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The Burning Time by Virginia Rounding

02 June 2017

Steve Tomkins on the Tudor tribulations and their avoidance

The Burning Time: The story of the Smithfield martyrs

Virginia Rounding

Macmillan £20


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ELIZABETHAN London, having Shakespeare, the Church of England, and the pound, is close enough to home for us that it may come as a shock to realise that people were burned alive there for their crimes of heresy.

Virginia Rounding surveys this phenomenon in the Tudor period, and asks why such alien behaviour was possible among people so closely connected to our own culture. Her story, however, despite the title, is not very tightly focused on the martyrdoms themselves, but, rather, on the religious and political vicissitudes of the era, which pro­vide the context for the burnings.

Rounding tells the story of these vicissitudes by following the lives of two men who flourished throughout the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI, and Mary: Richard Rich and John Deane.

Rich was Lord Chancellor under both Edward and Mary, a hard-nosed politician and torturer (though Rounding disputes the evi­dence for the latter), who persecuted Protest­ants for Henry’s and Mary’s re­­gimes, and yet helped to dissolve the monasteries and promoted Edward’s Reformed policies. He is best-known for betraying his fellow tor­turer Thomas More in his quest for power and place, though he did the same to More’s nemesis, Cromwell.

Deane is a more likeable kind of survivor, the first Rector of St Bar­tho­lomew’s in Smithfield. He was appointed to the post by Rich on the dissolution of the priory there, and continued throughout four liturgical upheavals into Elizabeth’s reign. But little is known about Deane.

It is an unexpected choice to tell the story of the Tudor martyrs through the stories of individuals who lacked their convictions. It keeps the reader at some distance from the drama and the heroism of the martyr’s achievements. But Rounding is very aware of how hard it is for the average reader to identify with those who choose to die for religion; so identifying with those who chose to survive is perhaps more realistic.

© Martin dudleyHard-nosed: Richard Rich in effigy on his monument, by Epiphanius Evesham, in Felsted Parish Church, Essex. From the bookRounding considers what made our Tudor ancestors ready to kill and die for their religious differ­ences, and her answer is that they took religion very seriously and had utter con­­fidence in life after death. This must be part of the answer — though I find it hard to believe Rich had an ever-present sense of eternal destiny. But another essential element was the state Church. If the Church is a state, religion is the law, and dissent is a political and social threat. It was only those, such as the Anabaptists, who rejected that model of church who refused to persecute; they took religion seriously and believed in life after death, and so died for their faith, but, unlike Anglicans, puritans, and Catholics, did not have an ec­­­clesio­l­ogy that made them kill for it.

Understanding these differences is, I think, essential to fully grasping the reason why every Tudor monarch burned heretics.


Dr Tomkins is editor of Reform.

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