Flames crackled and rose into the heavy air as my father’s servants piled more bundles of brushwood on the fire. Smoke rose grey-black out of the flickering orange tongues, the heat from the rising fire making my younger brother Frank draw back, fearful that we too might be singed or burned, even as the stench of burning flesh made us put our hands over our noses and recoil from its acrid, noxious reek.
I did not step back, I held my ground even as I heard Jocelyn’s agonizing cries. I held my breath and shut my eyes and prayed, please God, make it rain. Please God, put the fire out.
It was a lowering and cold morning. The overcast sky was growing darker by the minute, and I had felt a few drops of rain. I thought, it wouldn’t take much rain to douse this fire. Please, let it come now!
A large strong hand clamped onto my shoulder—I could sense its roughness through the sleeve of my gown—and I felt myself pulled backwards.
“Get back, Lettie! Can’t you see the fire is spreading? Stand back there, beside your brother!”
“But father,” I pleaded, my voice nearly lost amid the roar of the flames and the sharp snapping of twigs and branches, “it’s Jocelyn. Our Jocelyn. I am praying that the Lord will send rain and save him!”
I looked up into my father’s anguished face and saw at once the ravages of pain on his stern features. His voice was hoarse as he bent down and whispered “I’m praying for him too. Now do as I tell you!”
The fire was growing hotter. I was sweating, my flushed face was burning though the day was cold and once again I felt a spatter of raindrops on one cheek. I moved back to join my brother, who was weeping, sniffling loudly, and took his hand. At first he had tried his best to be manly, to resist the strong tug of emotion that we all felt. But Jocelyn had been his tutor, our tutor. He taught us our letters, and our writing hand, and, later, gave us our lessons in Greek and Latin. I had studied with him for seven years, Frank for nearly six. We loved him.
And now we were being forced to watch him die.
He was being burned for heresy. For professing the Protestant faith, as we did. For refusing to obey Queen Mary’s command that all her subjects attend mass and revere the pope and renounce the church of Luther, the church her father Henry VIII and her late brother Edward VI had officially embraced, in sharp opposition to the age-old Roman belief.
Many felt as Jocelyn did, but most hid their convictions, and attended mass despite them. My father, who was always a practical man, did as Queen Mary ordered and told us to do the same.
“What we do outwardly does not matter,” he told us. “It’s what we believe in our hearts that makes us members of the true faith. The Lord sees what is in our hearts, and protects and favors us.”
But Jocelyn, who was very brave, and very learned, a scholar from Magdalen College and a student of the ancient texts of the church, was not satisfied. To pretend allegiance to the pope and the mass was wrong, he said. To disguise the truth. And so he had spoken out against the queen and her Catholic mass, and had been seized and thrown into a dungeon. And now, on this day, he was condemned to die.
I had watched him, looking thin and gaunt, as they made him walk across the damp grass to where the reeds and split branches were being piled knee-deep. In the center of the pile was a three-legged stool, and he had been made to stand up on it. But before he did so he reached down to pick up some of the reeds and kissed them reverently.
“See how he blesses the reeds! See how he embraces his martyrdom!” I heard people in the crowd exclaim. “Surely he will be with the Lord in paradise!” But they kept their voices low, for they did not want to be put in prison or forced to submit to punishment, and we were all aware that there were guards and soldiers everywhere, listening for blasphemous words against the church of Rome.
Then the torch had been put to the twigs and branches, and the fire had blazed up, and Jocelyn, praying loudly for the queen who had condemned him and for my father and the servants who had built the fire, had at last been overcome by pain and began screaming.
I heard my father, in anguish, call out to Jocelyn, asking his forgiveness. But the only response was a loud wail of agony, and hearing it, I saw my proud, stern father shed tears.
Young as I was, only sixteen on the day Jocelyn was condemned to die, I realized that my father was being punished alongside our tutor. Queen Mary was making him suffer. She knew well that he had been a faithful servant of the crown ever since he was a very young man, serving in King Henry’s privy chamber and, after the old king’s death, serving King Edward as an envoy and councilor. He was unwaveringly faithful to the monarchy—but he did not, in his heart, profess the old religion, and she resented him for this. She was vengeful, everyone said so. Now she was taking vengeance against my father by forcing him to carry out the sentence of death against the young man she knew he was fond of, Jocelyn Palmer.
All of a sudden a strong wind blew up, I felt it lift my skirts and draw its raw breath against my neck. I let go of Frank’s hand for a moment as he pulled away from me, escaping the glowing sparks that blew toward us.
The wind was putting the fire out. I dared to look at Jocelyn. His hair was burnt away as was most of his clothing, and the skin of his face was scorched and blackened, but his lips were moving.
He was singing, a hymn tune. His voice was scratchy but I recognized the tune. Others joined in the singing as the fire died to embers.
“Dear Jesus, Son of David, have mercy upon me,” Jocelyn cried out. “Let it end!”
Soldiers approached my father and spoke to him, standing so near to him that I could not hear what they were saying. I looked up at the darkening sky. Surely it would rain soon, a hard rain. The sign of God’s mercy.
Then my father was giving orders and fresh loads of brushwood and branches were being brought and the fire rekindled. But not before a burly guard had reached up to strap two swollen sheep’s bladders around Jocelyn’s waist.
“No,” I cried to my father. “Spare him! Let him live!”
Once again my father grasped my arm, bending down so that he could speak to me, and to me alone.
“I must do as the queen commands. Otherwise we all face Jocelyn’s peril. But there is one last mercy I can show him. The bladders are filled with gunpowder. When the fire reaches them, they will explode, and he will die. He will be spared much agony.”
Torches were put to the wood and the fire began to blaze up, though I could feel drops of rain falling now, the rain I had prayed for, and smoke rose with the fire, black, choking smoke that was blown into our faces, and with it, the stink of Jocelyn’s flesh. I thought then, I cannot bear this.
I felt my gorge rise. I doubled over. My legs felt heavy, and it was hard to breathe. Minutes passed. All around me I could hear people weeping and sighing and coughing from the thickening smoke. I glanced at Frank. He had closed his eyes and bowed his head. His fists were clenched at his sides.
With a bright flash and a loud crack the bladders of gunpowder exploded, but there was to be no mercy for Jocelyn. The blasts went outward, tearing away part of one of his arms but leaving his blackened torso intact.
How I found the courage to look at Jocelyn then, in his last extremity, I will never understand. His legs were burnt, blood seeped from the fingers of one arm and his eyes were charred sockets. Yet his swollen tongue moved within what was left of his gums, and I knew that he prayed.
“Lord Jesus,” I heard my father say in a broken voice, “receive his spirit!”
Then with another loud crack the skies opened and rain began to pour down in thick sheets, flooding the grass and quenching the fire and turning the ground to thick squelching mud underfoot.
It was the rain I had prayed for, but it came too late. What was left of Jocelyn’s body hung limp and lifeless, the flesh of his face—a face I had loved—so burned away that I could not have said whose face it was.
I felt Frank reach for my hand and we clung to each other, standing there in the drenching rain, until the crowd scattered and my father gave the order to wrap the body in a burial cloth and take it away.
RIVAL TO THE QUEEN. Copyright © 2010 by Carolly Erickson. All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.