236 The Burning of Derfel Gadarn

In 1537 and 1538 the doctrinal debate intensified with the Evangelical cause appeared to advance step by step. Cromwell discredited the monastic movement by attacking the veneration of relics.

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The execution of John Forrest and the Burning of Derfel Gadarn

After the dissolution of the smaller monasteries gathered pace in 1536 and 1537, Cromwell launched an attack on the most vulnerable practices of traditional religion – the veneration of relics.  Where abuses were found, it was impossible for conservatives to defend; and meanwhile they discredited the principles that underpinned monasticism and pilgrimage.

One of the most extraordinary stories in the campaign against images and pilgrimage is the execution of the Observant Friar John Forest, and the burning of Derfel Gadarn, in May 1538.

Derfel Gadarn was a saint, and the object to which the evangelicals were objecting was an image of Saint Derfel, highly esteemed by the people of North Wales, which had been brought to Thomas Cromwell’s attention by his monastic commissioners.

“there is an image of Derfel Gadarn within the said diocese, in whom the people have so great confidence, hope, and trust, that they come daily on pilgrimage unto him, some with kyne, other with oxen or horses, and the rest with money: in so much that there was five or six hundred pilgrims, to a man’s estimation, that offered to the said Image the fifth day of this present month of April

The image was esteemed because it was said if you gave money or animals to the saint, Derfel would come and snatch you from hell itself. It was also prohecised that Derfel would set an entire forest on fire. For the evangelicals this was the height of absurdity and obscenity, an example of the superstition and misplaced worship they were determined to wipe out, a con trip on honest people exercised by the church; while for Conservatives here was one other object of beauty and hope, a saint to intercede in a world of uncertainty and suffering, and to focus their worship.

John Forrest  been imprisoned 4 years ago for denying the royal supremacy, and subsequently convicted and sentenced to execution. His execution on 22nd May 1538 was to be used not just for his execution, but to publicly ridicule the veneration of relics.

Forrest was brought to Smithfield in London to be burned. The people of London came in their thousands to watch – 10,000 of them according to Hall, Smithfield square bursting at the seams with agast onlookers – here now was the chance to see the warlike saint, armed with his sword and spear, save his image and his servant, snatch them from the jaws of hell.

They would have seen a stage built next to the scaffold where Forrest was held. On the stage stood the Bishop of Worcester, Hugh Latimer, evangelical and firebrand. Latimer had in fact recommended himself for this job – he was clearly well used to mocking the veneration of relics, and he took this job on with evident enjoyment. Latimer and Cromwell evidently prepared the spectacle in some detail, and Latimer wrote to Cromwell :

If it be your pleasure that I shall play the fool after my customary manner when Forest shall suffer, I would wish that my stage stood near to Forest’s

Latimer preached for 3 hours, punctuated by exhortations to Forest to repent; Forest remained firm

If an angel should come down from heaven and show me any other thing than that I had believed all my lifetime I would not believe him

Latimer had arrived at the big moment. Theatrically he announced that Saint Derfel had been brought all the way from Wales to save the friar. It was Cromwell himself who signalled 6 men to bring in the huge image. The crowd yelled and groaned with fear, animal excitement and anticipation; what would happen?

With mocking, vicious drama, 3 executioners pretended to wrestle with the huge image, and tied it with chains to stop it escaping. Cromwell played along; he roared out, pointing at Forrest

My lord Bishop I think you strive in vain with this stubborn one. It would be better to burn him!

Forrest was lifted in a cradle of chains and swung out above the image of the saint and a pile of wood, and the whole thing lit with torches. As the flames and heat began to reach Forrest he beat his breast and called out

Lord have mercy upon me

As his flesh was burnt agonisingly raw he reached for a ladder to pull himself out of the fire, but could not hold himself, and for 2 hours he suffered in agony while some of the crowd watched and cried in despair at Derfel’s defeat, and others celebrated the exposure of a superstition.

It’s an extraordinary example of the brutality of Tudor execution and justice, and the sheer force of religious feeling. The burning of Derfel and John Forrest no doubt elicited many different responses at the time, from Conservative despair and anger to Evangelical triumph, but let me mention a few. The Chronicler Edward Hall had no sympathy for the Friar. As far as he was concerned the man had shown a lamentable lack of joy at his impending arrival in the afterlife.

In London, probably the most evangelical place in the country, there were those for whom this was confirmation of what they believed. A poem ran around the streets:

But now what we may see

What Gods they be

Even puppets, maumets and Elves

Throw themselves down thrice

They cannot rise

Not once to help themselves

And a wave of vandalism swept through churches as evangelicals took the law into their own hands. Back in Wales, however, the locals nodded sagely and noted that the Saint had indeed, as had been predicted, burned a Forrest.

4 thoughts on “236 The Burning of Derfel Gadarn

  1. English history, with all its glory and gore, sends us advice applicable for today. Thank you David for your dedication and research. To quote Sir Winston, who quoted many others, “Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it”.

  2. Well, for a moment there I thought I had an episode all dedicated to me… nah, not really… but I do find it amusing that my “Nome de Plume” (nome de guerre… nome de Internet”?) has such a rich history. I must admit to merely snatching it from Bernard Cornwell’s “Winter King” trilogy, but it has served me well these last 20 years. Now however I see where I can be the life and soul of the party by memorizing and reciting huge chunks of Welsh theological history…

    1. Derfel, I only wish I could be at all those parties of which you will now undoubtedly be both the life and soul…

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