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Series 61 - Episode 5

Persecutors and martyrs - the In Our Time newsletter

Friday 19 November 2010, 11:14

Melvyn Bragg Melvyn Bragg

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The Examinations of Anne Askew

Editor's note: another edition of Melvyn Bragg's In Our Time newsletter, a communication written weekly, right after the live Thursday morning transmission. Details of how to get the newsletter delivered to your inbox are at the bottom - SB

I don't know what the ethics are about saying "it's great" about a programme in which you've taken part. But I thought that the three contributors this morning had got over not only an immense amount of information about Foxe's Book of Martyrs, which for two centuries at least was one of the dominating books in our culture, second only to the King James Bible, but they had achieved a level of transferring the passion felt in the 16th century to a rather cold London studio in 2010. The Tudors must have bewildered their congregations with regard to religion.

To be uprooted, re-rooted, tossed aside, reclaimed, burnt, tortured, dismissed, told to read different texts, their saints destroyed, their saints propped up again, walls whitewashed, walls painted again ... I thought that came over. We didn't quite emphasise what a very good man Foxe himself was. He seems not to have sought any financial advantage from his book or any preferment in his career.

Afterwards Elizabeth Evenden told us that she had written biographies of the 2,238 people who had participated in the Marian martyrdoms. These included not only those who were burnt, but also their persecutors, their defences, their witnesses, their judges... it had taken her six years and she had spent most of that time in Lambeth Palace, because it was the only place where she could get the full, necessary editions of the Book of Martyrs side by side. Considering that one of them was over 2,000 pages long and the others not so far behind, it makes you realise that a scholar's work has an aspect of labouring to it.

She is bringing out a book in January on the making of Foxe's Book of Martyrs. While we're talking about books (there's a blanket ban on talking about contributors' own books in the programme) it would be only fair to mention Diarmaid MacCulloch's wonderful A History of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, which has been invaluable to me as I've been putting together my own book over the last year or two.

Justin Champion is working on Hobbes and has discovered that Hobbes, towards the end of his life, wrote ten essays on natural philosophy which have not been recognised or worked on before. This is like a gold prospector finding the great seam. Hobbes is still underrated. What he wrote predated a lot of what Spinoza wrote (Spinoza seems to have recognised this). He fell out with the Royal Society. He tended to fall out with a lot of people. He was a notoriously mean man and only had one overcoat all his life until the last two years when he bought a new one. He must have felt that he'd made a bad purchase with only two years' wear out of it. He died aged 90. He used to sing loudly in his bed before he went to sleep because he'd been told that that would protract his life.

I'm afraid I have sadly to bring to an end any more comments on the puppy in the office. Poland Street is now beset by puppyrazzi who are very dogged in the attentions they are paying to this beautiful little dog. I refuse to reveal his name because his privacy must be respected. He has the most wonderful long ears and is black and white and I may return to him in a year's time.

Only the unicorn has aroused a similar sort of interest. The puppy and the unicorn proved to be too toxic a mix for some of our readers. So I'm dropping the puppy and leaving the unicorn to be undiscovered in Mallorca.

Melvyn Bragg is presenter of In Our Time

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    Comment number 1.

    A stimulating and interesting programme on the impact and veracity of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, though a couple of aspects appeared to be somewhat indulgent towards the ascendancy of the protestant narrative of the English hierarchy from the 16th century onwards.

    Most of her subjects would have been nonplussed by Melvyn’s description of Mary Tudor as a “rabid Catholic”, with its clichéd ‘Bloody Mary’ overtones of the religious maniac of Whig demonology, and so should we, if only in view of the fact that Henry VIII, the ‘good King Hal’ who broke with Rome, had 72,000 of his subjects executed compared to less than 300 during Mary’s reign. Of course, the killing of adversaries by the state was hardly extraordinary anywhere in the 16th century, and a more objective reading of history shows that Mary was comparatively merciful: as one of the programme’s contributors was briefly able to attest, burnings in her reign began in earnest when particular forms of Protestantism became synonymous with treason, as Roman Catholicism would be under Elizabeth.

    Moreover, the protestant reign of the half-sister who succeeded her, ‘good Queen Bess’, who reaped the political profits from targeting every parish church in the land with a government-sponsored copy of Foxe’s dedicated propaganda, was, on a scale comparable to their father’s, arguably more of a chip off the old tyrant’s block: not only were Catholic ‘recusants’ (for whom gruesome new forms of torture and killing were devised) routinely arrested and executed, but following the 1569 Northern Rebellion, Elizabeth ordered that a man was to be hanged in every village associated with the rebellions.

    Throwaway epithets, like the derogatory “sidekick” to describe the assistant to Mary’s Catholic cardinal, and a couple of exhortations which appeared to encourage validation of even Foxe’s more blatant representations of ‘this truth’ of ‘humanist scholarship’ by a ‘very good historian’, left this listener with the unfortunate impression that, even in our time, here was a history still seemingly being dictated by the winners.

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    Comment number 2.

    This was a great programme with excellent guests. It was news to me that Henry VIII by the end of his reign had started to persecute Protestants, and that during the reign of his successor, Edward, the persecution of Catholics, under the direction of Thomas Cranmer, became more widespread and severe.

    Elizabeth Evenden's account of a pregnant women being burned by the Catholic Church for not attending church is something that I am unlikely ever to forget. I know that innocent people have suffered much at the hands of Christians, but who came up with the idea of using wet wood to slow cook people rather than quickly burn them?


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