Saints and Cults in Medieval England

edited by Susan Powell, Shaun Tyas, £49.50

It is common today to hear that more Christians died for the faith in the 20th century than in the other 19 centuries combined. In these early years of the 21st, matters have grown worse still, with the Christians of the world suffering perhaps the greatest religious persecution ever recorded, if Aid to the Church in Need is to be believed.

Yet on the eve of the Reformation, martyrdom was uncommon. There had not been a martyr canonised for almost 300 years, and England, the “island of saints”, as St Edmund Campion would later describe this country, had produced not one martyr since St Thomas Becket was hacked to death in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170. Some historians have argued that this meant that the papacy lacked the intellectual framework to recognise the first martyrs of the Reformation for what they were, even as they mounted the scaffolds of Tyburn and Tower Hill in 1535.

For those facing execution, however, things were naturally different. They had often spent years contemplating whether to accept death for their faith and grasped precisely what they would become.

Among the many fine essays in this anthology, which predominantly concerns the veneration of saints in England up to the Reformation, is an examination by David Harry, of the University of Chester, of how St John Fisher in particular made sure that his death was, in the end, only ever going to be interpreted as a martyrdom. That Fisher is a martyr is taken for granted nowadays, but back then Thomas Cromwell used murderous force to crush any sign of a cult at home while at the same time trying to convince the courts of Europe that Fisher was really a traitor. Sadly for Henry’s henchman, he was no match for the saintly Bishop of Rochester, even in death.

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