September 2017

Back to Issue 2

Excerpt from ‘Act of Faith’

By Cheryl Hayden

Zaragoza, 1587 

Before the sun is up, two men – a soldier and a Dominican priest – arrive to fetch him from the hostel. He is a soldier himself, yet they frighten him beyond reason.  In a pouch tucked inside his jerkin is a copy of the letter from the Supremo, counter-signed and stamped with the seal of the Holy Inquisition at Barcelona. He can only trust that it testifies to the nobility of one Englishman, Tristram Winslade, and his adherence to all that is good and true. Right now, any relief it might deliver to his heart, pounding away deep beneath padded kersey layers, is quivering in the pre-dawn chill. They stop at a bakehouse and like kinsmen sit by a brazier, eating sweet bread and goats’ cheese, drinking coffee, while morning strikes the Moorish domes on the cathedral. They ask him about Sir John Arundell. Describe him. Describe his house, its buildings. Describe the garden. 

     He describes Sir John. He describes Lanherne. He describes stables, pigsties, the forge and the carpenter’s workshop. He describes the flower garden, the orchard, the courtyard. And then, sensing that one of them has visited Cornwall, with the ambassador, perhaps, he describes the route from the beach. The wide strand, the cliffs, the caves, the river, the landing, the grated and locked tunnel. The trapdoor. The painting of Virgin and child above Sir John’s desk.  

     Winslade trembles with cold and worry.  

     Afterwards, they walk through the town and enter the prison courtyard, where the penitents are being marshalled. The place is rancid with fear, and the stench of stale sweat, urine and excrement assaults them. There is skin of all types, and although the poor creatures have been bathed in honour of the celebrations to come – their last prayers, last suppers, last chance for the mercy of strangulation before the fire – not one bears the fair, clear skin of youth. Not even the young. Welts and scars and burns and floggings have left their signatures upon legs and arms and cheeks.  Hollow eyes speak of sleeplessness nights and endless prayer, of wishing and hoping and regret and remorse, and the rising inevitability of abject pain and terror.

     Draped in their yellow sanbenitos, violently daubed with the red cross of sin and humiliation, among them can be found every aspect of humour: some defiant in their refusal of God and the saints, their heads held high; some with their resolve in silent collapse; others howling with remorse and repentance.  At least half are women, and one – and old woman, who reminds him of old Aunt Jane, God rest her soul – tries to fight the guards. She uses tooth and nail and is knocked unconscious for her effort, then splashed with water to bring her back to her senses. 

     By the far wall, twenty or so halberdiers are milling around as though celebrating a nephew’s baptism. When the penitents have eaten, these armour-clad warriors will lead them into the arena.  Already, two of their number are positioned to ensure that only citizens and approved witnesses gain entry to the auto, for which they will each receive forty favours as a reward for honouring the Inquisition’s holy work. 

     The cathedral bell tolls and the soldier and the priest hustle him away, out of the prison grounds and back towards the plaza. They must take their seats before the procession begins and already the crowd is pushing and shoving. Young men have climbed upon scaffolding which has been erected in front of doorways, old women sit knitting or dandling babies on window balconies, fathers sit small children upon their shoulders. One of the halberdiers makes way for them, as their seats are among the officials at the front, where the glitter and pomp make him wonder if the King himself might be in attendance. The priest takes himself off, leaving him to gaze upon the green cross which has been erected on the platform. But Winslade follows him with his eyes, watches as his demeanour, his evidence, his statements are reported to those who must be informed.

     He fingers the letter. The parchment is soft with body heat. 

