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Oct/17

17

1789 and All That

It’s not hard to draw a line between messianic Judaism and (obviously) Christianity and from that on to later millenarian variants such as Marxism, but this review in the New Statesman by the British philosopher John Gray of Forgetfulness: Making the Modern Culture of Amnesia by Francis O’Gorman adds this twist:

The end result of a systematic devaluation of the past, however, is a condition of confusion not unlike that experienced by those who suffer from Alzheimer’s disease. As O’Gorman puts it, “We may be terrified of dementia because it is widespread and its effects catastrophic. But the fear arises also because we are half-conscious, as dutiful forward-facing citizens of modernity, that we figuratively have it already.” Rather than enabling human beings to fashion new identities, a willed collective amnesia leaves them with no identity at all.

Many forces have combined to create this condition. Acutely, O’Gorman identifies one of the sources of the modern narrative in early Christianity. Announcing itself as the bearer of “good news”, Christianity “splintered the conception of human life based on sustaining a localisable past… The new faith, which must have seemed first of all a new Middle Eastern cult of the son of Joseph the Carpenter, not only discouraged acts of devotion to what had happened long ago… but also explicitly reorientated its followers’ minds to the future.”

Here, O’Gorman elides the original teaching of Jesus, which continued the traditions of charismatic Judaism, with the universal religion invented by Paul and Augustine. Yet the point remains valid. Christianity has always included “instructive rites for rejecting history”, acts of confession and penitence that are supposed to erase yesterday’s sins.

A Christian narrative of redemption in which past evils and crimes could be nullified by a dramatic act of moral renovation has inspired many modern revolutionary movements. “Christianity began the process of moving us toward the future,” writes O’Gorman. “The French Revolution from 1789 to 1815 (which was, ironically enough, violently antagonistic to Christianity as belonging to the past) clinched secular expectations about the relative values of tomorrow and yesterday.” When they sacked churches and defaced graveyards, the Jacobins were re-enacting a Christian rite in which history could be stopped and purified of sin, then begun anew.

And the Bolsheviks?

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Oct/17

13

Ubi Terror, Ibi Salus

A week or two back, I discussed a review of The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World by Catherine Nixey, a book out in the UK, but not due for release in the US until next year.  Back in the old country over the weekend, I took the opportunity to buy a copy, and it’s as good as the review suggested it might be. I read it in two sittings.

Much of the focus of my last post was on the fixation of the early Christians with suffering, a fixation that lingers on in the shape of a morbid belief in the virtue of suffering, a belief that manifests itself in, among other horrors, the opposition of many clerics, as cruel as it is saccharine, to assisted suicide.

But Nixey’s book is, above all, fascinating as an examination of proto-totalitarianism. Nixey, no Dawkins, is not so much concerned with the existence of God or the divinity of Jesus as she is with the behavior of the latter’s followers in late antiquity, whether it’s the iconoclastic fervor that led them to destroy so many of the great works of classical art and architecture, or the creation of a system that dictated so thoroughly what men read (book burnings were a regular feature of these years), how they worshiped and what they thought. The Judeo-Christian God was a jealous god and, unlike the expansive and eclectic collection of deities of the Roman Empire, had no room for any rivals or, for that matter, their followers. There was a sting in monotheism’s tale. To the modern reader, Nixey’s accounts of persecution in the name of the Christian God foreshadow both the furies unleashed on behalf of His Islamic alter-ego and, for that matter, Communism’s supposedly secular millenarians.

The Church, wrote Augustine, “persecutes in the spirit of love”, and, over a millennium and a half before Communism’s slaughtered one hundred million, he claimed that “where there is terror, there is salvation.”

Whatever or whoever had been born in Bethlehem, a rough beast was on the march—and, while its shape may shift,  it marches on today.

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Oct/16

1

Church and State, God and God Gene

edward-vii-coronationWhether or not God exists there cannot be much doubt about the existence of (to use a crude shorthand) a ‘God gene’, the innate propensity of  most people to believe in gods and/or the supernatural and, at least to a degree, to base their behavior on those beliefs.

