Tag Archives: religion

An Easter Execution

If you happen to walk past Westminster Abbey during the day it’s likely that you’ll see a long, snaking queue of tourists leading to the north door. Most of these tourists pay little attention to the smaller church of St Margaret’s that stands to the left of the Abbey entrance.

Seen by most as the Abbey’s dowdy, dull little sibling, most of the tourists lining up for Abbey tickets won’t bother venturing in to St Margaret’s. That’s a shame, as it is a fascinating building. Samuel Pepys was married there, as was John Milton and Winston Churchill. Sir Walter Raleigh is buried in St Margaret’s in the chancel. Raleigh had been beheaded in Old Palace Yard just outside in 1618, charged with plotting with the French. His widow, Elizabeth Throckmorton, carried his severed, embalmed head with her in a red velvet bag for the rest of her life. Tradition states that the head was interred with the rest of the body when their son, Carew, died and was buried next to Walter.

Quite a few London guidebooks mention Raleigh and his execution, along with other executions that took place outside Parliament. Few mention that St Margaret’s is the site of a religious martyrdom. I’ve previously written about how a bloody fight in the Abbey resulted in the death of a monk, but that was not to be the last time that Abbey clergy were to be attacked.

During the reign of Henry VIII England had undergone a religious upheaval, breaking away from Roman Catholicism. The Abbey was dissolved in 1540 along with other monasteries up and down the country. The building was saved from destruction thanks to the ties between to Abbey and royalty with Henry announcing that the Abbey was now a cathedral. When Henry died his youngest child and only son Edward became king and carried on the momentum of the Reformation, pushing further towards Protestantism. Edward died of a horrible illness aged only fifteen. He was unmarried and childless, and despite his best efforts his plan to install his very Protestant cousin Lady Jane Grey as his successor failed when his furious and incredibly Catholic older sister Mary marched upon London. Mary claimed her throne and eventually had Jane executed. Mary wasted no time in restoring Roman Catholicism as the official religion of the nation, earning the moniker ‘Bloody Mary’ for her eager execution of Protestant ‘heretics.’

The sudden swing back to the ‘old’ ways made life very difficult for those who had embraced the Reformation.

William Flower was born in Cambridgeshire and had become a monk as a youth at the monastery in Ely. He later left, aged 21, eschewing Catholicism for radical Protestantism. He married a woman named Alice Pulton and the couple went on to have two children. They moved frequently with Flower alternating between working as a schoolmaster and physician/surgeon alongside his radical ministry. The family settled in Lambeth, across the river from Westminster. On 14th April 1555, Easter Sunday, William Flower left Lambeth to go to the service taking place in St Margaret’s. Mary I had been on the throne for nearly two years, masses in London churches were now decidedly Catholic. Flower was so overcome with religious zeal when he watched the sacrament being distributed among the congregation that he took his large wood knife and hacked at the head and hands of one of the priests, John Cheltham/Shelton. Cheltham was seriously injured but members of the congregation tore Flower off of him before the attack became fatal. Cheltham’s blood dropped into the sacred wine, tainting it so much that the congregation were forced to leave the church and celebrate the Eucharist elsewhere. The entire church also had to be reconsecrated following the bloodshed. Flower was taken to the gatehouse in Westminster and put in chains.

Such a frenzied attack may be seen as a crime of passion, yet there are aspects of the attack that point to a premeditated suicide mission. Flower had entered the church wearing a placard that read “Fear God, flee from the idol” in Latin. He also had a religious manifesto in his pocket, later admitting that if the congregation had lynched him before he could be arrested, someone could at least read it and understand his motives. Whilst imprisoned he corresponded with his friend, Robert Smith, a fellow radical who was at the time himself incarcerated in Newgate Prison. Flower wrote that he had not previously met Cheltham and had no personal vendetta, and would have attacked any priest distributing the communion that day. He also told Smith that he had been to St Paul’s that morning and could not bring himself to attack anyone, but had felt compelled by the Spirit later that day to go to St Margaret’s with violent intentions, fully expecting to lose his own life in the process. Flower stated that he wasn’t repentant, telling Smith that God has chosen him to carry out his will.

