August 19


The trial of the Salmesbury Witches

The European Witch Craze took the life of about 40,000 women and men in the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries and it has been the subject of much study and debate ever since. Was it caused by the clash between Protestantism and Catholicism? Was it a war on women? Did it emerge more in mountainous regions or on the plains? Was there an economic basis for it? Did the views of witches vary among the social classes? Were witches really the practitioners of an ancient folk religion? The arguments continue.

One thing is certain and that is that the accusations of witchcraft were far more numerous in countries using a form of Roman law which allowed the torture of witnesses. In places such as England and Ireland, under common law, torture was generally forbidden and witch trials were far fewer. This changed somewhat, after the accession to the English throne of King James of Scotland. James was a believer in witchcraft and he even wrote a book on it, Daemonologie, where he stated: “The fearefull aboundinge at this time in this countrie, of these detestable slaves of the Devil, the Witches or enchanters, hath moved me (beloved reader) to dispatch in post, this following treatise of mine … to resolve the doubting … both that such assaults of Satan are most certainly practised, and that the instrument thereof merits most severely to be punished.”

In 1612, Grace Sowerbutts, a Lancashire girl, aged twelve, accused three women of the village of Salmesbury of being witches, and of practising infanticide and cannibalism. Jane Southworth, and Grace’s grandmother and mother, Jennet Bierley, and Ellen Bierley were said to be able to transform themselves into dogs and consort with demons. They had killed a local baby and disinterred the child and eaten it. Neighbours testified that one of the women had the reputation of being a witch. Things looked bad for the three accused until the judge re-examined Grace and her story fell apart. She confessed that she had lied and had been coached in her testimony by a Jesuit priest, hiding illegally in the area. The judge instructed the jury to find the defendants not guilty.

Others accused of witchcraft at the same time were less lucky and some of their trials resulted in them being hanged by the same judge who had released the Salmesbury Three.

August 17


The End of the Prayer Book Rebellion

The English reformation of religion in the sixteenth century was a notoriously top-down affair and many government mandates were met with violent resistance. During the reign of Henry VIII, the dissolution of the monasteries prompted the massive Pilgrimage of Grace when the conservative north of the country rose in defence of the monks. Caught unawares the king was forced to conciliate the rebels with sweet promises until he had assembled enough of a military force to crush them. When Henry was succeeded by his Protestant son Edward VI attempts to enforce the new religious order was also met with outrage and violence.

The Prayer Book Rebellion (or the Western Rebellion) broke out in Cornwall and Devon in 1549. There the peasantry was already upset by the imposition of new taxes, painful price inflation, and the destruction of ancient religious sites by outside commissioners. The announcement that the old Latin rite that the countrymen had worshipped with for centuries was to be replaced by the English-language Prayer Book sparked riots and mass gatherings of armed men. Local landowners took leadership of the rebellion; the city of Exeter was besieged and gentry fled to their manor houses for safety as the two western counties saw thousands of angry Catholics under arms.

Judging by the list of demands drawn up by the rebels, the rising was a combination of religious grievances and social unrest. We can see the former in these three articles:

“First we will have the general counsel and holy decrees of our forefathers observed, kept and performed, and who so ever shall speak against them, we hold them as heretics.” 

“Item we will have the Lawes of our Sovereign Lord Kyng Henry the VIII concerning the Six Articles, to be used as they were in his time.”

“Item we will have the mass in Latin, as was before, and celebrated by the priest without any man or woman communicating with them.

But the dire economic situation of what historians have called the Iron Century also led the rebels to demand that lords restrict the number of their servants and to reform landholding practices.

Though successful at first, the rebels were ultimately defeated by royal armies containing large numbers of hardened foreign mercenaries. On this day in 1549 the decisive battle of Sampford Courtney was fought. Thousands of the men of Devon and Cornwall died in battle and thousands more were rounded up and killed out of hand by government troops. This would not be the last English rebellion over religious reform.

