Hidden in the northern suburbs of Oxford are the last traces of a path first trodden by multitudes of country folk hurrying to see the burning of the Protestant martyrs Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley on October 16, 1555, and trudging home afterward.
For some years I lived very close to this track, and after dark I would imagine all those figures bustling past in their gray-and-brown homespun, their hands hard as oak from work in the fields, and wonder whether they had gone to cheer or to mourn, and whether they had seen what they expected to see.
They certainly had not seen what the authorities hoped they would see. The monarch who had ordered Latimer and Ridley burned alive, poor unhappy Queen Mary, has a good claim to the title of founder of the Church of England. Without her dogged and stupid persecutions, I doubt very much that this ramshackle, leaky, doctrinally vague old craft would ever have floated at all. It doesn't work in theory--only in practice, like so many English things. Nothing has ever bound it together half so firmly as these gruesome human bonfires, rather obviously encouraged by Mary's consort, Philip of Spain.
For about four hundred years, the memory of this era made Englishness and Protestantism almost synonymous. Right down to my father's Edwardian generation, only recently extinct, many English people equated popery with tyranny and foreign autocracy. Still in my childhood Queen Mary was referred to as "Bloody Mary" in the presence of children--a shocking thing, since "bloody" was also in those days a swear word of some power, taboo in polite society. We were taught to remember Latimer's last words to his fellow victim: "Play the man, Master Ridley, and by God's good grace we shall this day light such a candle in England as may never be put out." I have written that from memory, and if it varies from the Dictionary of Quotations version, I don't care. The point is, it is lodged in my memory, sixty years after I learned it. See how it embodies the central English Protestant virtues of stoical courage and manly virtue, with a flicker of grim humor at the heart of it. A candle, indeed. These religious barbecues roared fifty feet into the sky, presumably punctuated by screams, and they scorched the woodwork of neighboring buildings. At Balliol College in Oxford, they still keep their old front gate with the burn marks on it from that unforgotten day.
Several times a week, I ride my bicycle past the spot in the middle of the city where Latimer and Ridley were incinerated. It is not to be confused with the nineteenth-century Martyrs' Memorial, a pinnacled steeple of paradoxically Catholic appearance, which stands round the corner and bears the sectarian inscription:To the Glory of God, and in grateful commemoration of Elis servants, Thomas Cranmer, Nicholas Ridley, Hugh Latimer, Prelates of the Church of England who near this spot yielded their bodies to be burned, bearing...