On the 19th of April Flower was brought before Bishop Bonner for interrogation. Flower remained unrepentant and reiterated his belief that, as a Protestant, he did not believe in transubstantiation and that he believed he was doing holy work. Bonner then tried to convince Flower to come back to the Catholic faith, but Flower thanked him and refused. He told Bonner that if he was aware that Bonner had the power  to decide whether he lived or died, but that Bonner could never have power over his soul and that God alone could judge him.

Witnesses to the attack gave statements at a deposition and Bonner charged Flower with heresy, excommunicating him. On the 24th April William Flower was brought to the spot where he was to be executed, outside St Margaret’s church. He addressed the crowd:

O eternal God, most mighty and merciful Father, who hast sent down thy Son upon the earth, to save me and all mankind, who ascended up into heaven again, and left his blood upon the earth behind him, for the redemption of our sins, have mercy upon me, have mercy upon me, for thy dear Son our Saviour Jesus Christ’s sake, in whom I confess only to be all salvation and justification, and that there is none other mean, nor way, nor holiness, in which or by which any man can be saved in this world.– This is my faith, which I beseech all men here to bear witness of.

After then reciting the Lord’s Prayer, Flower was given one last chance to recant. He refused. His right arm, with which he had attacked the priest, was chopped off and his left was tied behind him to the stake on which he was to be burned. The faggots provided for the execution were insufficient to provide a large enough fire to kill Flower quickly. Holding up his severed arm for as long as he could, he prayed for God to receive his soul. The executioners had to prod him with bills into the hottest part of the fire, eventually pulling him down to a lying position into the embers. Even so, the fire still only reached his navel. Still conscious, spectators could still see his tongue move in his mouth as the bottom half of his body was consumed. It took a long time for William Flower to die.

The botched execution gave William Flower an unnecessarily cruel and prolonged death. He was the sixteenth person to die for his faith under the reign of Bloody Mary. His friend Robert Smith later would use their letters to shift public perceptions of Flower from crazed lunatic to religious martyr before himself falling victim of the Marian persecutions and being executed in August that same year, the fortyfirst to die.

284 people were executed for their faith during the 5 year reign of Bloody Mary, the last a mere 2 days before Mary herself died in 1558.Upon her death, Mary’s sister Elizabeth became Queen and quickly set about once again moving the country away from Catholicism. Bishop Bonner, a man who had been ruthlessly efficient in executing heretics, was imprisoned and died in the Marshalsea in 1569, still trying to convert others to his Catholic faith. He too has earned the moniker ‘Bloody.’ Westminster Abbey and, by extension, St Margaret’s, were once more converted into Anglican churches and have remained so ever since. Despite this, William Flower and his attack on John Cheltham are conspicuously missing from the official Westminster Abbey website and his story is not included on the audioguide. His name doesn’t feature on any memorial or monument. William Flower does live on, however, in John Foxe’s Book of of Actes and Monuments, AKA Book of Martyrs, first published in 1563.







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Veneto Adventure Travel Journal – Verona Day 1

18 April 2016

I wake up in a tiny B&B a mere few dozen yards from a huge Roman amphitheatre. Life is good. I don’t usually mention the restaurants and hotels that I use, but the owner of the B&B Principe All’Arena is such a charming gentleman that I will happily endorse him here for any traveller to Verona with a limited budget. He was easily the warmest host this trip.

I was adamant that I was going to include Verona on my trip. The city predates the Romans, becoming a colony around 300 BC. The Romans have lured me here; the architecture left behind from the various rulers who followed are a delightful bonus. It’s a Monday, the day when Italian museums traditionally close. Verona is blessed with numerous beautiful churches for me to explore instead. First however, I need to spend a bit of time soaking up the ancient atmosphere outside the arena.

First church of the day is the Basilica San Zeno. I purchase a Verona Tourist Card instead of delving around for a handful of coins, particularly since the Verona card will grant me access to everything that I’ve come to see.