     The sun is warm on his back by the time he hears the drums. It signals a heightened tension, an escalation in cheering and then a hushing time, in which mothers and fathers quiet their children, crane their necks and reluctantly make space for those pushing in from behind. Then, a tingling silence. Two strong rows of guards prevent the crush from sweeping forward, and Winslade must stand and turn in order to see. Above the crowd, the halberdiers’ steel helmets and the tips of their halberds denote the procession’s arrival.  Then, higher and more visible, comes the black-draped cross of the parish, mourning the fallen souls of those whose sentences are to be pronounced. He hears the hissing and taunting as the penitents appear, but it is only when the procession reaches the front of the plaza that he sees them. A long line of shuffling, shackled creatures, half-blinded, some of them, by rotten tomatoes and grapes, and cowered by yelled obscenities he can only guess at.  His eyes cannot help but seek out the woman who fought the guards.  It is a full half hour before he sees her.  And there she is, at the end of the procession, naked to the waist and shrivelled, with her thick grey hair hacked off, and sat upon a donkey with her feet tied beneath like a girth. The donkey’s rump is black with her blood, and yet alongside the flogger is still at it and another functionary counts each flail as it tears at her thin, dry skin.  She slumps to the right, yet emits not one sound. How will she go to her death?  And for what heinous crime? What if she is innocent? It is a tiny niggle, but still it niggles. For he cannot help but put Aunt Jane there, upon that donkey, and feel his heart quake.  

     He closes his eyes, but no. They are watching him. He must bear witness, or at least be seen to be doing so. He opens his eyes and finds a place in middle distance upon which he can focus. He talks in his head, hoping his silent thoughts might block out the horror of this thing. 

     Pippa, it is somehow thrilling. My blood sings with anticipation, at one with the thousands of Spaniards rejoicing in God’s love. But then it curdles as I think how I, too, back in Barcelona, might have been forced to wear the sanbenito.  How, if not for Sir Francis, the Catalonians might, one day soon, have bayed for my boiling blood, my faithful boiling blood. My heart races even now to think about it.   But as Zaragoza erupts into a strange celebration of unremitting spectacle and sacrifice, something inside me is shifting. I feel it, but do I fear it? I fear I must. Quietly and slowly, like the gradual rising of silt in the Fal at Tregony, it fills my senses. Yet, I cannot name it. Can I account for it? Perhaps, if I could account for it, its name might emerge. I am not sure I want to know it.

     In Spain, there is no room for love. The Inquisitors in Barcelona hid their disappointment upon finding the truth of my cause, yet offered only the merest tincture of grace in wishing me well. Pippa, in Naples they have refused the Inquisition. Despite being under Spanish rule, it is a place where people will forgive; where the people search for innocence.  They do not want their simple lives disrupted by the presence of a rotten soul, or the interrogations and punishments that blacken the air.  They are content to confess and go to Mass, and know they are forgiven. In Spain, God’s love is cruel. The shadows are sharp and black. And the shape of a black-clad woman against the harsh light comes upon me like a vulture, a warning carved out of the blue.  Their black eyes pry easily into English souls and they do not pray for one’s innocence.  They will search for it. They will call for evidence. But in the seeking they hope to fail.  What they want is guilt and its grim consequences.  Only by severe punishment can a soul be saved, only through the ritual of penance, the auto da fe, will purity be found. 

     His eyes flicker into focus. The yellow sanbenito-clad prisoners, with their humiliating conical hats, are lined up in front of him now. His insides squirm, and he looks away. His eyes meet those of the soldier on his left, dark and gleaming as though windows to a forge fired by black Welsh coal.

     ‘I had not expected such a glorious occasion,’ Winslade says.

     ‘No? Strangers are often taken by surprise.’ The accent is thick, but the English is good. ‘Let it serve you well.’

     He has no response to such a statement. It is a threat, a warning. It is designed to control. To instil fear. Then, and only then, he realises that his terror and his protection are the same thing. He has no choice but to be loyal to the Spanish king. For disloyalty is heresy and heresy will lead him here, among the wretches paraded before him. Suddenly, he understands that they have brought him here for his own protection. A double-bind that will rule his every action.  

