Sunday, 29 April 2018


          'Neither life, honour, riches, neither whatsoever I possess here, which 

          appertaineth unto mine own private commodity, be it never so dearly 
          beloved of me, but most willingly and gladly I would leave it, to win 
          any man to Christ'

     This is the sort of earnest declaration we might associate with the evangelical revival of the eighteenth century or with the high rhetoric of a modern American evangelistic preacher. In fact, these words appear in a remarkable little book published exactly five hundred years ago. It was entitled The Lamentation of a Sinner and it is remarkable for several reasons: 

1.  It was published by a woman under her own name - a thing unheard of before that time. English women simply did not write books. Such a thing would have been considered a rejection of the divine ordering of society. Certainly, there were some earlier significant contributions to religious literature by the likes of Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich but they existed only in manuscript until later ages made them available to a wide public.

2.  It was an intense personal testimony of the writer's journey from formal religion - what she called 'dead, human, historical faith' - to the assurance of 'knowing Christ for my Saviour and Redeemer'.

3.   It was written (though not yet published) at a time when justification by faith was regarded as Lutheran heresy, punishable by death.

4.    It was written by the Queen of England.

For these reasons alone The Lamentation of a Sinner deserves its place in the library of Christian classics and should be better known.

The popular image of the author, Catherine Parr, is probably confined to the fact that she was the last of Henry VIII's six wives - the one who 'survived'. She does not register prominently in over-romanticised annals of Tudor court intrigue as one of the queens who flirted with danger by getting involved in politics. The traditional portrait of her is that of the dutiful wife who meekly nursed her irascible, overweight, semi-invalid husband during the last few years of his life. The reality is very different. Catherine was a feisty, attractive woman who, in the terms of the religious history of the age, was the most committed Protestant of all Henry's wives and did her cautious best to steer Henry further along the path of reform.

According to the story recorded by John Foxe in his Book of Martyrs, this was almost her undoing. Henry did not take kindly to being lectured by his wife on matters of religion, and the reactionary members of his Council saw this as an opportunity to accuse her of heresy and urge the king to authorise a thorough investigation and a search of her apartments for banned books. Catherine managed to escape the noose dangling before her (the full story is included in the, just published, The Queen and the Heretic) but it was a close run thing and one that C. J. Sansom's excellent fictionalisation, Lamentation, may well not have too much exaggerated.  Had Catherine gone the way of two of her queenly predecessors the course of the English Reformation could have been very different. It's one of the intriguing 'what-ifs' of British history.

What there is no doubt about - no doubt whatever - is Catherine Parr's commitment to the evangelical cause and her desire to do all in her power to further it.

Monday, 12 March 2018


            We are sickeningly accustomed to seeing bestial images of Syrian civilians being indiscriminately burned, gassed and shattered by ‘brave warriors’ pouring obliteration into homes, schools and hospitals from the security of aeroplanes and artillery vehicles. We hear the partisan rhetoric used to defend such acts by men who have no right to call themselves human. But, hideous though such long-range obscenities are, they come nowhere near the hand-to-hand vicious slaughter that raged throughout Central Europe during the conflict which began exactly four hundred years ago. The Thirty Years War was, without a shadow of doubt, the worst conflict in European history. Worse than the Second World War? Yes. Worse than the First World War? Yes. Worse than the Revolutionary and Napoleonic War? Yes. Just look at the stats. Between 1939 and 1945, sixty million people perished. Between 1618 and 1648 a mere seven and a half million died. But the fatalities of World War II represented 3.5% of the population of the nations involved. The combatant states of the Thirty Years War lost 35% of their populations, and in the German lands most affected the proportion was higher.
            But let’s leave the cold balance sheet of death from military action, disease and famine and talk about actual events such as the siege of Magdeburg. At dawn on 17 May, 1631, that fine city held some 30,000 inhabitants. By noon on the 20th that number had been reduced to 5,000, most of them women and children. The downfall of Magdeburg was the end result of strategic miscalculation and rivalries between commanders supposedly on the same side. The siege, by Catholic forces fighting for the Holy Roman Emperor, began on 20 March. The city held out doggedly. The imperial commander, Johann Count Tilly, called for reinforcements from his ‘colleague’, Albrecht von Wallenstein. But Wallenstein was fighting a personal war and was happy to see his rival getting into difficulties. The citizens, too, were looking for a saviour in the form of King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, leader of the Protestant forces. But he was also baulked by German princes who should have been his allies but who dallied over their response and prevented him coming to Magdeburg’s relief. The result was strategic stalemate, one of the worst things that could happen in seventeenth-century warfare. Idle armies rapidly became demoralised. More than that, they became resentful. And hungry. The majority of soldiers were conscripts, men plucked from the plough or prison or the ranks of unemployed vagabonds. The age of conscription was lowered as their conflict dragged on. Those African child soldiers drafted into modern wars had their counterparts in Europe 400 years ago. Tilly’s rag-tag army had little concern for ‘rules of engagement’. Their first and most desperate need was to survive. And that need became more urgent as the siege dragged on.
            When a false rumour that Gustavus Adolphus was advancing rapidly reached the besiegers, it panicked them into redoubling their efforts. They knew they had to take the city and commandeer all the food they could lay their hands on as soon as possible if they were to be in any shape to face the advancing Swedes. They had become little more than crazed animals who would do whatever was necessary to ensure their survival. On 17 May Tilly’s men began a fierce artillery bombardment. It went on, unsuccessfully, for more than two days. It was dawn on the 20th before a breach was, at last, made large enough for the desperate invaders to pour through.
            What followed was an orgy of killing, brutality, plunder and destruction on a scale that shocked the whole of Europe. Tilly’s troops swept through the city, completely out of control, mindlessly punishing a defenceless civilian population for their own sufferings. They broke into wine cellars and rapidly got drunk. Now they were not only savage beasts; they were insensible savage beasts, slaughtering every cowering man, woman or child they came across.
            Then came the fire. At the beginning of the onslaught, the imperialists had set fire to one of the city gates to stop it being closed again. Sparks were carried to the thatched roofs and timber-framed houses of the crammed streets. Within hours beautiful Magdeburg was in flames from one end to the other. The pile of smouldering ash took days to cool down and, when it did, the gaunt, blackened walls of the cathedral and a handful of other churches and public buildings stood like tombstones in a bleak, grey landscape. The city had to be rebuild almost from scratch. And the citizens? Their bodies lay piled in the streets. Survivors huddled together in groups for shelter, unwittingly spreading disease. There was no question of burying the dead. Eventually Tilly ordered all the remaining corpses to be thrown into the Elbe. For months afterwards the river was choked with putrid bodies.
            The siege of Magdeburg was one battle among many in this devastating war in which the Swedish army alone destroyed 1,500 German towns, 18,000 villages and 2,000 castles.
            2018 marks another anniversary. It is 80 years since one of the great historians of the twentieth century published the definitive and immensely readable history of the Thirty Years War. Dame Veronica Wedgewood’s verdict was unequivocal:
Morally subversive, economically destructive, socially degrading, confused in its causes, devious in its course, futile in its results, it is the outstanding example in European history of meaningless conflict.
            Only months after that was written, German troops marched into Poland. As we watch from the comfort of our armchairs the hideous events in Syria, we can comfort ourselves with the thought that we civilised Europeans would never do that sort of thing, can’t we?

