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 faggots 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 and feeling in these parts goes back here rather than to 1605 and 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 and conflict. Mary watched the outrageous treatment of her mother and found her own estrangement from the man who should have protected her the most, her father and her King. No wonder the poor girl had issues! Her suppressed rage against the English and their protestant cause came with real fury when she finally got to power. In our modern context, psychologists would surely see these martyrs deaths 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 and Ridley said it best as they faced the fires. Upon seeing his friend and 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 extinguished. Mary was soon dead. Though there have been dark times since, from the Armada, from Fawkes and his conspiritors, from rationalism, from luke warm unbelieving churches, Darwin, wars and scandals - there has been a candle in every generation of genuine faith and true christian community in England.
England again is under threat in our generation. Our fight is not against an oppressive regime or bands of conspiring terrorists who seek to murder parliament. Nor is it a conflict over English nationalism or identity
No, our fight is for a deeper set of defining values than any of these things. In the dark days under Mary, if a believer valued any sense of Englishness, his call would be to courageously live, work, and even die for the gospel. This historic burden of responsibility has not changed for 21st century English believers. It is more acute than ever, and ever more needed, in order that many in the darkness of our day may come into the light.
This candle lit first by the martyrs is ours to hold high and keep ablaze as we live out a radical and relevant faith today for the sake of God’s glory in our nation. Torches of love, rather than gunpowder barrels packed with explosive hatred - lives laid down for the most powerful cause.