August 15



Christians lose control of the Levant

On this day in 636 began the Battle of Yarmouk in which forces of the first Islamic Caliphate defeated a Byzantine army in what is now Syria. It was a long-held part of Byzantine strategy to avoid major winner-take-all battles but the arrival of a massive Arab army that had already rolled up Persian and Christian holdings in the Middle East forced the Byzantines to concentrate their forces. They were outmaneuvered and driven from the field leading to a rapid Islamic conquest of the eastern shore of the Mediterranean, territory that would not be regained until the First Crusade in 1099.

A plethora of other Church-related activity also took place on this day.


Frankish co-ruler Carloman retires to a monastery leaving his brother Pepin the Short in charge. Within a few years Pepin will win papal approval for deposing the Merovingian dynasty and setting up the Carolingian line. In return Pepin will invade Italy to defeat enemies of the pope and grant the Bishop of Rome the lands that become the Papal States.


Lanfanc, a Benedictine monk from Italy, will be named Archbishop of Canterbury. Working with the recently-victorious William the Conqueror he will reform the English church, cutting down on corruption and sexual immorality in the clergy. He will also resist papal pressure and avoid entangling England in the battles between church and state that raged on the Continent.


The cornerstone for the most striking of all Gothic cathedrals will be laid in Cologne. The building would house the relics of the Three Magi and be finished only in 1880.


The Knights of St John seize the island of Rhodes and use it as a base against Islamic states in the eastern Mediterranean. They will stay in their huge fortress until being driven out by Suleiman the Magnificent in 1521.


Pope Sixtus IV consecrates the Sistine Chapel.

Take the gorgeous Virtual Tour. Copy this link into your browser.

August 13


Arrest of a Spanish Heretic

Michael Servetus was born in Aragon about 1510 to a respectable family of the lower nobility. Well educated at the universities of Toulouse, Paris and Montpellier, Servetus demonstrated brilliance in a wide variety of fields: medicine, astronomy, law, geography and Biblical languages but it was his unorthodox views on the Godhead that brought him persecution and death.

In 1530 Servetus became a very junior part of the court of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (he who had faced Luther at Worms in 1521). In his travels with the emperor he encountered a number of Reformation thinkers and books and began to drift away from the Catholic faith. For the next decade Servetus became a renowned scientist and physician while also publishing works attacking the traditional notions of the Trinity. Despite a friendly correspondence with John Calvin in Geneva Servetus also condemned the notion of predestination, which helped lead to a break in his relations with Calvin who said: “Servetus has just sent me a long volume of his ravings. If I consent he will come here, but I will not give my word; for if he comes here, if my authority is worth anything, I will never permit him to depart alive.”

By 1553 Servetus had discovered the pulmonary circulation of the blood but the authorities were closing in on his heretical views. Forced to flee France, he headed for Italy with an ill-advised stop-over in Geneva. He was recognized in a church service on August 13, was denounced and arrested on charges of denying the Trinity and of attacking infant baptism. Calvin pressed hard for his execution, though since Servetus was neither a resident nor had he taught any doctrine in the city, banishment was the legal punishment. On October 27, 1553 he was burnt alive on a pile of his own books. Though most Protestant leaders supported the execution, it is an act that has blotted Calvin’s reputation to this day.

August 11


Death of Johann Tetzel, provoker of Martin Luther

Seldom has the financing of public works had such profound consequences. In the early sixteenth century, the papacy was engaged in a long-standing and expensive renewal of Rome and its churches; the centre-piece of this project was the enormous St Peter’s Basilica. The old St Peter’s, dating back to the 300s, had been torn down and the finest architects and artists had been engaged to produce a splendid successor — Bramante, Bernini, and Michelangelo all worked on the building. Their talents were costly, so popes were always looking for ways to find funding for this Renaissance masterpiece. In 1517 Pope Leo X, in return for a large sum of money, granted a waiver of canon law to allow Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz to hold two sees simultaneously. In order that Albrecht not suffer too much financially, the pope also granted him the franchise to preach an indulgence campaign in parts of Germany. Half of the money raised would go to the building of St Peter’s and the other half to Albrecht.

