Late one summer afternoon, when I was perhaps 9 or 10, I found myself kneeling in the long grass of an Essex village common. It was towards the end of one of the chapel camping holidays we had each year, and with me were a dozen other children and those looking after us. I don’t recall the name of the village, only that we’d walked a long way, and fetched up there in the last of the day’s sun to remember the Colchester martyrs.
Hardly anyone thinks of them now, so that I find it hard to convey how significant a part of my youth was devoted to the commemoration of the 284 women and men burned alive during the reign of Mary Tudor. Essex saw so many pyres that it’s studded all over with modest granite memorials or blue plaques fixed to what are now cafés or shoe-shops, and I could often be found standing in my father’s shadow as he preached in their memory to Saturday shoppers passing by.
There on the village green someone handed me a leaflet and asked me to read aloud. On the cover was a drawing of a slender wrist held by a gloved hand; beneath the wrist was a candle held close. I began to read a story familiar to me: the account given in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs of the torture of the Protestant Rose Allen. I remember how bright and still it was, and how relieved I felt that no one passing by wondered what we were doing, and drew near enough to hear the child reading how the young Rose, bringing a jug of water to her mother, was found by an interrogator in her own home; how he took her candle and moved it back and forth across her hand in the form of a cross until the tendons audibly cracked; and how later she thanked God she’d kept her temper, and not brought the jug down on her tormentor’s head.
John Foxe was born in 1516, and after a studious youth took up a post as ‘Lecturer of Logic’ at Brasenose College, Oxford. He resigned on becoming a Protestant, pursuing his faith and conscience by writing in opposition to
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