There has been a religious structure here since the 4th century AD when a small church was built next to the tomb of the eighth Bishop of Verona, a North African man named Zeno. Zeno was made a saint after his death (sources differ on whether his death was a martyrdom,)  and became patron  saint of Verona. The original church was replaced with a romanesque basilica and monastery in the 9th century, but what we see today is the result of a rebuilding and enlargement following an earthquake that hit Verona in 1117.

I can’t recall visiting a church with an open, split level before. The presbytery is higher than the rest of the church, whilst stairs lead down to the crypt beneath. It’s a beautiful effect in an already beautiful church.


13thC  statues of Christ and the Apostles line the balustrade separating the nave and presbytery levels.

I decide to head into the crypt first, optimistically claimed by some to be the wedding chapel of Romeo and Juliet…



The coffin of St Zeno



The crypt is a church within the church and each of the 49 columns has a unique capital.



The basilica is decorated with several frescoes from the 13th and 14th centuries. They depict religious scenes for the benefit of the illiterate congregation.




George and the Dragon

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Bronze panels decorate the door


After San Zeno I walk back east, passing Castelvecchio and the arena on the way to the Church of San Fermo and Rustico.


Firmus and Rusticus were Christian martyrs, tortured and beheaded under Emperor Maximian for refusing to make pagan sacrifices. The church is supposedly built on or near to the site of their execution.


The upper church


The pulpit and frescoes date from 1396


This structure encloses the choir



The lower church is accessed via stairs in the right transept.

Walking north along the River Aldige it’s a short walk to the Basilica Sant’Anastasia. The rather plain ( and technically unfinished) facade hides a truly beautiful interior.


The building of the Basilica began in 1290 and was mainly finished by 1323 with further building completed between 1423 and 1481.


The Basilica of Sant'Anastasia #igersverona #ig_verona

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It’s only a short walk to the Cathedral and I’m disappointed to find it temporarily closed to the public. As a consolation, the Baptistery and Church of St Helen are still accessible.

The Chiesa Sant’Elena is on the site that Saint Zeno laid down the first Christian church in Verona.

The Chiesa di San Giovanni in Fonte was originally the cathedral baptistery. The octagonal font is carved from a  single block of stone and dates to the 13th century. The reliefs depict scenes from the Annunciation to the Baptism of Christ.


After a spot of lunch, keeping a wary eye on a grey cloud threatening to turn black, it’s time for the ancient theatre and archaeological museum accompanying it. I’m not surprised to find it closed, it is becoming somewhat of a curse for me whenever I visit Italy to find the things I most want to see shut or covered in scaffolding.

Grumpy, I decide to climb up the Scalinata Castel S Pietro, a stairway up the hill to an Austrian barracks built over an older castle that had been built on the site of a Roman temple. Naturally, to add to my frustration, the Castel is inaccessible behind chain link fences because of some renovation works. The panoramic views from the piazzale and the glimpses of the theatre on the way up are enough to cheer me up, though…

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A few hours now sadly left free, I wander around Verona before choosing a restaurant just off the Piazza Bra by the amphitheatre. The restaurants facing the piazza look touristy and expensive but mine, Le Cantine de l’Arena has al fresco seating tucked in the Piazzetta Scaletti Rubiani where I can happily dine on gnocchi with walnuts in a gooey Monte Veronese cheese sauce whilst gazing at the arena as the night gets darker.

I can’t resist a bit of night time photography on my last night of the trip.



Palazzo Barbieri


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Eleusis and the Mysteries (Athens Travel Journal – Day Six)

13th May 2014

I have managed to pack nearly everything I have planned to see on this trip already, deliberately having left this day blank on the itinerary so that I could catch up if need be. I’m surprised to have been so efficient, if I’m honest! Now all I have to do is work out what to do with the day. I have a few options but end up choosing Eleusis, home of the Mysteries, a religious festival to honour Demeter.

I could tell you about the Mysteries, but then I’d have to kill you. Seriously, the sacred rites were a closely guarded secret and any initiate who blabbed about what occurred at the sanctuary faced execution. The secret was so well kept over the centuries that no historian has managed to find out what the rites comprised of. They were a mystery to outsiders during antiquity, they’re a mystery to us today.