The catechism defines an indulgence as “a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain prescribed conditions through the action of the Church which, as the minister of redemption, dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints”. In the summer of 1517 the Dominican monk Johann Tetzel raised funds in Saxony in return for indulgences that would reduce the pains of Purgatory for those purchasing them or those already dead. Tetzel was an experienced preacher of such drives and his sermons were very effective. Unfortunately, he abused the permissible limits of indulgences by claiming in his sale pitch that “as soon as a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from Purgatory springs.”

Tetzel did not take his entourage to Wittenberg because its ruler, Frederick of Saxony, already possessed the rights to sell indulgences but word of Tetzel’s claims reached the ears of Augustinian monk Martin Luther. Luther was so incensed, both by the doctrine of indulgences and Tetzel’s fraudulent claims that he posted “97 Theses” on the doctrine of Purgatory and papal powers over the afterlife. This was the first shot in the battle we call the Protestant Reformation.

Tetzel was caught up in the controversy and was forced to retire in disgrace. Despite their disagreement, when Luther heard that Tetzel was dying he wrote to absolve him from responsibility for the firestorm that had erupted, telling him “not to be troubled, for the matter did not begin on his account, but the child had quite a different father.”

August 10

St Lawrence

The Church is proud of its martyrs. It assigns days of the year to their remembrance; it adorns its buildings with their statues and paintings; it bids us name our children after them. It recommends that those suffering from disorders pray for the intercession of a saint whose suffering was similar — thus Job, who sat on a dunghill scraping his lesions with a shard of broken pottery, is petitioned by those with skin diseases. The Church also makes them patrons of places and professions and in doing the latter often manifests a grim sense of humour. The saint for August 10 is St Lawrence who is, among other things, the patron of short-order cooks. Why? Thereby hangs a tale.

Lawrence was an arch-deacon in Rome in 258, in the midst of the Valerian persecution, a wide-ranging attack on Christianity ordered by the imperial government. After the execution of Pope Sixtus II, Lawrence was left as the highest-ranking churchman in the capital. Knowing that it would not be long before he too would be arrested, he charitably gave away the Church’s funds lest they be seized by the pagan government. On August 10, 258 Lawrence was summoned to trial and ordered to bring the treasury of the Church with him. He appeared before the authorities accompanied by a train of orphans, beggars, and the sick, saying that these were the “true treasures of the Church”. He was then executed by being placed on a red-hot grid-iron (see  above) which led to him being the patron saint of cooks and kitchen workers. He can also be appealed to by those who have been burnt or suffering from lumbago. His patronage of comedians comes from the remark he made while undergoing torture on the grid-iron. “Turn me over,” he is supposed to have said, “I’m done on this side.”

August 5

St Oswald

The seventh century saw the island of Britain divided among various Anglo-Saxon kingdoms set up by the Germanic invaders. Some of these had been Christianized, some remained pagan and there was no single state powerful enough to dominate the others. Occasionally, a strong ruler would arise who might temporarily be recognized as Bretwalda or “High King”. Such a one was Oswald of Northumbria (604-42)

During years of unrest, Oswald seems to have travelled in Ireland and the lowlands of Scotland where he was converted to Christianity. At the Battle of Heavenfield he defeated an army of Welsh and Mercians and made himself the most powerful ruler south of Scotland. He was instrumental in spreading the Christian religion and gave the island of Lindisfarne to the Irish monk Aidan as a base for evangelism. His generosity to the poor was legendary; St Aidan is said to have clasped him in admiration saying “May this hand never perish!” Oswald fell in battle against the pagan king of Mercia, Penda, who had his arms and head stricken off and mounted on a pole. Legend says his hand was recovered by his pet raven and where the bird dropped it, a healing well sprung up. His corpse was obtained by his brother Oswy and his relics are venerated in a number of churches in England and on the Continent. (There are supposed to be four heads of Oswald in circulation.) Many of these relics are associated with miracles and Oswald is called upon by those suffering from the plague. The image below is a German reliquary containing some fragment of the saint.