The fight of the Dawkins brigade against ‘sky fairies’ is thus, in most cases, a waste of time. What matters is not God, but the particular god that people worship. Whatever the sentimental, empty-headed or (hullo, Karen Armstrong) propagandists might claim all religions are not simply varying routes to the same ‘truth’. The difference between religions matters, and it matters a great deal. Some are benign, some are not, some leave the rest of us alone, some do not.

In that connection, it was interesting to read this in the course of an interview by Spiked Review with writer Anthony Gottlieb, the author of The Dream of Enlightenment, an account, as Spiked puts it, of “that ‘150-year burst’ of intellectual energy that begins in Northern Europe after the Thirty Years War, and stretches up to the eve of the French Revolution”:

Several of the thinkers in The Dream… are quite rightly seen as pioneers or antecedents of forms of secularism, of the idea that church and state should be kept separate. Nowadays, when we think of the separation of church and state, we tend to think of it in terms of the First Amendment, where Americans hold that there should be no state religion.

But for the pioneers of secularism, church and state are not so easily parsed. Take Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) and Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677), for example. They’ve both been characterised as being in favour of the separation of church and state, of getting rid of a state religion. Yet, in fact, both believed that it was important to have a state religion. And that’s because they, like many of their intellectual brothers in arms, were concerned not with getting rid of state religion but with weakening the power of the priests, the power of institutional religion. They wanted to take away the church’s power and give it instead to the state.

That’s because, as they saw it, the best way of ensuring that religion didn’t lead to all sorts of trouble was both to police it, and to make sure that the state religion was peaceful, non-disruptive, and not run by these mad priests. So Hobbes and Spinoza ended up advocating state religion, rather than opposing it….

There’s something to that, especially if that state religion is mild, unassuming, tolerant– light on superstition and with a proper sense of its place: At its best the Church of England comes to mind.

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Jul/16

23

Not Erdoğan (2)

Mustafa_Kemal_Atatürk_With Islamist Turkish president Erdoğan continuing to take advantage of the failed coup that  he has described as a “gift from God”, here’s another quote from an infinitely greater Turk, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk:

Religion is an important institution. A nation without religion cannot survive. Yet it is also very important to note that religion is a link between Allah and the individual believer. The brokerage of the pious cannot be permitted. Those who use religion for their own benefit are detestable. We are against such a situation and will not allow it. Those who use religion in such a manner have fooled our people; it is against just such people that we have fought and will continue to fight…

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Jul/16

19

Not Erdoğan

kemal_ataturkGiven the news  from Turkey, a quote or two from Mustafa Kemal Atatürk seemed appropriate:

I have no religion, and at times I wish all religions at the bottom of the sea. He is a weak ruler who needs religion to uphold his government; it is as if he would catch his people in a trap. My people are going to learn the principles of democracy, the dictates of truth and the teachings of science. Superstition must go….

We do not consider our principles as dogmas contained in books that are said to come from heaven. We derive our inspiration, not from heaven, or from an unseen world, but directly from life.

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Henry and BecketAccompanied by somewhat morbid spectacle, a fragment of the elbow (!)  of Thomas Becket  (1118-70), an Archbishop of Canterbury who came to a rather sticky end, has been briefly returned to England.

The BBC reports:

A bone believed to be a fragment of St Thomas Becket’s elbow has been carried into Canterbury Cathedral, 845 years after he was murdered there. St Thomas was killed by four knights inside the cathedral in 1170 after he fell out with King Henry II.

The fragment is now kept in Hungary. It had arrived on loan.

BBC:

King Henry II [had]  made his close friend Thomas Becket Archbishop of Canterbury in 1161. The friendship came under strain when Becket stood up for the church in disagreements with the king. In 1164, Becket fled to France, returning in 1170.

On the 29 December 1170, four knights, believing the king wanted Becket out of the way, murdered him in Canterbury Cathedral. Becket was made a saint in 1173 and his shrine in Canterbury Cathedral became a focus for pilgrimage.

…The shrine at Canterbury containing most of Becket’s remains was destroyed during the reign of Henry VIII when the practice of venerating saints was condemned.

To say that that is a rather incomplete description of the split between Henry and the archbishop is an understatement.

But first the Catholic Herald:

[Westminster’s] Cardinal Vincent Nichols encouraged priests to persevere in their ministry despite distressing circumstances, during his homily yesterday for the Jubilee of Priests at Santa Maria Regina degli Apostoli alla Montagnola in Rome.