     As the sun pours down upon the plaza, the officials of the Inquisition enter the arena. Upon arriving at the central dais, they bow to the Archbishop and take their thrones of power, omnipotent and fearsome in their purple, black and gold, surveying the entire scene with God’s all-seeing eyes.  Queen Elizabeth would envy them their gold and silver and jewels and chains, he thinks. Magnificence she has failed to plunder. 

     The feast begins, the strangest meal ever conceived. He watches as the officials are served, and then trestles are set up for those at the front. He and his escort move their wooden stools to best advantage and settle to a banquet of roasted beef, Madeira wine and ale, breads and olives and cheeses.  On a cold, cobbled space between themselves and the dais, the prisoners are ordered to sit. They, too, must eat. It is their last supper and it is to sustain them through the day’s proceedings, for they have only just begun. He smiles and laughs with his new friends, and drinks to the glory of the Holy Inquisition. 


After the banquet, a tall, grey priest takes to a pulpit erected at the side of the dais.  He leads them in a Mass, the quiet rhythm of which enable Tristram Winslade to quell his inner turmoil. He closes his eyes and lets the man’s Latin blunt the sickly edge of doubt which has started to rise within him and which, he has begun to suspect, might not be quelled while he remains in this country.  Confession can no longer be his comfort, for a true and honest confession of his discomfit will only lead back to the midst of this holy court. To the donning of a sanbenito; the scourging of flesh and the terror of the flame. As he recites the oath of allegiance to the Holy Inquisition, his whole sense of being in the world – his sense of belonging beneath the sun and sky of Philip’s empire – shrinks inside him until it becomes a hard, little walnut. Then, as the afternoon melts away towards the night, and charges are read and sentences pronounced, he sees himself as though from an inner eye implanted in the top reach of the Inquisition’s great green cross: an Englishman who has forgotten how to smile. 

     So abstracted has he become that he is scarcely aware of the fates of the penitents.  He hears that two are repatriated to a room beneath the dais, for further quizzing, for they have recanted prior to their sentences being pronounced. If fortunate, they might be strangled before being set to the fire. To the crowd’s great pleasure, six are straightway relaxed to the secular jurisdiction, which will take them to the place of burning; it is not fit for the church to burn its flock. Then, somewhere above the roar, comes the gut-wrenching sobs of a woman’s grief. It subsides quickly, for this woman surely knows that such grief contains within it a sign of her own heresy. The remainder of the penitents are reinstated into the auspices of the penitentiary. For them, there will be floggings, endless imprisonment, public humiliation, the galleys, excommunication, exile.  The old woman has escaped his attention. He prays for her soul, for her body is surely beyond mending and its time upon this earth is over. What if she were innocent?  It is the question he cannot ask, let alone answer.  All he longs for now, is to hear his own heart beating. In the secret recesses of his mind, he prays that when tomorrow comes, they will not take him to the witness the burnings.   

     The crowd takes hours to disperse, but the city is awash with bloodlust. No one goes home. Groups of young men sing and fight and plunder, while families roast their chickens and goats in the streets, and fill the air with smoke. Great jugs of wine are emptied and men piss in the gutters. The priest takes his elbow and steers him away from the plaza, the Cathedral and river. They wander through the narrow streets to the pilgrims hostel, which is dark and empty apart from a candlelit corner where a nun sits by a steaming cauldron of soup. The priest bids him goodnight and Winslade sits on a bench and spoons hot liquid into his mouth and mops up the dregs with a crust of bread. In his satchel, he finds his Book of Hours. It falls open at the Mouth of Hell. Carefully, he tears it out and gives it to the surprised nun. She does not know what to think, but smiles as he crosses himself, puts his hands together and bows upon a prayer. Then he finds his palliasse and slides beneath a blanket. Outside, the celebrations continue and the noise of it all creeps in with the moonlight. The sounds of brawling and music, laughter and song, muddle with the dark green shape behind his eyes until, finally, exhaustion claims its hold.