The Burning Time

by Virginia Rounding, Macmillan, £20

As a child, deeply affected by stories of vampires and suchlike, I once tapped the wisdom of my father on the question of which was the most terrifying of all horror films. Not hesitating, he told me it was Witchfinder General, the 1968 cult movie that recounts the awful deeds, in the 17th century, of Matthew Hopkins. It was disturbing, he explained, because it was based loosely on fact – an instructive and early lesson on man’s inhumanity to man.

The same lesson can be drawn from the equally appalling events of the preceding century, recalled vividly by Virginia Rounding in her new book. It focuses on the true stories of the men and women burned to death at Smithfield, London, during the Reformation and it is the stuff of nightmares. It is unremittingly gory, sparing no detail in how some victims were deliberately burned slowly to inflict maximum pain.

One chapter also outlines the physiological changes to the body of the condemned during execution. As muscles and sinews were consumed by flames, they often contracted, causing the body to contort, with the spine arching and the arms flinging outwards. This could happen after death, but the crowds that assembled to watch the conflagration often mistook them as the sights of glorious martyrs defiantly and triumphantly at prayer.

The subject matter makes this book difficult to read, but this is not death dished up like porn for prurient gratification. On the contrary, it is a scholarly foray into a particularly horrendous period of English history. It is a serious, well-researched and well-written piece of work by a highly accomplished biographer and a City of London councillor for the Smithfield area.

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