The cardinal said: “A priest who is always complaining about his troubles, about his lack of free time, about his lack of money, about his companions, about his bishop, is a counter-sign. Yes, there is hardship; but, yes there is faithfulness; yes, there is resurrection, the true source of our daily hope, joy and perseverance.”

The Cardinal also mentioned the visit of the Hungarian relic of St Thomas Becket as a reminder of the saint who “became a symbol of the resistance of the Church to powerful and unscrupulous rulers”, saying that Thomas should be an “inspiration” for all priests.

Hmmm

Take a look at this from The Spectator, written back in 2012:

Accommodation between the temporal and spiritual swords, Guy passingly indicates, was getting harder. The claims of papal sovereignty and church or canon law, backed by powerful ideals of spiritual authority and moral regeneration, were ever extending. Becket and his associates liked to invoke the Church’s ‘liberty’ against forces of tyranny and oppression. What they meant was its right to independence of, and immunity from, the secular power, through papal protection and the exemption of the clergy from the courts that tried and punished the laity. Any king worth the name, brutal or not, would have fought back.

What the church was after was not religious liberty (not a commodity much in evidence in early-Medieval Europe), but religious privilege (not least the clerics’-and cleric was a widely defined term on that era— immunity from the law of the land), a theme that still resonates in today’s political debates.

That Cardinal Nichols fails to acknowledge this is…telling.

Over at the Huffington Post, Ronald Lindsay of the Center of Inquiry weighs in:

 What was the nub of the dispute between Henry II and Becket? Henry—who is rightly considered a ruler who did much to reform the English legal system, laying the foundation for English common law—wanted clergy accused of serious crimes tried in secular courts. Becket insisted that clergy be tried only in ecclesiastical courts. These courts were ineffective and lax, allowing many serious offenders to escape punishment. Church discipline was as meaningless for clerical murderers and thieves in the 12th century as it has been for clerical sexual predators in our times. It’s worth noting, by the way, that as much as one-sixth of the male population in England could claim “the benefit of clergy.”

Becket’s defense of special privileges for clergy didn’t justify his subsequent murder, of course, but neither should his murder transform him into someone who should be honored for his advocacy of religious freedom. He didn’t advocate religious freedom; he obstinately argued for immunity from the law for the church and its clergy.

As Lindsay notes:

The blurring of the distinction between true religious freedom and special privileges for the religious has, unfortunately, affected current public policy debates. In the last few years, not a day goes by when someone isn’t invoking religious liberty when they really mean religious privilege.

And then there is the national issue. It is (or ought to be) a fundamental principle that English law is determined in England.

The Spectator:

Conflicts over rights of law and property assumed in Becket’s mind, as he steeped himself in biblical and theological study, a cosmic import. Quickly the quarrel spread to Rome and to the courts of Europe. How international it now looks, set as it was in a Europe to which the Church gave a coherence that modern bureaucracy cannot match.

The Reformation, by nationalising the Church and subjugating it to the state, ended all that. Henceforth Henry II’s interpretation of Becket’s international lobbying as treason, questionable at the time, would seem uncontentious. Henry VIII had Becket’s shrine demolished and despoiled. ‘There appeareth nothing in his life’, the Tudor king proclaimed, ‘whereby he should be called a saint, but rather esteemed to have been a rebel and traitor to his prince.’ Even Charles I, whose readiness to back an archbishop of Canterbury bent on restoring lost powers of the Church would baffle his subjects and help cause the civil war, declared, to the relief of the earl who heard him, that ‘he thought Thomas Becket as arrant a traitor as ever was’. The state had won.

No, the nation had won. Henry VIII was, to say the least, an accidental liberator, but he had established the principle that in England English laws prevailed.

