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hen Dr Who had emerged from his Tardis, which had excelled itself by materialising in the most secluded corner of a pleasant meadow, he had waxed rather lyrical, at least in his own mind, about the glories of nature and the pleasing freshness of green fields. While climbing a rickety stile, with only a little difficulty, he had spotted a collection of modest dwellings that stood but a short distance away. Now, his walking cane in hand, he was approaching a bustling market at the centre of a village. A casual enquiry gave him the name of the place, Stenton Abbas, and an overheard reference to ‘Bloody Mary’ having been ‘shovelled under last year’ confirmed the date as 1559.

The villagers were serving or buying at stalls or carts displaying fruit, vegetables and freshly baked bread as well as fish, meat and ale. A middle-aged woman, tall, grim-faced beneath a high, brimmed hat and carrying a basket, stood by a fish stall regarding both its wares and the two men offering them with suspicion.

‘See this, mistress,’ declaimed the younger of the two sellers, holding up a large specimen of their merchandise. ‘Fresh as a daisy, caught this morning. You’ll not find better round here. Purchase while we have the stock. Soon be all gone!’ He swung the unfortunate creature from side to side encouragingly.

The woman pursed her thin lips. ‘Let me see the scales.’

The young purveyor held out the fish for her careful, flint-eyed examination. She prodded it with a thin forefinger before nodding with seeming reluctance. ‘I’ll take it off your hands.’ Her grey eyes met his challengingly. ‘For a price that suits me, that is.’

Dr Who had watched the exchange with some amusement but was distracted from the haggling over a price when, on the other side of the road, a pair of upstairs windows, the frames painted bright green and the panes diamond latticed, were suddenly flung open to disclose a woman dressed in vivid orange. She called out something he didn’t catch in a raucous voice that made him flinch, leaned forward and tipped away the liquid contents of what looked like a wooden bucket. Several unfortunates didn’t move quite fast enough and found their garments splattered with who knew what. The woman, uncaring, slammed her windows shut.

‘Disgusting habit,’ snorted the martinet at the fish stall, ‘and typical of her. A dirty cat, she is, and in more ways than one, though I’m not one for gossip.’

She glared at the Doctor as if daring him to proffer a contrary opinion.

The old time traveller smiled placatingly, then realised that a hush had fallen over the crowd gathered at the market. He turned to see the villagers watching with expressions that were now stony as a small, grim-looking procession approached, led by a white-haired, flint-eyed old man in ecclesiastical garb.

‘Bishop Snaith,’ said the forceful woman, firing off the words as if expelling something distasteful from her mouth. ‘The Derbyshire Satan’, she added, in further elucidation.

Evidently, thought Dr Who, his informant had accurately identified him as a stranger in need of enlightenment.  

The procession made its way past the stalls to a wooden stake, which he had not noticed until now. It was driven into a patch of ground that was scorched and blackened – from previous burnings, he swiftly understood. The stake was already surrounded by bundles of sticks, firmly tied together and lying quiet and inert as yet but nonetheless destined, when crackling and bursting with flame, to convey their victim into oblivion. No doubt the long-suffering inhabitants of this particular area of rural Derbyshire had long since grown used to these trappings of a horrifying method of execution, for it was only with the arrival of Bishop Snaith and his group that the ordinary business and chatter had been abruptly dispelled. 

‘Who burns today?’ the Doctor inquired heavily of his sharp-eyed new acquaintance.

‘Alice Marsh,’ she responded. ‘Condemned for reading the English Bible and infecting others with her so-called presumptuous knowledge.’

The victim, a thin, mousey-haired, grey-faced girl, her eyes vacant as if it was now beyond her to grasp the situation, made no protest or any attempt to escape but stared blankly and disinterestedly when they reached the stake and firewood as though totally unaware of the connection these items had with her own imminent fate.

Bishop Snaith, guardian of souls in Stenton Abbas, Walberford, Sotherwick and several other surrounding villages, his sad and fatherly smile seeming to express his eternal regret at this necessity while being quite at variance with the terrifying intensity of the religious fervour in his eyes, was gratified to observe the size of the crowd around him. The idea of heretics being burned on market day so that the punishment would be seen by the largest number of people possible was, he thought with satisfaction and by no means for the first time, quite a sound one. But then he was blissfully unaware that today the notion would prove unwise and perhaps qualify the occasion for the status of the exception that proved the rule.

Dr Who was plucking a few historical facts from the back of his mind. When Mary Tudor, the embittered daughter of blood-soaked tyrant King Henry VIII, who had lain in his grave at Windsor for twelve years at this date, had become queen she had driven England back hard upon the Catholic shore and embarked upon a campaign of religious persecution that had earned her the name ‘Bloody Mary’ and the hatred of a large proportion of her subjects. Protestants accused of heresy had included the old King’s adviser and confidant Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, who had perished in the ‘cleansing’ fires at Oxford in 1556.

‘So Bishop Snaith has displayed a great zeal for this kind of activity, has he?’ the Doctor enquired of his companion.

 

artwork by ANDY LAMBERT
used with permission
 
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