Fifty years before Fawkes, England was already lit up by bonfires. During the last 4 years of Queen Mary’s reign 288 people were burned at the stake for their biblical faith, including women and some children. Countless others died in prison. Foxe writes with his usual gusto -‘the fagots never ceased to blaze whilst Mary was alive.’
41 perished in the flames from Sussex, including 17 from Lewes alone – Much of the strong bonfire tradition & feeling in these parts goes back here rather than to 1605 & the Gunpowder Plot.
Bloody Mary of course gets the blame. Her zeal in persecuting the new breed of English Protestants now famous. She perhaps deserves our sympathy though- As the disowned daughter of her monster father, Henry VIII, she grew up in terrible fear & conflict. Mary watched the outrageous treatment of her mother & found her own estrangement from the man who should have protected her the most, her father & her King. No wonder the poor girl had issues! Her suppressed rage against the English & their protestant cause came with real fury when she finally got to power. In our modern contexts, Psychologists would surely see these Martyrs as classic serial killer revenge cases at the hands of a Psychotic, passive aggresive maniac.
Leaving aside Mary's complex issues, what of the Martyrs? Bishops Latimer & Ridley said it best as they faced the fires. Upon seeing his friend & fellow Martyr failing to catch light, Latimer was heard to encourage, ‘Play the man Master Ridley! We shall this day light such a candle in England as I trust shall never be put out!’
It hasn’t been. Mary was soon dead. Though there have been dark times since, from the Armada, from Fawkes & his conspiritors, from rationalism, from luke warm unbelieving churches, Darwin, wars & scandals - there has been a candle in every generation of genuine faith and true christian community.
England again is under threat in our generation. In spite of what the press tell us, our fight is no longer against an oppressive regime or bands of conspiring terrorists who seek to murder parliament - it never was. Nor is our fight more about English nationalism or identity, even though both issues remain up for grabs.
No, our fight is for a deeper set of defining values than any of these things. If we value any sense of Englishness, our responsibility to our people is to pick up an historic burden, to live, work, play & even die for the gospel, that many in the darkness of our day may come into the light. This candle lit by the Martyrs is ours to hold high & keep ablaze as we live out a radical & relevant faith today for the sake of God’s glory in our nation.
If you or I will not carry this torch, then who else will? Perhaps when we think of it in these terms, we're not that different from Fawkes & his gang after all? We carry a torch of love rather than their gunpowder barrels of hatred, but a laid down life for a cause, for THE cause is the most powerful weapon.