Writing in 1972, as Britain teetered on the edge of joining what is now the EU, the British politician Enoch Powell, undeniably controversial, and undeniably erudite, wrote this:

The relevant fact about the history of the British Isles and above all of England is its separateness in a political sense from the history of continental Europe…When Henry VIII declared that ‘this realm of England is an empire (imperium) of itself’, he was making not a new claim but a very old one; but he was making it at a very significant point of time. He meant—as Edward I had meant, when he said the same over two hundred years before—that there is an imperium on the continent, but that England is another imperium outside its orbit and is endowed with the plenitude of its own sovereignty. The moment at which Henry VIII repeated this assertion was that of what is misleadingly called ‘the reformation’—misleadingly, because it was, and is, essentially a political and not a religious event.

Indeed. And the same was true of the dispute between Becket and Henry II, a dispute on which Becket was on the wrong side.

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May/16

8

The Pope, the EU and the Charlemagne Prize

Pope Merkel CharlemagneCross-posted on the Corner

One thing about this pope: When it comes to political matters, he has an unerring ability to be on the wrong side of the issue.

Vatican Radio:

Pope Francis on Friday received the International Charlemagne Prize of Aachen, Germany, from Marcel Philipp, the Lord Mayor of the German city. The International Charlemagne Prize is awarded for work done in the service of European unification.

The Vatican Radio report includes the full transcript of Francis’ speech.

A couple of extracts caught my eye:

[W]e would do well to turn to the founding fathers of Europe.  They were prepared to pursue alternative and innovative paths in a world scarred by war.  Not only did they boldly conceive the idea of Europe, but they dared to change radically the models that had led only to violence and destruction. They dared to seek multilateral solutions to increasingly shared problems.

It is certainly true that these founding fathers did conceive an “idea of Europe”, but it was one with little connection to history, and even less to democracy.

As a reminder of that, the Daily Telegraph reports recent comments from Jean-Claude Juncker, the EU’s top bureaucrat, one of the apparatchiks present to watch the Pope receive his prize (my emphasis added):

Prime Ministers must stop listening so much to their voters and instead act as “full time Europeans”, according to Jean-Claude Juncker.  Elected leaders are making life “difficult” because they spend too much time thinking about what they can get out of EU and kowtowing to public opinion, rather than working on “historic” projects such as the Euro, he said.

Note that use of “historic”, with its suggestion that there is a “right” side of history, a notion that comes, wrote Robert Conquest, that great historian of Soviet communism, with a “Marxist twang”.

And then there was this from the Pope:

The roots of our peoples, the roots of Europe, were consolidated down the centuries by the constant need to integrate in new syntheses the most varied and discrete cultures.  The identity of Europe is, and always has been, a dynamic and multicultural identity.

Clearly, that is an indirect reference to the current immigration wave, a wave that Francis has, in his own way, done his bit to encourage, but it is a view difficult to reconcile with historical reality.

Yes, European peoples have enriched their cultures by learning from others, but they have also defended their distinctiveness of their cultures, and, as the years passed and Habsburgs faded, they increasingly did so behind national borders that created a space for a diverse Europe to develop and to flourish, something very different from the multicultural Europe that the Pope appears to be describing.  There was pluribus, but not so much unum.

This process gathered pace as those national borders solidified, hugely accelerated by the manner in which  ‘Christendom’,  the Roman Catholic ummah, already divided by the breach with the East, was further fragmented by the Reformation, a movement that was political as well as religious.

Writing on this topic the (admittedly not uncontroversial) British politician, Enoch Powell, looked at Henry VIII’s break with Rome, arguing in 1972 that:

It was the final decision that no authority, no law, no court outside the realm would be recognized within the realm. When Cardinal Wolsey fell, the last attempt had failed to bring or keep the English nation within the ambit of any external jurisdiction or political power: since then no law has been for England outside England, and no taxation has been levied in England by or for an authority outside England—or not at least until the proposition that Britain should accede to the Common Market [the future EU].

And this is not just an English thing. Writing in the Guardian, Giles Fraser notes that:

Research by social scientist Margarete Scherer from the Goethe University in Frankfurt has demonstrated a considerably higher prevalence of Euroscepticism in traditionally Protestant countries than in traditionally Roman Catholic ones. And this should be entirely unsurprising, given that the Reformation was largely a protest about heteronomous power.

Heteronomous!

Fraser:

As Cardinal Vincent Nichols said last month: “There is a long tradition in … Catholicism of believing in holding things together. So the Catholic stance towards an effort such as the EU is largely supportive.” Of course, the important question is: who does the “holding things together”? And for the cardinal – theologically, at least – it’s Rome.

