I know this marks me out as an oddity, but whereas others may spend their free time down the pub, watching TV, or having a natter with friends, I find myself entertaining myself by thinking through questions on a variety of topics, trying to see different angles and arguments. One of the topics that I keep coming back to is the different personalities of court life in medieval England (I know, bizarre!).
My latest thought was about why it is that the people I associate with religious ideas, and who were devoutly committed to their religion, are all women. Yes, there is Cranmer, and Knox, and Gardiner, but the ones that stay with me are Anne Boleyn, Mary Tudor, Jane Grey, Katherine Parr and Anne Askew, who all lived, at least part, of their lives in fear of being burned.
So, I was trying to work out why it is these names that I think of first.
It might be because in medieval England the only thing that women had any control over was their religion. It was the only thing that they were free to make a decision about. We see something similar in modern times in the clinic where people who have little control in their life find one thing that they focus on with the end result being things like OCD, self harm, controlled eating, extreme dieting and binging, and suicide.
Take someone’s external choices away and their attention will focus on something within themselves, the only thing that they can control.
Take Mary I, for example. With a mother like Catherine of Aragon, she was always going to be devoted to religion. But in adulthood she was intransient on the topic. I suspect that the black and white view she developed over religion was largely borne in her difficult teenage years when she was an outcast and banned from seeing her mother. When everything in your life is turning to shit where do you turn? These days it might be a bottle of vodka, but back then, you can believe that your hardships have been sent by god to test you before you enter heaven.
Jane Grey is another. She had a horrendous childhood. Beat black and blue for having an opinion. Made to feel like shit on her parents’ shoes because she wasn’t the longed for son and heir. I think her devotion to Protestantism was borne of this difficult childhood: her parents, and no-one else, could control her devotion which was a purely internal matter.
Going along these lines, it is probably not surprising that both of these women refused to give up their religion, even when they were both threatened with execution.
I hear sometimes people comment about the fact that, these days, no-one would die for a cause. I think that there are still some places in the world where this isn’t the case. People won’t die for a cause these days because they have choices. But, take those choices away, and I’m sure we would see the return of the martyr.