As a child, deeply affected by stories of vampires and suchlike, I once tapped the wisdom of my father on the question of which was the most terrifying of all horror films. Not hesitating, he told me it was Witchfinder General, the 1968 cult movie that recounts the awful deeds, in the 17th century, of Matthew Hopkins. It was disturbing, he explained, because it was based loosely on fact – an instructive and early lesson on man’s inhumanity to man.
The same lesson can be drawn from the equally appalling events of the preceding century, recalled vividly by Virginia Rounding in her new book The Burning Time (Macmillan, £20). It focuses on the true stories of the men and women burned to death at Smithfield, London, during the Reformation and it is the stuff of nightmares. It is unremittingly gory, sparing no detail in how some victims were deliberately burned slowly to inflict maximum pain.
One chapter also outlines the physiological changes to the body of the condemned during execution. As muscles and sinews were consumed by flames, they often contracted, causing the body to contort, with the spine arching and the arms flinging outwards. This could happen after death, but the crowds that assembled to watch the conflagration often mistook them as the sights of glorious martyrs defiantly and triumphantly at prayer.
The subject matter makes this book difficult to read, but this is not death dished up like porn for prurient gratification. On the contrary, it is a scholarly foray into a particularly horrendous period of English history. It is a serious, well-researched and well-written piece of work by a highly accomplished biographer and a City of London councillor for the Smithfield area.
Nor is it propaganda. 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 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.
They were different times. Nevertheless it is hard not to pity the condemned, or admire their courage, irrespective of their confession, or to feel revulsion for those who sought to inflict such torments.
For me, one of the darkest figures to emerge from this reading is that of Henry VIII, as Rounding gives you the sense that he really enjoyed making his victims suffer. The king appeared in person at the heresy trial of the former priest John Lambert to in effect act as counsel for the prosecution. He browbeat him, showing off his learning and his orthodoxy, before he ensured that Lambert suffered a lingering death, the details of which are enough to make you want to vomit.
In 1540, Henry also orchestrated the bizarre spectacle at Smithfield of six executions on the same day, involving three priests who were disembowelled for fidelity to the pope alongside three Protestants burned at the stake for heresy.
This book offers, with the great benefit of hindsight, a recognition of the folly and injustice of playing God with people’s lives, even in an ostensibly good cause. It is surely a blessing that Christianity has moved on from this period and Catholics, in particular, should rejoice that we nowadays have popes who are emphatic in their denunciation of violence done in the name of religion.
Smithfield, happily, has changed for the better too. Today it is simply a great place to buy sausages.
This article first appeared in the June 9 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here