Red Rose Chain shines spotlight on Suffolk’s forgotten martyrs
- Credit: Archant
Suffolk playwright and theatre director Jo Carrick loves creating plays which focus on the local repercussions of historical events. Arts editor Andrew Clarke talks to her about a forgotten Tudor martyr, Alice Driver.
Playwright and theatre-maker Jo Carrick loves the Tudors. It’s a fascinating period for her and one she says where the medieval world gives way to modern Britain. It’s a time of great change. This is an era of important historical milestones and social upheaval.
Jo’s latest play for Red Rose Chain Put Out The Light is her third exploration of Tudor life in East Anglia. The first, Fallen in Love, charted Henry VIII’s courting of Anne Boleyn and her links with Suffolk and Progress followed Elizabeth I’s visit to Ipswich and the celebrations staged to mark her stay at Christchurch Mansion. It also charted the pardoning of Catholic martyrs as part of the visit.
The chronology of this latest play fits between the two previous works.
In Put Out The Light, Jo explores the idea that religious radicalisation swept through Britain’s young people during the reign of Queen Mary and that there was a battle between supporters of Henry VIII’s protestant church and the traditional Catholics. It was a battle which led to torture and butchery on both sides as well as stoic heroism.
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In Suffolk a young farm girl called Alice Driver became a charismatic focal point of the religious war in East Anglia.
You love the Tudor period, can you tell us a little about Put Out The Light?
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“As regards to the trilogy it fits between Fallen In Love and Progress, so it fits between the two existing plays. It’s the middle bit of the sandwich. They are a trilogy of plays but each story stands alone so you don’t need to have seen the others to enjoy this one. All the characters are unique to each play.”
So how do the plays work together?
“So, Fallen In Love is set at the beginning of the Reformation. Anne Boleyn marries Henry VIII and in order to do that England cuts itself off from the church in Rome and, as we all know, this was a huge thing. But, behind all that there is a lot of philosophy and theology going on and wanting to root out all the corruption that was going on with the monasteries. There was a lot of genuine feeling behind that.
“Then in my later play Progress you see Elizabeth, who I admire hugely, coming through all that and opting for mediocrity, which meant something different in Tudor England, it meant a more rational, middle road which avoided extremism on either side.
“She said: “I don’t want a window into men’s souls” which was the most progressive thing to have said. In Progress we see townspeople like Peter Moon who have lived through the most rapidly Catholic times under Mary and in Ipswich we had many people who died at the stake on the Cornhill for their beliefs. This was something I found really hard to get my head around.
“For this play I am going back into the middle of the story – it’s a sort of heart of darkness – in Progress this is the world we are moving away from. I have had ten weeks of writing and research I feel exhausted. I’ve loved every second of it but the subject matter really packs a punch.”
How easy is it to take national historic events and find local angles?
“Surprisingly easy, if you know where to look. Over the last couple of years I have spent far too long reading Fox’s Book of Martyrs, something which is not to be recommended. I wanted to find out what happened to our martyrs here in Ipswich.
“A figure who came into my head time and time again, was someone called Alice Driver from Grundisburgh. She was described as a girl ‘pulling a plough’ and I became fascinated by the notion: ‘How does a girl, who grows up in Grundisburgh in the 16th century – imagine how small a world that is – how does she go from a quiet rural life to dying at the stake on Ipswich Cornhill at the age of 30?
“You have to remember that this persecution is very different to the witch hunts, which came later, that was accusatorial and you didn’t have much say. Here, it was what you were willing to say and submit to. Then as now, most people backed down. They said, fine if you want me to be a catholic I’ll go to mass. For a lot of people, they were just trying to keep a handle on what it was that you were supposed to believe this month, whether you had an English bible or you didn’t have an English bible. People were just trying to survive.
“I spent a long time researching and trying to properly understand the Reformation, there are lots of different opinions and points of view, so I could write this play – a play about radicalization really. How does this girl go from the fields and end up dying for her faith?”
Clearly, religion was much more tied up in daily life than it is now?
“Absolutely, the sociology and theology are closely bound together at this time. Really ordinary people at the lowest level of the social strata were deeply theological. Religion really mattered to them. There is an account of one of the reformers who couldn’t read or write. He was arrested and he got his neighbours to write down, to record his beliefs, all about transubstantiation, the sacrament, all those thorny issues, ordinary people were finding their own way through theology, it was the time of the Bible being translated into English, it was a time of huge upheaval and change.
“Ipswich was central to this. Because of it’s promixity to Flanders, Ipswich was the first point of entry for a lot of religious tracts. It was a hot bed of intrigue.”
Tell me more about Alice Driver?
“The story we have predominantly comes from Fox. It’s very vivid and harrowing account of Alice Driver, this young woman from a rural village, being arrested. She is working on a farm and tracked down to a hayloft where she is taken into custody. She is found with Alexander Gooch, who is the other martyr who died with her. She is a married woman, who has no children, and in the local church records there is a death notice for Edward Driver, who it is believed is Alice’s husband.
“So I am thinking how does a married woman, who grew up in a rural village in the 16th century, who, in her trial transcipts, says she works at the plough, how does she get arrested in a hayloft with someone, who’s not her husband, and is eventually condemned to death for her beliefs? That’s a really interesting story.
“A mob came from Martlesham, armed with pitch forks to hunt for her. She was taken to Melton jail. She refused to recant and was taken to Bury St Edmunds for trial, during the proceedings she called Bloody Mary a ‘Jezebel’ and they cut her ears off. She went back to Melton jail and on November 4 1558 they were burnt at the stake on Ipswich Cornhill. Then, there is a tragic postscript. Two weeks later Mary dies and everyone who was in prison for dissent was released. If the trial happened two weeks later they would have been okay.”
Put Out The Lights, by Jo Carrick, is running at the The Avenue Theatre, Ipswich from May 8-27.