men of London', who were travelling with Barnes) William Tyndale's translation of the same text into English, along with two other books by Tyndale. These were The Parable of the Wicked Mammon (which comprised an argument in defence of the Lutheran doctrine of justification by faith) and The Obedience of a Christian Man.
Such straying from the paths of orthodoxy did not go down well with Bayfield's superiors, and two years later – two years during which he had spent much of his time reading and thinking – his abbot confined him to the abbey prison, in the hope that he would come to his senses. Instead, after about nine months (during which time Bayfield was allegedly whipped, gagged and placed in the stocks), Robert Barnes managed to negotiate his release from the prison (Barnes was clearly skilled in the art of persuasion) and took him back with him to Cambridge. In the atmosphere of learning, discussion and enthusiasm which he encountered there, Bayfield became ever more convinced of the rightness of the new teachings.
One year after Bayfield had been ordained to the priesthood in 1518, another young man – John Deane, the future Rector of St Bartholomew's in Smithfield – went through the same process (though he had chosen the secular, rather than the monastic, route). Both men were probably aged around twenty-four at the time of their ordination, this being the earliest age at which men could be ordained priest in the early sixteenth century. John Deane came from a family of yeomen farmers who owned a small amount of land in Shurlach, near the village of Davenham. The town of Northwich, where Deane states in his will that he was born, was just under two miles away and was itself about eighteen miles east of Chester, close to the border between England and Wales.
Nothing is known for sure about John Deane's education, but any man presenting himself for ordination was likely to have received elementary education as a boy. He would have learnt how to read and particularly how to say his prayers, in both Latin and English. Prior to putting himself forward for ordination to the lowest of the main, or holy, orders – that of subdeacon – he may have been admitted to the minor orders, and served as an acolyte in his local parish church (St Wilfrid's, Davenham, in the young Deane's case). The next step would be to prepare for his 'examinations', at which he would have to demonstrate that he fulfilled a number of criteria. He had to be of legitimate birth, at least eighteen years old, and unmarried. He must never have murdered anyone, be able to demonstrate that he was not seeking a clerical position through simony (that is, through having bought the position) or fraud, and he must also not be suffering from any physical disability. (Readers of C. J. Sansom's Shardlake novels will recall the hunchbacked lawyer's bitterness at having had his early vocation to the priesthood rejected on these grounds.) It was possible to apply for a papal dispensation in the case of disability, but this could be a costly business, with no guarantee of success. These 'examinations' into the candidate's personal circumstances and suitability generally took place a few days before the ordination to the subdiaconate.
A further examination would be required before a subdeacon could proceed to ordination as a deacon (for which the minimum age requirement was nineteen). This time a sound knowledge of scripture, music (at least such musical skill and knowledge as were necessary to sing the services) and liturgy was expected of the candidate. By the time the deacon was ready to become a priest (at the age of twenty-four), he would need to be able to demonstrate his competence in Latin. (In a report on the archdeaconry of London in 1561–2, towards the end of his ministry, Deane was described in the following terms: 'latine aliquid intelligit' – 'he has some understanding of Latin'.) In practice, men were often not ordained as subdeacon until they had reached, or nearly reached, the age at which they could also become a priest, so that the whole process – that is, the three ordinations – might take place over the course of eighteen months or so.
In addition to passing the various tests of eligibility, it was at the first of these stages – at the point of ordination as a subdeacon – that a man had to provide evidence of his ability to support himself financially; this meant he had to prove either that he had the 'title' to a benefice – that he had, in modern parlance, a church job already lined up – or that he had a private income, deriving from his family. Once all these hurdles had been overcome, the young men seeking ordination would appear before the bishop of their diocese, at a ceremony advertised in advance by archdeacons and rural deans. Ordinations generally took place four times a year on the so-called Ember Days – that is, on the Saturdays in the third week of Advent (December), the first week of Lent (February or March), immediately before Trinity Sunday (May or June) and closest to the feast of the Nativity of the Virgin (September). The ceremony of ordination involved the laying on of hands by the bishop; a new priest would also be invested with a chasuble, paten and chalice, symbolic of the fact that he was now able to celebrate the Mass.
At no point did most candidates for the priesthood have to demonstrate an ability to preach, and only those who attended university (not the majority) or who were members of a preaching order such as the Dominicans received any training in how to do so. Preaching sermons was of less importance to the ordinary parish priest than celebrating the Mass and, when such a priest was called upon to preach, there were collections of homilies he could use – either as a basis for his own words or as a straightforward text to be read out verbatim. There were plenty of such texts available for use, one of the principal aids to preaching being the Festial compiled by John Mirk, an Augustinian canon, in 1508 which gathered together improving stories about the saints, many of them drawn from the medieval Golden Legend. Collections of sermons were also produced by various learned men of the Church, including Bishop Fisher of Rochester and Bishop Longland of Lincoln, with the intention of helping priests combat the spread of Lutheran ideas in their parishes.
At the time John Deane and his contemporaries were seeking ordination, there was an insufficient supply of benefices to meet the demand, and consequently it often fell to a religious house – a priory, convent or monastery – to act as a patron to a young man by providing him with a 'title'. Deane, who was ordained priest by the Bishop of Lichfield on 18 June 1519, was sponsored by Vale Royal Abbey, a Cistercian foundation situated between Northwich and Winsford.
Given the sponsorship of Vale Royal, which was local to his home, it is likely that John Deane began his priestly ministry in Cheshire, though there are no records of his having done so. By 1535 he had moved south, to Middlesex, where he was Rector of Little Stanmore, the largest single estate of St Bartholomew's Priory; his parishioners would not have numbered more than a couple of hundred (in 1547 the number of communicants in Little Stanmore totalled 127, of whom 91 were adult males). His stipend was £6 13s 4d.
Excerpted from "The Burning Time"
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Table of Contents
A Note on Language,
List of Illustrations,
Introduction – SETTING THE SCENE,
One – BOILING, BURNING AND AMBITION,
Two – FUEL FOR THE FIRE,
Three – THE MAKING OF MARTYRS,
Four – RECANTATIONS AND REVERSALS,
Five – DISSOLUTION AND DISCIPLINE,
Six – 'LO, FAITHLESS MEN AGAINST ME RISE',
Seven – DENUNCIATIONS AND NEAR-ESCAPES,
Eight – PROTESTANTISM IN THE ASCENDANT,
Nine – 'TURN, AND TURN, AND TURN AGAIN',
Ten – DOMINICANS IN SMITHFIELD,
Eleven – CEREMONIES OF MARTYRDOM,
Twelve – 'I WILL PAY MY VOWS TO THEE, OH SMITHFIELD',
Thirteen – MATTERS OF CONSCIENCE,
Fourteen – CONSTANCY AND CONFLAGRATION,
Epilogue – 'BY THE LIGHT OF BURNING MARTYRS',
About the Author,
ALSO BY Virginia Rounding,