THE ghost of Rose Allin — water jug in hand — first attached herself to me when I was a child. The Chelmsford chapel I attended arranged a summer camp each year in Suffolk, and one afternoon, having crossed the boundary back into Essex, we visited the village of Great Bentley.
Together with a handful of other children and the adults taking charge, I crossed the village green — which, as its residents will tell you, is the largest in the country — and sat cross-legged on the grass.
After we’d sung grace, I suppose to the amusement of anyone passing by, we ate our sandwiches; and then one of the men handed each child a small pink leaflet. On the cover, in firm black lines, was a drawing of a woman’s hand held over a candle, and in large letters the name ROSE ALLIN.
I knew her story and her name, and had seen this image before, but never so enlarged: I almost thought by some transmission of suffering through the paper I could feel the flame on my skin.
Then I was asked to read the leaflet aloud. And though it is not in the least in keeping with the teachings of the chapel who brought her to me, I sometimes think that afternoon I summoned up Rose Allin, and that her spirit has never left my side.
She was born in 1537, in what was then known as Much Bentley. She lived with her mother Alice Mount, and her stepfather William, and hers was a Protestant family. But in 1553 the King suffered a disease of the lung, and a dreadful swelling in his legs, and having whispered to his tutor “I am glad to die,” departed the throne.
It was occupied then by Mary Tudor, whose avid determination to overturn the Reformation and return England to the fold of the Catholic Church caused Rose Allin and her family to become, more or less overnight, traitors to the Crown by virtue of their religion.
On 7 March 1557, which was the first Sunday in Lent, and at two o’clock in the morning, Rose and her family were woken by one Master Edmund Tyrrell. He brought with him a Bailiff of the Hundred, and two local constables
Alice Mount at that time was ill, and Rose asked if she might be given permission to fetch her a drink of water. As she returned — carrying in one hand a jug and in the other a candlestick — she was stopped by Master Tyrrell.
The penalty for a girl who insisted on treasonous practices such as the use of the Bible in English was, he reminded her, that she should be tied to a stake and burned alive. Then, as if it would hardly be possible for her to properly fear such an ending without material evidence of the forthcoming pain, he took from her the candlestick she was holding, gripped her by the wrist, and passed the flame over the back of her hand in the shape of a cross, until — so it was later said — “the very sinews cracked asunder”.
Rose was taken with her family to Colchester, and imprisoned in the castle built on the ground which Boudicca had laid waste. To a visiting friend, she said, “While my one hand was a burning, I, having a pot in my other hand, might have laid him on the face with it, if I had would; for no man held my hand to let me therein. But, I thank God, with all my heart, I did it not.”
BUT I would not like you to think that Rose was compliant, or that she lacked courage. She had the capacity for impertinence and anger, and on being asked her opinion of the seven Catholic sacraments retorted with marvellous Essex girl vulgarity that they “stank in the face of God”.
Having been despatched soon after back to her cell, she was heard to be singing. Then, on 7 August 1557, at some time between six and seven in the morning, Rose Allin — an Essex girl just out of her teens, whom nobody could persuade that any man or any authority had the power to make her act against her conscience and her will — was taken to a piece of hard ground by Colchester’s city wall, tied to a stake with her mother and her stepfather, and burned alive.
As a child on Great Bentley village green, I handed back the leaflet from which I’d read aloud, and was conscious of some alteration in my mind. I’d been brought up in a chapel which was led by men, and directed by men, and I was taught to cover my hair when I worshipped, because this was a sign of deference both to men and to God.
From that chapel pulpit and in those chapel pews only men were ever heard to pray, or to speak, or to read aloud from the Bible; I was, I’d been led to understand, not precisely an inferior being by virtue of my gender, but certainly a different one, and that difference required me to be obedient to men, and to hold my tongue in church.
That I’d been born a girl seemed to me a profound misfortune. I was taller and stronger than the few boys I knew, and if not cleverer I certainly thought I was: was I really to be pliant, and acquiescent, when this ran so counter to my nature?
I looked at the drawing of Rose Allin’s hand held above the candle, and thought that perhaps after all I needn’t always do as I was told.
It is difficult to comprehend the magnitude of Rose Allin’s defiance without first grasping the significance not only of her desire to worship as her conscience directed, but to read the Bible in English, an act which was itself an offence.
The King James Bible — battered copies of which may be bought by the dozen in any high street charity shop, at the cost of a pound or two — is a radical political text.
It represents an act of dissent against an oppressive state, furnishing ordinary men and women with the means to equip themselves with a degree of knowledge which had been until then the preserve of the ruling classes — and it has always been in the interests of an oppressive government to keep the people in a state of ignorance.
The depth and profundity of Rose Allin’s faith, and the idea that a mere abstraction held value higher than her own life, is beyond comprehension to the contemporary secular imagination, but hers is not only a quaint tale of antique self-abnegation.
She remains an animating force, and a reminder that one need not be particularly equipped with education or status to set one’s face against injustice. Solitary acts may seem to count for nothing against whatever engines of state or structure grind down the collective and the individual, but radical political acts need not be of the scale or type that results in a memorial on a village green.
If Rose Allin these days would pass unnoticed and unoppressed — a white girl and a Christian, irritated perhaps by the mockery of her birthplace, but no more — for oppressed communities the mere act of existence is radical.
The Black poet and philosopher Audre Lorde — who identified herself as “a dyke”, defusing and empowering the pejorative by adopting it, and whose Cancer Journals share a sensibility with Martineau’s Life in the Sick-Room — wrote: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence. It is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
This is an edited extract from Essex Girls: For profane and opinionated women everywhere by Sarah Perry, published by Serpent’s Tail at £7.99 (Church Times Bookshop £7.20); 978-1-78816-745-1 (hardback). Also available as an ebook and audiobook for £7.99.