The 31 October 1517 saw the beginnings of the Protestant Reformation thanks to the publication of Martin Luther’s 95 theses, a set of assertions on what Luther believed were the biggest abuses of the Roman Catholic Church. One of the main abuses he wrote on was the sale of indulgences, a method of shortening one’s time in purgatory – although Luther himself was a monk, as well as a professor of theology, he found himself believing more and more that it was faith alone rather than the so-called ‘good works’ of those who followed the Catholic Church that led to God’s Grace, and his beliefs prompted him to write his theses which led to him locking horns with the Catholic Church and the Papacy over his work.
Luther ended up being excommunicated by Pope Leo X after he refused to refute 41 of his 95 theses. He was announced as a heretic and an outlaw with it being made a crime for anyone in Germany to shelter Luther.
In my own work, I have found it particularly interesting that Luther actually drew many of his views from Girolamo Savonarola who was an early Church reformer burned for his ‘heresy’ in 1498 – Luther read Savonarola’s works and declared him a ‘martyr’ as well as a forerunner to his own views.
Reformist ideas may have been around for a time before Luther published his theses, traditionally said to have been nailed to a church door on the fateful 31st October, but it was this document that truly came to shake up the religious world at the time.
I like many others, spent this past weekend watching the highly anticipated BBC drama “Gunpowder”, the story of the infamous 1605 plot to blow up King and Parliament by a group of over-zealous Catholics. It was a programme that I had been looking forward to for a very long time, having long had an interest in the Seventeenth Century thanks to my undergraduate work on the Battlefield Archaeology of the English Civil War – but my interest in this era goes beyond the bloody conflict of the 1640’s. Religious persecution was rampant in these times and life itself was incredibly violent – if you were convicted of treason, then you would be condemned to the most brutal death imaginable. If you were convicted of heresy, you would be condemned. Life was brutal. Executions were a public event.
Yet I was surprised to see earlier on, as I was perusing the news, complaints towards the BBC that the programme had been ‘too violent’ and that people couldn’t stomach the gore. Bearing in mind that the programme was on after the 9pm watershed and even had a warning at the start…what on earth did people expect? Life in the Seventeenth Century was kittens and rainbows – all you need to do is pick up a history book on the era to see that. It felt to me as I was reading about the complaints that people wanted to see the story of the Gunpowder plot through rose tinted glasses, to see a version of it that didn’t involve the gruesome executions that were so, so important in both sparking the rising and ending the lives of those who took part.
In this modern day and age it’s easy to distance yourself from the violent way of life that our ancestors lived in. But just a few hundred years ago, public executions were a public spectacle somewhat akin to watching an episode of Eastenders. It was a way of making sure that the populace were aware what would happen if you were caught out as being a criminal – and the very worst methods of death were meted out to those convicted of treachery against the Crown and the Nation.
Hanging, drawing and quartering. The very words are enough to send a shiver down your spine and set your imagination running wild. And it involved precisely what it said on the tin – you would be hung by the neck until almost dead, your internal organs would be drawn out and the body then cut into pieces. One can only imagine the sheer agony that the condemned went through, only to then have their body parts displayed about the land as a warning to others. Yes, it was brutal. Yes, it was gory. But it was the way things were back then. But in my eyes, and in the eyes of other historians, it was done in a way that showed the viewer what life was like back then – it didn’t turn a world full of religious persecution and severe brutality into a pompous costume drama full of romance. Rather it shattered the rose tinted view that so many these days have of the time, introducing them to a world that was much more violent in many ways than the world we live in today.
There are plenty of examples of brutalities from the past – execution by hanging, drawing and quartering is just one of them. What of stories of being broken on the wheel? What of condemned men being boiled alive or sawn in half? We must realise that history is full of such tales and that historical drama series are well within their rights, and wholly justified in showing such violent methods of death. It was the way the things were and we, as viewers, have the right to see authentic depictions of just how the world worked.
