Rawlins White goes to the stake

The reign of Henry VIII was significant for many reasons, not least the break from Rome. This abandoning of Catholicism and the creation of the Anglican Church - fuelled by nothing more than Henry's need to sire a son - ushered in a period of religious and social discord that, ultimately, lasted for over 100 years.

Henry's religious settlement was, at best, a lukewarm affair. His interest was not theology, only to secure the Tudor succession, but during the short and tempestuous reign of that son, Edward VI, the Protestant religion was firmly established in Britain. So when, after Edward's death in July 1553, the Catholic Mary Tudor came to the throne it was clear that great troubles lay ahead.

Mary quickly re-established the Catholic religion, re-introducing the Catholic mass and requiring everyone to acknowledge the authority of the Pope in Rome. Committed Christians, many of whom had only really known the Protestant religion, were faced with a terrible dilemma - a dreadful death, burnt at the stake for failing to recant, or the death of their immortal souls for accepting a creed in which they did not believe.

During Mary's reign nearly 300 people were burnt, including 55 women and a number of children. Many more died in prison whilst awaiting trial or execution.

The queen's revenge touched everyone, rich or poor alike. Archbishop Cranmer, architect of Henry's religious reformation, was one of them. And so, too, was a poor fisherman from Cardiff, by the name of Rawlins White.

White was executed on 30 March 1555, the fire that took his life being built outside Bethany Church in the centre of Cardiff. The site of the old church is now occupied by James Howells Department Store; a plaque on one interior wall of the shop marks the spot where White breathed his last.

Rawlins White was a fisherman who had little reading and probably spoke only Welsh. However, he was extremely religious and with the aid of one of his sons read the Holy Scriptures every night.

He was also profoundly influenced by the itinerant preachers who travelled the country and regularly came to Cardiff during the reigns of Henry and Edward. He certainly had a good memory and happily passed on the stories and doctrines that had been given to him by these preachers.

Once Mary had instituted her reforms, the Bishop of Llandaff, now strongly Catholic once again, tried to prevent Rawlins White from talking to the people - preaching to them would be too strong a word. White refused to stop, believing he was doing God's work. And, more importantly, he refused to accept the authority of the Bishop in Rome.

Faced by such a refusal, the Bishop had little alternative, although it has to be asked if, over time, White's nuisance value would simply have gone away. Rawlins White was arrested and imprisoned, first, at Chepstow and then in Cardiff Castle. He languished there for a year, the authorities clearly hoping he would change his mind and recant his Protestant views. The Cardiff fisherman did nothing of the sort.

Eventually, White was sent to a prison in Cardiff called the Cockmarel where conditions were at best primitive, at worst appalling. He still refused to recant and was eventually convicted of heresy and of spreading such heresy to others. His fate was to be burnt alive.

On 30 March 1555 White was conducted to the site of execution. He was escorted by many soldiers and apparently commented that they were not needed; he was not proposing to go anywhere. He showed no fear as he was chained to the stake but asked the jailers to make sure that the chain was tight in case his flesh was weak once the flames began. As preparations continued, White carefully arranged the wood and straw around his body in order that the flames should do their work as quickly as possible.

He wept when he saw his wife and children in the crowd but not once did he show signs or give any indication that he recanted his views.

The fire was lit, to cries of "Burn him, let the fire be lit" from the hundreds of watchers. It must have been a terrible death, the pain and anguish only too easy to imagine. White's legs burned quickly and his body slumped forward over the chain into the fire. Whether or not he was already dead will never be known.

Rawlins White was one of only two Welsh heretics burnt at the stake during the reign of Bloody Mary. The other was Robert Farrar, Bishop of St David's, who died on exactly the same day in Carmarthen.

The two executions mark an appalling and dreadful period in Welsh and British history when religion and the belief of many were used and abused to further the ends of the state and of those with the ultimate power - the power of life and death over their fellow men.


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