What must it have felt like to be burnt at the stake? Historical author Virginia Rounding has an idea, thanks to her new book about the Smithfield martyrs.
In the mid-16th century, during the reigns of Henry VIII and Mary I, Smithfield had a gruesome reputation. It was the place where people were brought to be burnt alive. Just outside the City walls yet still within its bounds, it was a convenient place in which to hold executions. There was space enough to erect viewing stands from which “the great and the good” could watch the spectacle. The burnings at the stake took place just outside the former Priory of St Bartholomew’s, the monastic church of which still survives, the oldest church in London: St Bartholomew the Great.
In 1849, during the excavation of a drain opposite the entrance to the churchyard, workmen found a heap of unhewn stones, “blackened as if by fire and covered with ashes”, and human bones “charred and partially consumed”. The people executed by being burnt at the stake were heretics – that is, they admitted to holding a belief or set of beliefs that the authorities of the time had declared to be heresy.
Most of them burnt at this time were early Protestants, followers of the teachings of Martin Luther. They were unfortunate in believing the wrong thing at the wrong time, and were variously brave, foolhardy, deluded, mad or saintly (depending as much perhaps on one’s point of view as on their individual circumstances) in not being prepared, unlike most of their contemporaries, to change their beliefs when threatened with fire.
Burnings typically took place on a wooden platform, on which the victims were bound to the stake by chains. Bundles of brushwood, rods and sticks tied together to form “faggots” were stacked around the victims’ legs, and the official in charge of the proceedings – sometimes the Lord Mayor – would cry “Fire the faggots!” and “‘Let justice be done!” as the signal for the executioner to light the pile of wood with a flaming torch.
The faggots were intended to kindle quickly to produce a short hot blaze, before flesh and body fat provided fuel for the fire. But every burning was different; if the fire caught, it could be over relatively quickly, but on damp days, or when the wind persisted in blowing the flames away from the body, it could take up to an hour for the person to die; an hour of excruciating agony.
There were burnings under Henry VIII (who, despite his opposition to the Pope, was no friend of the so-called “new learning”) but it was under Mary I that burning became a flagship policy, as she sought to bring the English back into conformity with Rome.
The first of the Protestants to be burnt during Mary’s reign was John Rogers, a prebendary of St Paul’s Cathedral who had also been vicar of the church of St Sepulchre- without-Newgate. His entire family – his wife and 11 children, including a baby – stood in the street to watch him being led by the sheriffs the short distance from Newgate prison to Smithfield. A crowd of supporters watched him burn, weeping and praying that God would give him courage to bear the pain. Even some of his Catholic opponents remarked that he had died “with heroic fortitude”.
He was the first of many, a total of 43 being burnt in Smithfield between February 1555 and June 1558. The burning policy singularly failed to eradicate Protestantism in England, and meant that Smithfield would forever be associated with the men and women who chose to go the flames rather than recant their beliefs.