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.

Monday, 23 October 2017

95 THESES - So What?

One of the multitudinous uses to which people put the internet is to remind us of significant anniversaries - births, deaths, battles, treaties, etc., etc. Fine - but that word 'significant' does need unpacking. It might reflect the passion of the person who posts it. So, for example, someone emotionally engaged with the tragic life of Anne Boleyn might want to flag up 19 May every year so that we don't forget her death. Someone else - a devotee of Richard III or the Tudor regime - might want us to reflect on 22 August, when (in 1485) the Battle of Bosworth change England's royal dynasty. A campaigner for press freedom might want us never to forget that 1 January marks the birth of The Times newspaper (1785). We can all use dates as pegs on which to hang our own pet historical subjects. What no serious history buff would do, I hope, is to claim that all the anniversaries we mark are equally significant. One factor that influences our assessment of significance is the extent to which the events we choose to mark in the calendar resonate with our own contemporary culture. One anniversary almost upon us is Reformation 500. On 31 October 1517 Martin Luther openly declared his opposition to certain doctrines held by the Roman Catholic church. Well, how yawn-provoking is that? Who nowadays, in our secular age, cares a jot about Luther's protest against indulgences - assuming that he/she even knows what indulgences were?

Well, my argument for remembering 31 October 1517 arises immediately from that last sentence: the very fact that we are free to believe or not believe derives directly from Luther's challenge. Or to be more precise it stems from his identifying of a scepticism that was widespread but which no-one else had the courage (or effrontery) to express. Europe, in both its political and religious aspects, was government by autocrats working through hierarchies of power. In practical, everyday terms there was little difference between the rulers of church and state. The pope through his supporting cast of cardinals, bishops and abbots laid down Christendom's moral and theological rules and maintained ecclesiastical courts to enforce them. The Holy Roman Emperor and Europe's kings, princes and nobles controlled the civic lives of their subjects. By and large, it paid for the spiritual and temporal authorities to work in tandem. Cardinals' hats were distributed to members of prominent families. Kings negotiated such issues as the right to appoint bishops. All men in positions of authority shared a common fear - rebellion. 

When established powerful elites maintain themselves by controlling people's minds and crushing dissidents, they can get away with it for so long. In the late medieval period the Catholic machine dealt pretty effectively with Waldensians, Hussites, Wycliffites and other heretical groups who presumed to challenge official doctrine. Ordinary folk tempted to question the Church's lexis or praxis were held in check, not only by the temporal power of the papal hierarchy, but by its spiritual authority: step out of line and you would pay, in the next world, a horrible price for your presumption. But, ultimately, totalitarian regimes collapse under the weight of their own inconsistencies.

In Rome corruption had become an art form. The man wearing the shoes of the fisherman presided over a regime marked by territorial ambition and the pursuit of power and wealth, which employed intrigue, simony, nepotism, bribery, war and murder as its modi operandi. But you didn't have to go to Italy to be aware of the mismatch between the message of the Christian gospel and the lives of many who were supposed to represent it. The forthright Yorkshire shearman who asserted that he would not confess to a priest his seduction of a fair woman, 'for the priest would be as ready within two or three days to use her in the same manner', struck a common chord with many. Scepticism and cynicism were rife at all levels of society by the turn of the 16th century, from the outspoken villager, to the writers of such exposés as The Ship of Fools (Sebastian Brant) and In Praise of Folly (Desiderius Erasmus), to genuinely concerned churchmen like John Colet, Dean of St Paul's, who castigated his fellow clergy for being 'drowned in the delights of this world'. Yet, few men dared to challenge the pope and his minions as long as they were believed to hold the keys of heaven and hell.

On 31 October 1517 Martin Luther proclaimed, 'They don't'. His 95 Theses yanked the rug from under Catholic penitential ritual. He exposed the system of 'indulgences' for the money-making fraud that it was. Gullible people, he pointed out, could not improve their chances of reaching heaven by buying certificates offering reduction of the time their souls must spend in purgatory. What God had on offer, he declared, was free forgiveness to those who expressed their love for him by real repentance - i.e. a change of heart. He was soon backing this up with a new German translation of the Bible. Within a decade other vernacular versions of the Christian basic text were available all over Europe. Now people could read for themselves what the Church had on offer and decide whether or not to buy into it.

If freedom of choice in such a vital matter as eternal destiny was available, why might not such liberty be exercised in relation to lesser decisions in the mere here-and-now? The door was open, admittedly only ajar but open nevertheless, for the exercise of freedom in other areas of life - politics, social relationships, art, literature, morality. Martin Luther didn't invent individualism but, on 31 October 1517 it may be said to have come of age. That's why, whether we are 'religious' or not, this date is worth celebrating.
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