1538: John Forest and the image of Saint Derfel Gadarn

Add comment May 22nd, 2019 09:54pm Headsman

English Franciscan John Forest was burned at Smithfield on this date in 1538 … the undercard to the simultaneous “execution” of a downthrown idol of Saint Derfel Gadarn.

The latter had been ripped from its shrine at Llandderfel in Gwynedd, Wales: the place gets its name from Derfel himself and its devotion to its Celtic patron had not waned in the centuries since but fostered a thriving pilgrimage site where the icon received the offerings of devotees in trust of the saint’s supernatural protection.

Such rituals really infuriated the iconoclastic, monastery-shuttering reformers abroad in England in Henrician England post-Anne Boleyn and in 1538 Derfel G. came in for special “punishment.”

“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,” fumed the king’s own scaffold-bound Lord Chancellor, Thomas Cromwell. “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.”

Cromwell and team were very keen to show up the superstition, hypocrisy, and money-grubbing wrapped up in these quaint old idols, to expose to the public gaze the contraptions that allowed statues to weep or the priests that dined hearty on the victuals sacrificed by poor pilgrims … and so it came to pass that the May 22, 1538 death of John Forest at the stake was also a great demystifying of old Saint Derfel. Hauled to London from its native haunts, this image was railed at in a showboating sermon by the scaffold-bound Bishop of Worcester, Hugh Latimer.

In this spectacle designed for the cheap seats, Latimer spent hours ceremonially exhorting the patiently trussed John Forest to abjure his heresies. Forest predictably declining, the image of Saint Derfel was then produced and challenged to intervene for his spiritual bannerman, even engaged in a stagey grappling match — until finally the discredited simulacrum was tossed as mere fuel into the pyre that swallowed John Forest. (Forest has the distinction of being the only Catholic martyr burned at the stake during the English Reformation.)

The always enjoyable History of England podcast delves into the frightful fate of Saint Derfel’s icon and Blessed John Forest’s living flesh in episode 236.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,History,Inanimate Objects,Martyrs,Notable Participants,Public Executions,Religious Figures

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