Conversely, in Protestant countries, the EU still feels a little like some semi-secular echo of the Holy Roman Empire, a bureaucratic monster that, through the imposition of canon law, swallows up difference and seeks after doctrinal uniformity. This was precisely the sort of centralisation that Luther challenged, and resistance to it is deep in the Protestant consciousness…

Writing in Britain’s Catholic Herald, Ed West questions the Pope’s decision to accept the Charlemagne prize:

Francis is a great advocate of peace and brotherly love, but it is surprising that he has accepted an award that is so nakedly political, especially as the EU faces next month the first vote by a member state on leaving. It is one thing to promote “European unity” in the abstract, but this award explicitly promotes the cause of the EU, as can be shown by its recent winners, among them Donald Tusk, Herman Van Rompuy, Angela Merkel and, in 2002, “the euro”. Sure, from deep within Charlemagne’s empire the euro might have appeared to have promoted unity, but for Greece’s huge numbers of unemployed youths it probably does not seem that way.

Many, many British Catholics oppose our membership of what strikes us as a hugely risky attempt to create a superstate, despite such ventures normally ending in disaster; we know that the bishops both on the continent and in this country overwhelmingly support this venture, but it seems odd that the Holy Father should so openly take one side in a controversial political matter.

Not so much, I reckon.

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Mar/16

27

Eostre Debunked?

La Fonda, Santa Fe, April 2011 (AS)The Guardian (from 2011):

Did you know that Easter was originally a pagan festival dedicated to Eostre, the Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring, whose consort was a hare, the forerunner of our Easter bunny? Of course you did. Every year the fecund muck of the internet bursts forth afresh with cheery did-you-know explanations like this, setting modern practices in a context of ancient and tragically interrupted pagan belief.

The trouble is that they are wrong. The colourful myths of Eostre and her hare companion, who in some versions is a bird transformed into an egg-laying rabbit, aren’t historically pagan. They are modern fabrications, cludged together in an unresearched assumption of pagan precedence.Only one piece of documentary evidence for Eostre exists: a passing mention in Bede’s The Reckoning of Time. Bede explains that the lunar month of Eosturmonath “was once called after a goddess… named Eostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated.”

However, even this may only have been supposition on Bede’s part. In the same section he says the winter festival of Modranecht was so named “because (we suspect) of the ceremonies they enacted all that night,” hardly the statement of a historian with first-hand information.

Eosturmonath may simply mean “the month of opening”, appropriate for a time of opening buds and arguably a better fit for the rest of the Anglo-Saxon months. They tended to be named after agricultural or meteorological events, hence “mud-month” and “blood-month”. Only one other month is, according to Bede, named after a goddess – Hrethmonath – and like Eostre, there is no other evidence of Hretha anywhere.

Known Anglo-Saxon deities like Woden and Thor are paralleled in Norse and Germanic pre-Christian religion, but there are no such equivalents to Bede’s Eostre and Hretha, which strengthens the case for them being inventions. Grimm explored the possibility of a German “Ostara” in Deutsche Mythologie, but in the absence of any primary evidence, all he could produce was conjecture. We’re also left wondering why, if Eosturmonath really was named after a pagan goddess, the staunch Christian Charlemagne chose it to replace the old Roman name of April.

There are no images of Eostre, no carvings, no legends, and no association with hares, rabbits or eggs. Yet a swift Google search turns up heaps of repeated Eostre lore. Even the usually formidable Snopes.com allocates Eostre her customary sacred hare, without any historical justification. So where do the tales come from?

The answer is found in the recent history of modern self-identified paganism. Back in the days when Catweazle was on telly, the movement was inchoate, disparate and in urgent need of roots. It was in the difficult position of claiming moral heirship from ancient pre-Christian religion, but having very few credentials to back that up.

Usefully, though, there was already a tendency (stemming from Victorian anthropology) to imagine repressed pagan roots dangling from anything sufficiently working class and folksy; and though academia had moved away from this, pagan revivalism had not. By asserting Christian appropriation of pagan customs as fact, modern paganism could claim both precedence and wrongful treatment, citing Pope Gregory’s letter as if that settled it.