Sunday, 14 January 2018


Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, SURVIVED, BUT ONLY JUST !

     When the chronicle of Henry VIII's ill-used wives is related, the one who gets little mention is Catherine Parr. In the popular imagination she often features as an unglamorous coda, a dowdy middle-aged nursemaid who - patiently and uncomplaining - tended the sick and corpulent tyrant through his last few years. In fact she was only 30 or 31 when she married the king. She was a passionate woman who understood - and used - the arts of sexual allure. She was feisty, knew her own mind and wrote about the things that were important to her (the first Englishwoman to do so under her own name). Through her writing and through the considerable influence she had on Henry VIII's children her beliefs and ideals long outlived her. As late as the eighteenth century the narrative of her own conversion was being quoted in evangelical circles. Catherine was prominent among a coterie of female intellectuals and religious devotees that included Marguerite of Navarre, Margaret More, Catherine Brandon, and Anne Bacon, among others. As such she had a greater impact (and thus is more important to history) than the more 'romantic' of the second Tudor's unfortunate bedfellows. Not that her position was any less fraught with potential danger than theirs. In 1546 she survived execution - BUT ONLY JUST.

     And this is where the other remarkable woman enters the story. Like Catherine, Anne Askew belonged to that 'middle class' of English society, the rural squirearchy. Her family was just one of the many that central government relied on to maintain law and order in the shires. Anne had relatives and friends in the royal court but, unlike Catherine, she was not destined for the glamorous life of a lady-in-waiting to one of Henry's queens. But she refused to be debarred from the exciting world of new ideas swirling around among the fashionable set in Renaissance and Reformation England. She could - and did - read avidly, opening her mind to unorthodox concepts. Somehow, this Lincolnshire maiden who should have had nothing more adventurous to contemplate than marriage to some neighbouring gentleman's son and a life of conventional domesticity carved a place for herself in the nation's history.  Married Anne was - but not for long. Her husband, Thomas Kyme, was not, as far as we know, a cruel man but he tried to inhibit the free spirit he had married. It was not her place, he insisted, to go around PREACHING, particularly when what she was broadcasting to any who would listen was heresy. When the tension reached breaking point Anne chose obedience to God - as she saw it - to obedience to her husband. She continued, and extended her scandalous 'gospelling', eventually ending up in London. There she associated with like-minded people of the capital and the court. There she was investigated for heresy. There she stood up for her beliefs when challenged even by the Bishop of London and members of the royal Council. There she was interrogated, tortured and condemned to death by burning. There she, like the queen, ventured into print, smuggling out accounts of her faith and her personal story which would eventually find their way into John Foxe's Book of Martyrs and become an inspiration to countless readers down the centuries.

     And this was where the stories of these two quite extraordinary women converged in a dramatic and historic crisis. The enemies of reform were determined to remove wife number six from the royal bedchamber, and the Stalinesque tyrant who, by this stage, trusted no-one, was not averse to having Catherine's 'heresies' pointed out to him. Anne Askew was the chief weapon in the plotters' arsenal. If they could prove the link between a convicted heretic and the Queen of England they could halt Reformation in its tracks. It was a technique that had worked before when they wanted rid of influential enemies. But they reckoned without the determination of Anne and the ingenuity of Catherine. What happened was ...

The Queen and the Heretic will be published on 23 March and advance orders may be placed now.