Still a bloody failure, when all's said

by
01 July 2009

Revisionism can only do so much for Mary Tudor’s reputation, says John Cooper

Fires of Faith: Catholic England under Mary Tudor
Eamon Duffy
Yale University Press £19.99
(978-0-300-15216-6)
Church Times Bookshop £18

IN SUMMER 1558, Reginald Pole, Cardinal Archbishop of Canterbury, believed that England was well on the way to becoming a Roman Catholic country once again. Cut off from Christendom by Henry VIII and sacked of its treasures by Edward VI, English religion was finally recovering its “pure form” under Queen Mary. Six months later, both Pole and Mary were dead, their restored Church was in ruins, and their reputation had been blackened by Protestant polemic.

Historians have recently been finding much to praise in Marian efforts to revive the Catholic faith. Signally missing from this feel-good revisionism, until now, has been any sustained attempt to revisit the burning of 284 Protestants for heresy. Eamon Duffy has the stature, and the courage, to tackle this head- on. The result is sensitive to its subject-matter, but unflinching in its conclusion: given a little more time, the persecution might have worked.

Fires of Faith began life as a series of lectures and is rich in anecdote, much of it sourced from John Foxe. Duffy’s own voice is clear: authoritative, animated, contro­versial. He analyses the executions as a theatre of justice in which both sides had opportunities to evangelise.

The reactions of the spectators varied widely. Protestants shouted down the sermons preached beside the pyres, or scrabbled in the ashes for relics of burnt bone. Catholics bought cherries to eat and threw faggots of wood. A vigorous propaganda campaign denied victims the status of martyrs, and attributed their fortitude to the Devil. Thomas More, meanwhile, was hailed as a true martyr, his works were republished, and his life was repackaged by biographers — with details of More’s own persecution of heretics edited out. In his final weeks in prison, Cranmer was given More’s Dialogue of Comfort to read.

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Duffy detects some humanity amid the horror. Pole made genuine efforts to persuade Protestants to recant. Agnes Wardall evaded arrest when tipped off by a sympathiser in the Ipswich town watch. The people of Laxfield in Suffolk doused their kitchen fires when the sheriff’s men came looking for a light. But plenty were willing to collaborate with the persecution. John Story, professor of canon law and heresy-hunter, used his own house as an interrogation centre. A magistrate from Kent bored nine holes through the rood loft to spy on parishioners during mass.

Seeking to contextualise the executions of Mary’s reign, Duffy points out that Queen Elizabeth “would do the same” to Roman Catholics. This point could be argued: Elizabeth’s government hanged fewer people over a much longer period, and claimed to be acting against treason rather than heresy. What marks out Mary’s regime is its determined surveillance of the English people, combined with its utter lack of toleration. Adoration of the sacrament was non-negotiable. Men known to have good voices in Edward’s reign were forced to join the choir. The beauty of holiness was restored by force.

Is the reign of Mary Tudor much more than a might-have-been? All its preaching and publishing initiatives, its pioneering seminaries and sacramental theology, were nothing without a secure Catholic succession. Pole’s optimism in 1558 seems ill-founded: at 42, the Queen was probably beyond child-bearing, and, in any case, King Philip had not been seen in England for more than a year.

Duffy makes a convincing case for the Marian Church as a “laboratory” for the Counter-Reformation, shaping the thinking of the Council of Trent. He admires the ardently pro-papal model of renewal which Pole bequeathed to a rising generation of English Catholic clergy. But he does not consider the dreadful dilemma that this created for so many Elizabethan Catholics, trapped between conflicting loyalties to Crown and Pope.

Dr John Cooper lectures in History at the University of York.

To place an order for this book, contact CT Bookshop

To place an order for this book, contact CT Bookshop

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