Pagan origins were thus claimed for everything from Father Christmas to Morris dancing and the Easter bunny was retroactively recast as Eostre’s sacred hare, grafting a faked pagan provenance on to a creature first mentioned as late as 1682. A Ukranian folk tale about the origins of pysanky, painted eggs, was rewritten to star Eostre and her bunny. Some still claim Eostre’s name is the root of the word oestrogen, ignoring that human eggs are microscopic and that the real etymology of oestrogen in fact relates to the gadfly….

Oh well, there is (as I noted in a post entitled—ahem—“Happy Eostre”) always this (from another Guardian piece):

In an ironic twist, the Cybele cult flourished on today’s Vatican Hill. Cybele’s lover Attis, was born of a virgin, died and was reborn annually. This spring festival began as a day of blood on Black Friday, rising to a crescendo after three days, in rejoicing over the resurrection. There was violent conflict on Vatican Hill in the early days of Christianity between the Jesus worshippers and pagans who quarrelled over whose God was the true, and whose the imitation. What is interesting to note here is that in the ancient world, wherever you had popular resurrected god myths, Christianity found lots of converts.

The not always entirely reliable Sir James Fraser had quite a bit to say about Attis in The Golden Bough.

Here’s an extract:

Another of those gods whose supposed death and resurrection struck such deep roots into the faith and ritual of Western Asia is Attis. He was to Phrygia what Adonis was to Syria. Like Adonis, he appears to have been a god of vegetation, and his death and resurrection were annually mourned and rejoiced over at a festival in spring. The legends and rites of the two gods were so much alike that the ancients themselves sometimes identified them. Attis was said to have been a fair young shepherd or herdsman beloved by Cybele, the Mother of the Gods, a great Asiatic goddess of fertility, who had her chief home in Phrygia. Some held that Attis was her son. His birth, like that of many other heroes, is said to have been miraculous. His mother, Nana, was a virgin, who conceived by putting a ripe almond or a pomegranate in her bosom.

…The great spring festival of Cybele and Attis is best known to us in the form in which it was celebrated at Rome; but as we are informed that the Roman ceremonies were also Phrygian, we may assume that they differed hardly, if at all, from their Asiatic original. The order of the festival seems to have been as follows.

On the twenty-second day of March, a pine-tree was cut in the woods and brought into the sanctuary of Cybele, where it was treated as a great divinity. The duty of carrying the sacred tree was entrusted to a guild of Tree-bearers. The trunk was swathed like a corpse with woollen bands and decked with wreaths of violets, for violets were said to have sprung from the blood of Attis, as roses and anemones from the blood of Adonis; and the effigy of a young man, doubtless Attis himself, was tied to the middle of the stem…

There is, of course, nothing wrong with syncretism, so in the spirit of what this day now is: Happy Easter!

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May/15

24

He Was a Joker, That Tom

Tom PaineThomas Paine:

The whole religious complexion of the modern world is due to the absence from Jerusalem of a lunatic asylum.

Apr/15

4

John Fisher, Again

John_Fisher_(painting)Writing in The American Conservative, Rod Dreher refers, by implication approvingly, to St. John Fisher, “the English Catholic bishop who went to his death rather than conform to the king’s dictates.”

Say what you will, but Fisher was no defender of religious liberty. I posted about this sinister fanatic (a man who played an important role in the trial and execution of Thomas Hitton, the man often described as England’s first protestant martyr) a few years ago.

Let’s return to Wikipedia (in this case, why not?):

Hitton was a priest who had joined William Tyndale and the English exiles in the Low Countries. He returned to England on a brief visit in 1529 to contact the supporters of Tyndale and to arrange for the distribution of smuggled books such as the first English Psalter translated by George Joye. He was seized near Gravesend on his way to the coast to take a ship,and found to be in possession of letters from the English exiles. He was then arrested on the grounds of heresy, interrogated and probably tortured. He was condemned by Archbishop William Warham and by Bishop John Fisher and burnt at the stake at Maidstone on 23 February 1530.

As I noted in my earlier post, Fisher was no defender of freedom of conscience. What he was defender of his conscience, and, indeed, an enforcer of it on others. As for his fate, well, biter bit.

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