The festival honoured Demeter and Persephone/Kore, possibly better known now by their Roman names of Ceres and Proserpina.

Persephone was the daughter of Zeus and his sister Demeter. Whilst walking happily in the countryside, Persephone picked a narcissus flower and disappeared. Demeter was distraught, searching for her daughter in the Heavens and on the Earth. She interrogated her fellow immortals hoping to find a witness, finally convincing Helios the sun god to explain what had happened.

When Persephone had picked the narcissus, a great crack appeared in the ground and she was pulled beneath the surface. Eventually Zeus admitted that he had promised Persephone as a bride Hades, Lord of the Underworld.

Demeter was heartbroken at the betrayal of her brother and the loss of her daughter. As goddess of grains and growth, she grew so depressed that she neglected her duties. No plants grew and people began to starve.

Demeter, unwilling to live on Mount Olympus with her treacherous brother, wandered Greece. Like the plants, she withered.

Demeter came to Eleusis where she was taken in by King Celeus to nurse his sons Demophon and Triptolemus. To reward Celeus for his hospitaluty, Demeter decides to make Demophon immortal by feeding him ambrosia and immersing him in flames. She is interrupted by Queen Metaneira as the boy is engulfed in fire, causing Metanira to scream. Startled, Demeter is unable to complete the immortalisation and berates Metaneira for her lack of respect to ritual, revealing herself as a goddess.

Demeter calls for a temple to be built for her at Eleusis by way of apology. Meanwhile drought and famine continue to ravage the land as Demeter, the only one who knows the secrets of agriculture, refuses to work until she is reunited with her daughter.

Meanwhile, Persephone has become Queen of the Underworld as the wife of Hades, who is deeply in love with her. Zeus, desperate to end the famine, sends Hermes to retrieve Persephone to placate Demeter. Unwilling to lose his wife, Hades offers Persephone some pomegranate seeds. If she eats anything in the Realm of the Dead, she will be unable to leave. Persephone eats some of the seeds. Unhappy at being tricked, Zeus strikes a new deal. Persephone must spend two thirds of the year above ground with her mother, and one third in the Underworld with her husband.

In spring when Persephone is reunited with Demeter at Eleusis, Demeter is so happy that plants start to shoot up from the ground. Demeter spends happy summers with her daughter, gladly causing the plants to thrive and be fruitful. The leaves start to turn brown in autumn as Demeter prepares to say goodbye. When Persephone returns to Hades, Demeter is too sad and lonely to let anything grow or survive the winter.

Agreeing to the plan, Demeter offers to pass the secret of agriculture to mortals, teaching Triptolemus, younger son of Celeus, how to make plants grow. Celeus and Triptolemus became her first priests and the first to witness the Mysteries.

Anyone could become an initiate to the Mysteries as long as they spoke Greek (no barbarians, please!) and didn’t have any killings they hadn’t been purified of. In a culture where women and slaves were excluded from many activities it is noteworthy that both groups had the same opportunities at Eleusis as freeborn men.

There were two events. The Lesser Mysteries happened in the spring and the Greater Mysteries occurred in Autumn. Initiates must have taken part in the Lesser Mysteries before they would be allowed to witness the Greater Mysteries.

A first time initiate was known as a mystes, and having acquired the necessary sponsorship from a great Eleusis family, they would be introduced to their mystagogos, someone who had already experienced the rites and could guide the novices through the festival. After mystai were inducted into the cult they became known as epoptes.

The sacred road was 118 stadia from the Sacred Gate in the Kerameikos quarter of Athens to the sanctuary at Eleusis, ie about 13 miles.
On the eve of the festival, sacred cult objects hidden from public view in round boxes are taken from the sanctuary to Athens. On the first day of the festival the mystaiwould gather in the agora for an opening ceremony. The following day they then went to the Bay of Phalaron to ritually bathe. Sacrifices, usually of pigs, were made and feasting followed for two days.