On Saturday just gone, my partner and I took the short train journey to spend an evening in the beautiful city of Winchester. I’d booked tickets a while back for the BBC History Weekend, particularly to hear Ian Mortimer and Janina Ramirez – we don’t talk about how I missed out for tickets to see Dan Jones, it’s still a bit of a sore point how quickly it sold out. At any rate, we arrived with just enough time to have a spot of dinner – the place we wanted to go didn’t start serving food until later so we decided on an Italian…an Italian that served me with a fish bowl of wine and plate of incredibly spicy pasta arabbiata.
The first talk, held within the Great Hall of what was once Winchester Castle, started at 6pm and was headed by Dr. Ian Mortimer, author of the fantastic “Time Travellers Guide” series of books. This talk concentrated on his latest book about Restoration England. Mortimer gave an A-Z of Restoration life, a step by step guide as it were as to what you could expect if you were to find yourself living in Charles II’s England. And it was brilliantly done. We learned to take long johns with us because of the freakishly cold weather, toothpaste because rotten teeth could lead to death (!) and to take plenty of antibiotics! As well as that Mortimer told us of death rates, what you could expect to eat and drink, the cost of tea and the promiscuity of…well, everyone.
As I’ve long had a soft spot for the Seventeenth Century (thank you battlefield archaeology of the English Civil War), I found Mortimer’s talk to be both interesting and enlightening. He was an absolute pleasure to listen to, really bringing to life just what you could expect if you woke up one morning in 1660.
After Mortimer has finished speaking I went and had my copy of “The Time Travellers Guide to Restoration England” signed, a brief chat with him and a picture before finding a seat at the front ready for Janina Ramirez’s talk. With an hour and a quarter to kill, I had a bit of a wander around the Great Hall before settling down to wait.
The small stage upon which the speakers gave their talks was set in front of the iconic Round Table. The HUGE round table dates to the mid thirteenth century although the paint work that covers it today was a later Tudor edition and depicts Henry VIII in the seat of King Arthur. Whilst I was at University in Winchester I did a project on this fascinating table – would you believe that during the English Civil War, Parliamentarian soldiers used it as target practice?!
Dr Janina Ramirez took to the stage at 8.15pm and I have to admit I was SERIOUSLY looking forward to hearing her speak. Ramirez has long been an inspiration of mine and I knew that her talk on “Reformation or Revolution – The Death of the Medieval World?” would be utterly brilliant. From the moment Ramirez started to speak she exuded complete enthusiasm for her subject, holding the attention of her audience through every second of her lecture. This is the mark of a brilliant historian and public speaker – pulling your audience in and holding their interest throughout is absolutely key. And the subject of her lecture was much closer to my current interests and specialisms – as you all know, my latest book is a brief history of Savonarola and it is my viewpoint that he was one of the key players in Church reform. And his works influenced Martin Luther who was one of the key players in the Protestant Reformation. So it’s all linked together.
What I found particularly uplifting was hearing Ramirez tell the crowd that there was more to the English Reformation than just Anne Boleyn. It was SO nice to hear when so many people are still of the opinion that Anne Boleyn was the driving force behind it all. She wasn’t. There was a myriad of factors including the spread of reformist ideas from Europe, corruption, the belief that monks were taking liberties….the list goes on and on and on. What we have to remember as well is that although Henry VIII and his advisors began the English Reformation, Henry VIII died a Catholic. He wasn’t protestant. Indeed, the idea that monarchs should only be protestant only really came into play after James I. It was all very interesting stuff and certainly eye-opening, especially when you realise just how much the monasteries did for the communities they were in before they were dissolved.
I’d brought a copy of Ramirez’s book on Julian of Norwich with me and following her talk I went up to get it signed. One of the first things she said to me was that she loved my tattoos and when I pointed out that the newest one was the Borgia coat of arms, she said “That’s what I was getting at when I mentioned about powerful Popes!” I also gave her a copy of my new book which, I have to admit, was one hell of a moment for me – she flicked through it and said she was really looking forward to reading it. We had a lovely chat, briefly talking about Savonarola before we had to get away for our train home – that and I was feeling slightly guilty about keeping the line held up for so long!
All in all, a lovely evening was had all around and I was very impressed with BBC History for putting on this brilliant event. The tickets were excellent value for money and I shall certainly be looking to go again next year.