The Burning Time: Henry VIII, Bloody Mary, and the Protestant Martyrs of London

Written by Virginia Rounding
Review by Ann Chamberlin

As the subtitle suggests, this is the saga of the executions of dissidents from the birth of the future Mary I in 1516 until ten years after the coronation of her half-sister Elizabeth I in 1569, including a graphic description of what happens to a human body burned alive. Every martyr has his or her tale told with as much detail as the records allow. To my mind, more horrific still was the contemplation that Catholic and Protestant sometimes found themselves tied to the same hurdle on their way to the same fate. The man who became a monk in his youth could find his first choice of community and support stolen from him. He could then marry and have children as a Protestant priest, and before those children could toddle, have that life ripped from him as well.

Rather than the champion of the Protestant cause as he is often portrayed, Henry VIII comes across as very conservative for everyone’s power but his own. It appears clear that the Tudors launched our present modern post-religious world.

Even if your interest is in other historical periods, Rounding is worth reading for the parallels she draws to modern crises of authority. The invention of the printing press made “even” illiterate women suddenly demand to be allowed to fashion their own belief, as valid as any other. Just so, the modern internet encourages people to pick from the news feed according to their own natures rather than according to any authority. And though the author chooses to draw her parallels between the West and the suicide bombers of the Islamic state or the Anglican conflict around gay marriage, for my part, I couldn’t help but shiver at the United States’s post religious world suddenly so polarized between red and blue citizens, quite ready to kill one another at the toss of an election instead of the crowning of a monarch.