The sacred objects were then processed back to Eleusis, followed by the joyous mystai, crowned with myrtle. The procession of 13 miles was all by foot and took the entire day. Nearer to the sanctuary, men in masks would accost initiates to remind them to be humble in the presence of the goddess Demeter, patron deity of the festival.

There was then a day of quiet fasting, only broken with drinks of water mixed with grain meal. The fast is followed by the day of which we know the least about. Mystai entered the Telesterion, a huge hall that could seat 3,000 people, for the most secretive rites in the ancient Greek world. Most other Greeks didn’t even dare speculate as to what occurred inside the Telesterion. An all night feast followed with music and dancing and the sacrifice of a bull. There is no final ceremony, initiates slowly making their way home in quiet reflection instead.

Several writers were initiates to the Mysteries, including Sophocles, Aristophanes, Plutarch and Pausanius, but even these industrious scribblers knew better than to commit what they had witnessed to paper. Historians believe the Mysteries may have been the secret to life after death and that the rites may have included hallucinogenic visions. No one will ever know!

The practicalities of making a modern trip yo the sancruary are fairly simple. From my base of Omonia Square it was a short walk down Pireos road to Platia Eleftherias AKA Platia Koumoundourou, a rather bland square with a large pigeon population. The square is not too far away from the Kerameikos, so I’m inadvertently starting my journey to Eleusis very close to where pilgrims began their journey there thousands of years before. Tickets for the bus can be bought from any of the small kiosks, along with a drink and a snack for the journey. A single is €1.20, making the journey there and back cheaper than the entrance fee. This is a bit of a public transport hub with several different bus stops, the buses to Eleusis depart from the southern side of the square. Look for bus numbers A16 and B16, both go to Elefsina, the modern name for Eleusis. There are timetables on the busstop, with each bus departing at about half hour intervals. The journey takes about an hour.

It’s not wonderfully clear where you’re supposed to stop, and as the only tourist on this bus I can’t follow the crowds. Hang on in there and don’t get off the bus until the end of the route, Elefsina doesn’t expect tourists and doesn’t cater to them. Don’t be put off by the industrial, unapologetic scruffiness of the modern town either. Once you get to the archaeological site the noise and unsightly buildings disappear. Signs to the archaeological area are few and far between and it took me a few attempts to find a local with good enough English to point me in the right direction. The entrance fee is €3. Once there I follow the suggestion of my Rough Guide and head to the Museum first, right at the other side of the misleadingly large site.

I’m admittedly nervous for this visit. Everything else I’ve seen on this trip I’ve researched in detail so that I have every site mapped out in my mind, able to recreate what the buildings looked like in my mind above the remaining foundations that I can see. This is a trip organised after an hour, I know little to nothing about the site or the layout. I’m not comfortable with this level of preparation (after all, it’s what tour guides do!) and the site will be buggered before it helps you. The signs are old, cracked, in some places faded to the point of being illegible. They hold little information and some don’t have translations at all. Do as I did, head to the museum first. I cannot stress this enough, BUY THE GUIDE BOOK. It is inexpensive and invaluably useful. At points I had to take photos of me pointing to the map inside so that I would later know what the next photo was of. I sympathise with the site, it doesn’t have the tourist draw of Delphi or Epidaurus, you won’t find any coaches stopping here. But the site is majestically sprawling and has a fascinating history, it deserves so much better than what it has now. A few new signs with a bit more information on them would do wonders for the visitors who do make the effort to come here. It’s evident that currently only major nerds head out here, they should be rewarded with at least a complimentary site map!


This beautiful carytid dates from the second half of the 1st century BC and comes from the Lesser Propylaia

The museum has a couple of very helpful maps that help to explain the development of the sanctuary from the archaic origins to the Roman occupation.

My route around the site is haphazard, so I’ll describe the sanctuary as I should have visited it.

Once finished at the museum, head back to the entrance. As with Delphi, the entrance to the Greek sanctuary was extended by the Romans, this time with a large, paved court.



