Sunday, December 19, 2010

Protestant meets Catholic on the way to Smithfield

The metynge of Doctor Barons and doctor Powell at Paradise gate [and] of theyr communications bothe drawen to Smithfylde fro[m] the towar. The one burned for heresye as the papistes do saye truly and the other quartered for popery and all within one houre (1548).

So, two imminent martyrs meet on their way to Smithfield: ‘Doctor Barons’ is Robert Barnes(c.1495–1540), a reformer, and Doctor Powell is Edward Powell (c.1478–1540), a Catholic priest (since beatified). The sorry occasion was, effectively, the brand new Church of England declaring itself open for business, and ready to do the business, when on ‘30 July 1540, Barnes, Garrard, and Jerome were taken to Smithfield, where they were burnt at the same time that three Catholics, Thomas Abell, Edward Powell, and Richard Fetherstone, were hanged, drawn, and quartered for treason’ (from the ODNB life of Barnes).

Barnes got himself to the stake for knowing the wrong person (his protector and patron Thomas Cromwell had fallen), and being in the wrong place at the wrong time. His Church of England credentials were apparently impeccable, as he asserted the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, unlike many reformers. Even so, because of his present and former associates, he was chosen as a protestant ‘heretic’ for this nicely symmetrical auto da fé. Powell could not accept the Act of Supremacy, and died as Sir Thomas More had done before him.

These nuances, however, are lost or ignored in the verse pamphlet about their meeting. The anonymous writer tantalized by having a good basic idea: his work, delivered in tumbling verse, is cast as a dialogue between the two doomed men. But an exploration of the ironies of a shared fate in the two different victims was outside his range. The publication date is a minor mystery: the work is mentioned by the ODNB as appearing first in 1540, but it’s only in EEBO from a 1548 text (the work refers to Edward VI, so this clearly is the proper date for this particular edition in EEBO):

“then wold they quicly open the gate

of true doctrine which of late

king henry did bring to light

god save kig Edwards noble grace

& send his highness tyme and psace

to continewe forth his godly trace…”

Despite the difficulties John Foxe would later have (says the ODNB life) with Barnes’ actual beliefs, in the verse pamphlet, he is just a protestant martyr, and Powell is his enemy, a ‘papist’.

‘The one burned for heresye as the papistes do saye truly and the other quartered for popery and all within one houre…’ says the title, but the promise of that oddly floating ‘truly’ (between ‘these people truly did call him a heretic’ and ‘they called him a heretic, and it was true’) isn’t sustained.

The interest of the pamphlet is perhaps interest by default: in the utter refusal of nuance, irony, the way the author’s mind cannot perceive inconsistency, and (of course) the selectiveness of the human sympathy. How the three Catholics and the three imputedly heretical Protestants regarded on another on that day 470 years ago can only be imagined: this author didn’t try. Barnes, who had tried his best to land an acceptable recantation, must have felt he was being burned despite holding exactly the same beliefs as his persecutors. In the verse account, the author seems to forget that Powell was also there to be hacked to pieces. The two men argue, with Powell denouncing Barnes as an “abhominable hereticke” and saying that if he carries on abusing the church, he will leave:

“do no longer rayle

for els I will not fayle

to leave thee here alone…”

But this was hardly an option; Powell’s “holi church” was no longer in power, the two men were both there to die; Barnes to be burned as heretic by the King he is made to praise for having opened the gate of ‘true doctrine’, Powell suffering as a traitor.

The stark black letter type of the pamphlet, and the way some of the terse early Tudor spelling looks more modern than high-Elizabethan habits of spelling, contribute a little to the placard-like directness of the text. This author just did not do subtle: his ‘papist’ accuses his ‘Christian’ of ‘railing’ (abuse against the true church), and the text has Barnes do just that, sometimes with macaronic touches:

“o thou popish asse

shall I let passe

the prelates iniquitas…”

Would a man facing the stake refer quite so brutally to that form of death as being ‘fried’? The author doesn’t care:

“it is wel knowne and now espied

by my bloude and other that fryed

in Smithefild god’s word hath tried…”

Finally, Barnes is given a rant against what Catholicism instills in its believers, which:

“make us beleve on stoks and stons

drunken blockes and drye bones

to be all helpers for the nones

for our wicked behaviour

holly bred and holly water

with red letters written in paper

and to the cake as to our maker

to trust they did us teach…”

This comes on [Sig. B2v] – back over the leaf on [Sig. B2], the printer put into a blank space a curiously insouciant note:

“A faut escaping on the other side of this page the iii. line for drunken blockes rede d[ ] kes bloud”

You’d have thought that rather than squeeze this into the forme, it would have been better to correct the type already set. It seems as though Barnes was meant to decry the real presence in the Eucharist, something he actually did believe in. An early owner has written ‘make good’ in the [Sig. B2v] margin. Obviously the compositor setting the passage leapt mentally from ‘stocks’ to ‘blocks’.

But how curiously unbothered! This was the very essence of difference between the shades of faith, but the error is not put straight, even in what seems to be a reprint eight years on.

In fact, the author is as careless about accuracy as the Bishops burning Barnes as a heretic. Perhaps in that sub-title the pamphlet the author really wanted to write peeps out: “The one burned for heresye … and the other quartered for popery and all within one houre”. But an honestly brutal relish at the speed with which these wretched men were dispatched disappeared in the clumsy attempt to re-make Robert Barnes into a different kind of hero.

Hardly a festive season posting, this one. Again!

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