Burning at the stake

 Both Catholics and Protestants had their martyrs but execution by burning at the stake was a punishment normally inflicted for heresy and witchcraft. The method was first approved for use against heretics by the Synod of Verona in 1184 and subsequently confirmed by the Lateran Council of 1215 and the Synod of Toulouse in 1229. In 1401  King Henry IV authorised the first actual statute in English law against heresy - De Heretico Comburendo, (Henry IV,c.15)  which gave the clergy power to arrest and try those suspected of heresy. The Act  condemned "divers false and perverse people of a new sect; they make unlawful conventicles, they hold and exercise schools, and make and write books." By this Act, the lives of the subjects were put under the control of the bishops, who got power to fine and imprison all heretics, and all possessors of heretical books, while obstinate and lapsed heretics were handed over to the sheriff, to be burned at once, ‘in a high place before the people, that they might take salutary warning.’ The Act bears the title—‘The Orthodoxy of the Faith of the Church of England asserted, and provision made against oppugners of the same, with the punishment of hereticks.’  Penalties had been inflicted on heretics previously but the punishment was only occasional, and often the civil law intervened. But, now, a simple decree of a bishop sufficed to send a man or woman to the stake. The accusation of heresy became sufficiently elastic to bring within it a considerable variety of offenders for simply being different or daring to think for themselves.

The Act was aimed at the Lollards who were gaining popularity and in 1401 one of their number, William Sawtrey, originally from Kings Lynn, Norfolk, was tied to the stake and burnt on the direct order of the king.  The statute was repealed in 1553, but in 1555 three acts against heretics were revived one from 1194 in Richard II reign; one from Henry IV and one from 1416 in Henry V reign. Burning was re-introduced by Henry VIII but it was his daughter, the Catholic Mary Tudor ("Bloody Mary"), who  took it to an excess with 274 burnings of both sexes for heresy  during her five year reign of terror. In most cases their only "crime" was following the Protestant faith, but then even saying a prayer that reflected against Mary Tudor was treason and death.

In Scotland there were the burning of a number of Protestant believers as far back as James Resby, a follower of John Wickliffe in 1407. Resby challenged the Pope`s claim to rule Christendom as the Vicar of Christ and insisted on personal holiness as a condition of Papal office. In 1433 Paul Craw, or Crawar, a Bohemian physician, was burnt at St Andrews. McCrie  in Sketches of Church History  tells of 30 persons of gentility who were accused of heretical sympathies in 1494 but were let off with an admonishment when they, through having had an education, argued against their accusers. There were others of nobility and education who were not so fortunate notably Patrick Hamilton (28 February 1527), George Wishart (1 March 1546), and Walter Mill (28 April 1558). In the seventeenth century there were far more burnings for witchcraft (over a thousand - some eighty per cent of these were women) than for heresy.

 The method of execution is graphically described in The Scots Worthies and was often accompanied by awe inspiring declarations of innocence, faith and courage. But not all died the same way. The common witch was piled about with faggots and bound to the stake, she was then normally strangled to death before burning. Only in the worst cases was the cause of death  a combination of carbon monoxide poisoning produced by the fire, and a period of excruciating pain from the flames and heat. In 1552 William Gardiner was executed while in Portugal where he was trussed up and lowered into the flames - an especially slow and painful death. The Scottish martyrs were possibly better treated in that their death was aided by tying bags of gunpowder to the body and a cord tied round the neck. The cord about the neck was originally intended, by Catholic doctrine, to throttle the prisoner before burning but it seemed to become more of a means of shutting off the the dying words and perhaps the screams of burning. Whether it was also deliberately used as an aid to death is uncertain (they were cruel times and suffering and death was the objective), but drawn tightly by the executioner as the flames gathered force it would have contributed to asphyxiation.

 It is illustrative of the times and the malice of the clergy that they would go to extreme lengths to get their way. Patrick Hamilton was related to King James V of Scotland and had a very eminent lineage.  He wrote a fulsome work which he called “Patrick`s Places”  in which he defended Protestant views and listed some fifteen `Errors and Absurdities of the Papists`. His forthright views made him a target for the priests and he was eventually declared a heretic and burnt at the stake. His lineage was of little help to him once the Church had their grips on him. 

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