August 3


Nicodemus was an early believer in Jesus who appears three times in the Gospel of John, the first in Chapter 3:

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?

11 “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20 For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21 But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”

Later Nicodemus reminds the Sanhedrin that the law requires a hearing before Jesus can be judged, and he is among those who provide for the burial spices and tomb for his Lord. He is often venerated with Joseph of Arimathea. Because Nicodemus seeks out Jesus first at night, his name was used during the Reformation as an insult for those who chose to hide their true beliefs.

July 29


William Wilberforce dies

The prime mover behind the decision of the British Parliament to abolish the slave trade and then slavery itself in the Empire was born in 1759 to a family of wealthy Yorkshire merchants. With no need to earn a living, William Wilberforce was a rich young man with a penchant for parties, gambling, drinking, and travel. He entered politics at the age of 21 as an Independent but often supporting the policies of his friend William Pitt. At the age of 25 he underwent a religious conversion in which he began to take the demands of Christianity seriously. This was in a period in which an arid Deism and a disregard for traditional religion were fashionable. Wilberforce, however, made his faith the foundation of his political actions, which led him to become interested in the abolition of the slave trade.

In the late 18th century, Britain found that slavery was enormously profitable. British ships would carry wretched African captives to their colonies in the Americas, and to the Caribbean and South American plantations of other European powers as well. The cotton, sugar, rum and tobacco trades that slavery provided the labour for also made the merchants of Britain wealthy, so that to challenge the slave trade was to imperil the prosperity of the nation. Small wonder that the abolitionist movement had found little traction in Parliament despite petitions from Quakers beginning in 1783. Wilberforce became part of a group comprised of Christians inside and outside of the Anglican Church who organized to create the pressure necessary to defeat the vested interests and it was decided that he would lead the battle in the House of Commons. Bill after bill introduced by Wilberforce in the 1780s and 1790s failed until finally in 1807 the Slave Trade act was passed. Wilberforce’s reforms did not end there: he went on to press for Catholic emancipation, the total end of slavery, Parliamentary reform, and better working conditions for the poor; he was also a founder of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. He died in 1833 just after the passage of bills outlawing slavery in the British Empire.

The 2007 film Amazing Grace portrays Wilberforce’s struggles in Parliament and society. The title role went to Ioan Gruffudd who was less wooden than usual, his wife was played by the dazzling Romola Garai, but Albert Finney as an elderly John Newton, ex-slave trader and author of the hymn “Amazing Grace”, stole the show. Two decent biographies of Wilberforce are Eric Metaxas’s Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery, (2007) and William Wilberforce by Stephen Tomkins (2007).

July 26

Blessed Andrew the Catechist

Christianity penetrated Southeast Asia largely through the work of Portuguese Jesuits. In Vietnam they made a number of converts despite official opposition; one of these was Anrê of Phú Yên (1625-44). Andrew, as he was known, was baptized in his teens and served as an aide and teacher. He was caught up in a purge of Christians in 1644; loyal to his Jesuit clergy, he refused the orders of his ruler to renounce the faith. For this he was hanged (or stabbed or beheaded), becoming the first Vietnamese martyr. His body was taken to Macao, the Portuguese colony in southern China where it was interred. He was beatified in 2000 by Pope John Paul II. In the homily the pope preached on this occasion, he said of Andrew, “The words he repeated as he advanced on the path of martyrdom are the expression of what motivated his whole life: ‘Let us return love for love to our God, let us return life for life.’