This is the Temple of Artemis and Poseidon. Artemis is the other daughter of Demeter, fathered by her other brother, Poseidon.


I think these are the columns from the Temple of Artemis and Poseidon, but I can’t find a single sign that confirms this…


An eschara, a sacred barbecue. A grill fits on above the fire pit, sacrificial animals were cooked on it.


A fountain provided much needed refreshment after a 13 mile walk.


Remains of one of the two triumphal arches. One marked the end of the sacred road, the other the road to Megara.


The Kollichoron – The Well of the Fair Dances. Demeter was said to rest here whilst searching for Persephone

Once assembled and prepared, the crowds would head through the Roman Greater Propylaea, (Greater Gate) into the sanctuary proper. The Propylaea stood on an earlier, smaller Greek gateway built by Cimon.



Marcus Aurelius was commemorated on the Greater Propylaea


Looking through the enormous Greater Gate towards the Roman courtyard

Silos were situated beyond the Greater Propylaea to store the first fruits of harvest, a gift to Demeter.

There was then a smaller gateway, called the Lesser Propylaea, home to the carytid now housed in the museum.


The Lesser Propylaea in the foreground, the Greater Propylaea behind


The Lesser Propylaea


Grooves cut into the stone for huge gates.

Once through the second gateway there is a cave on the immediate right. It is the Plutoneion, the building being a small temple to Hades, known to the Romans as Pluto, God of the Underworld. The Gateway to the Underworld was thought to be here, where Persephone emerged to meet her mother.



Above these steps was a small temple to Hecate

As the Sacred Way begins to slope downwards you’ll catch your first glimpse (depending on whether you’ve been to the museum!) of the Telesterion, the Hall of the Mysteries. Head up on the right and climb to the top level of the steps for a great perspective of the Hall.


The Telesterion

It is difficult to appreciate fully when I visit, long grass covers much of the building and hasn’t yet been cleared for peak season. I see a couple of groundskeepers during my visit, they have a big job ahead of them. You can walk right along the top and back down a set of wooden steps at the end closest to the museum.

The Telesterion grew from a small Mycenean building into a gargantuan, windowless building that housed a forest of internal columns. The original building always survived within the extensions as it was, becoming known as the Anaktoron. The Anaktoron was a kind of Holy of Holies, entrance to the inner sanctum was permitted to priests only.


Seating ran along each side so that the mystai all got a good view of the priests conducting the rituals.

Once you’ve seen the Telesterion, head up as if you were returning to the museum, but turn left instead of right. The sanctuary was fortified and you can walk around the walls, admiring the various stages of their construction.

First, you’ll pass a Roman portico and the old Bouleuterion (the meeting place of the citizen council.)


As you can see, the men with the lawnmowers hadn’t got as far as the Bouleuterion when I saw it…



4th century BC section of the wall. This portion is named after the man who built it, Lykourgos.

The Romans built a gymnasium for worshippers to use during the festival but all my photo shows is long grass!

IMG_8846 IMG_8847

There is even an inn built to house initiates during the festival. The religious rites were taken so seriously that prices were capped for room and board.


Ancient Travelodge


Obligatory Roman bathhouse

Following the path with the bathhouse and inn on your right, you’ll come back out into the Roman courtyard, having completed your day in Eleusis.

After a huge drink it’s time to catch the bus back.

I meet up with my friend Victoria and a few of her friends later that night in Plaka. When I tell them I spent the day in Elefsina they look at me as if I am insane for wanting to spend my time in a grubby suburb surrounded by industrial estates. They’ve forgotten the sanctuary is there and none of them have visited. Victoria (a huge anglophile,) explains that Greeks have their ancient heritage shoved down their throats from a young age, sometimes resulting in deep passion but more often leading to bored ambivalence. I empathise, I suffered from Tudor Fatigue for many years after school.

Personally, I found the day well worth the effort. I’d like to go back one day to a well manicured, well signposted site, but I guess the Greek government has more pressing matters to attend to right now!

After my drinks with Victoria it is time for bed, I have a busy day tomorrow before my flight departs in the evening…


Demeter circa 420 BC

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