There are occasions when I find myself gazing at a tranquil scene of beauty and yet cannot do other than feel real sorrow at the terrible, almost indescribable events that I know have taken place there. Such a place is Ruccles Field, high above the old village of Amersham in the county of Buckinghamshire, England.
The image I have chosen to head my ‘virgin’ blogging site is that very field with its distinctive, yet beautiful scars from both walkers and farmers. The beckoning pathways lead the eye with promises of both adventure and tranquility – yet my eye can only follow the earthy, rutted track that swerves gently towards the top right corner into that blue skyline-promise of something worth the journey.
It is worth the journey in a way which may sound strange because it provides a sad lesson that is re-discovered all too frequently in many such places across the world. Human intolerance of race, faith and creed, resulting in unthinkable barbarities – glorifying in persecution, torture and death to those with different perspectives – rest in this small corner of Ruccles Field.
There is a stone monument hiding behind a high hedge camouflage as if willing you to pass by, untroubled by its terrible story painstakingly engraved on its tablet. Indeed, I did pass it by on my first visit even though I was looking for it. It’s like a secret that is shared only by those actively seeking it out. The text is blunt and rightly so:
“In the shallow depression at a spot 100 yards left of this monument seven Protestants, six men and one woman were burned to death at the stake. They died for the principles of religious liberty for the right to read and interpret the Holy Scriptures and to worship God according to their consciences as revealed through God’s Holy Word. Their names shall live for ever.”
I will come to the dates and details shortly, but the chosen spot for such barbaric executions of these six men and one woman was so horribly deliberate. It was the highest point above the village of Amersham so there would be no doubt in any part of that rural community that a “lesson” was being taught to a small religious minority known as Lollards.
This is England in the sixteenth century and the Lollards were the followers of the teachings of John Wycliffe and pre-date the Reformation and were persecuted for reading the Bible to each other in English. Yes, reading the Bible to each other in English was their crime.
If they relinquished their faith they were branded on the cheek with a hot iron, made to wear a symbol of a faggot, (in case of linguistic confusion – this word means a bundle of sticks made ready for using on a fire).
On certain festival days those deemed in need of a lesson, had to parade with a faggot on their shoulder and a lighted torch in their hand. They lived under the threat that if they expressed their former beliefs they would be immediately burned alive. Indeed, the first of these seven Lollards, now referred to as the Amersham Martyrs, was William Tylesworth burned to death at the stake in 1506.
The year 1521 saw more such burning in Ruccles Field, made even more barbaric – if that were possible – by forcing the children of certain victims to light the fire – for example – John Scrivener’s children were forced to start the fire that consumed their father.
The memorial asks that, “Their names shall live for ever.” – so towards that end, modern technology at least allows me to widen the knowledge of their tragic deaths by telling you that the Amersham Martyrs burned alive at the stake were: William Tylesworth, Thomas Barnard, James Morden, John Scrivener, Thomas Holmes, Robert Rave and Joan Norman.
So I would ask you to look again at the picture of Ruccles Field, along that pathway, to that distant, beckoning blue arch, as I did when I took that photograph.
Now when I walk there, I also see the horror of the smoke and hear agonizing screams.
At least I can look back and remember them as the memorial politely asks, but, I wonder, what it will take for such lessons of barbaric intolerance to become less, instead of more prevalent, some five hundred years later in our world.