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August 12, 2009

Can Mary Tudor be rehabilitated? Fires of Faith: Catholic England Under Mary Tudor - Eamon Duffy

Posted by David Womersley

Fires of Faith: Catholic England Under Mary Tudor
by Eamon Duffy
Pp. xiv + 250. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009
Hardback, £19.99

There was a time, not all that long ago, when we thought we knew what had happened in the English Reformation. The venality and corruption of the Roman Catholic clergy had provoked widespread anti-clericalism in English society, and in consequence the common people had not been slow to respond positively to the high-political measures taken by Henry VIII to curb the jurisdiction of the Pope and to seize and redistribute church property.

After some mid-century spluttering, the Protestant character of the English people had been confirmed during the reign of Elizabeth, and had then strengthened over the coming decades, to the point where a visceral hatred for Roman Catholicism was a cardinal element in English character, as visible in the events of 1688 as in the Gordon Riots nearly a century later.

In that narrative, the reign of Mary emerged as confirmation of the teleological destiny of the English to be a Protestant nation. In its bigoted determination to re-impose Roman Catholicism on a reluctant nation, in the mediocrity of the talent it was able to harness to its cause, in its willingness to employ the most horrific measures to enforce its religious policy, Mary's reign was vivid corroboration of John Foxe's view that the English had always been, and would always be, Protestant. The queen herself - blinkered, sterile, resentful, diseased - came to stand for her reign and its policies.

About twenty years ago, this narrative began to be picked apart. Yes, there was indeed anti-clerical feeling in early sixteenth-century England - but it was expressed, not just by those who seem now to us to have been proto-Protestants, but also by those who seem to have been devout and committed Roman Catholics, and who were pushing for their church to be purified and strengthened, not overturned.

At the same time, sceptical attention was trained on Foxe's thesis that the English had always been temperamentally Protestant, and had always bridled under the Roman yoke. Expressions of popular resentment at the high-political moves which had ushered in the English Reformation, such as the Pilgrimage of Grace, moved closer to the centre of the picture, and the Reformation itself shifted from being a popular movement confirmed and guided by the political élite to being a revolution imposed on a reluctant people from above.

The widespread evidence of popular attachment to the old religion, and to the expressions of grief and bewilderment when its characteristic consolations were withdrawn, reinforced the new image of the Reformation as, at least in its origins, little more than a coup d'état. A coup d'état, it’s true, which eventually put down tenacious roots and entwined itself tightly around the English national character, but which in its early decades had been precarious, widely-resented, and desperately vulnerable to challenge.

What might have been the outcome, so the implicit question ran, had Mary reigned for forty-five years as her sister would go on to do? Would the supposedly indelible Protestant character of the English have been able to withstand a sustained onslaught over that length of time?

Eamon Duffy has been, together with Christopher Haigh, one of the most patient and persuasive of the group of revisionist historians who challenged the Foxeite, providentialist account of the Reformation. His two earlier books - The Stripping of the Altars (1992) and The Voices of Morebath (2001) - explored in telling detail the evidence for the vigour and popularity of Roman Catholicism in England in the years before the Reformation, and the dismay and distress caused by its removal. Now, in Fires of Faith, he tackles the hardest historiographical nut for the revisionists: the reign of Mary.

Duffy attacks the providentialist view on a number of fronts. In the first place, he undertakes to rehabilitate the reputation of Cardinal Pole, the man who set himself the task of making England once again a Roman Catholic nation, and who in the past has been written off as a joyless, embittered second-rater. On the contrary, shows Duffy: Pole was learned, inspired, humane (within his own chosen limits), efficient, shrewd and effective.

Secondly, he challenges the view that the Marian church's attempts at persuasion were lacklustre and unimaginative, and is able to redress the balance of judgement considerably as well as widening the field of relevant information.

Thirdly, he rejects the notion that Marian Catholicism was nostalgic, medieval and backward-looking, showing instead that, in part as a result of the involvement of Cardinal Pole, it benefitted from the energies of the European Counter-Reformation, and that, in the diaspora of English Catholic talent which followed 1558, Marian Catholicism itself decisively shaped the future course of the Counter-Reformation.

So far, so good. But of course, the toughest part of this particular hard historiographic nut is the Marian burnings. During Mary's reign, some 284 Protestants, 56 of them women, were burned alive, some in circumstances of barely imaginable horror. The received view is that nothing more vividly demonstrates the futility of Mary and her religious policy than the burnings, which were both bloody and ineffective. This is both the most delicate and the most important part of Duffy's argument, and he picks his way across it with great care.

In the first place, he reminds us that the persecution of heretics was at this time generally regarded as legitimate, and notes that the reigns of both Henry VIII and Elizabeth I saw abominable executions (although not burnings) of Roman Catholics.

Secondly, he demonstrates the lengths to which Mary's churchmen would go to avoid an execution and procure, if possible a conversion, if not then often flight and concealment.

Thirdly, he draws evidence from Foxe himself that the public burnings of Mary's reign were not greeted with uniform popular resentment, and that portions of the crowd at many burnings seem to have been unsympathetic to the sufferings of the victim.

Lastly, he suggests that, far from being futile, the burnings were beginning to shift public opinion and to loosen men's attachment to Protestantism. Duffy's conclusion is powerful and inescapable. Had Mary lived longer, there is a very good chance that England would have been once again thoroughly and durably Roman Catholic.

Here, Duffy finds himself in something of a cleft stick. For, the more he can show the Marian burnings to have been efficiently administered and even incipiently successful, arguably the more morally repugnant this makes them. Do we think of the streamlined logistics of Auschwitz as a mitigating or as an aggravating factor? Fires of Faith confronts us with a terrific counter-factual - what would our history have been like had Mary succeeded? But the more we let our minds play over that possibility, perhaps the harder we will find it to regret that history in fact turned out as it did.

David Womersley is Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford. His previous reviews for the Social Affairs Unit can be read here.

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Concentrating on Mary Tudor has tended to overshadow the behaviour of her father Henry. Many died for their faith during his reign. One particular instance stands out:

On 30th July 1540, three Protestants, namely Robert Barnes, William Jerome and Thomas Gerrard, were burnt for heresy under the Six Articles; and three Catholics, Thomas Abel, Richard Fetherstone and Edward Powell, were hanged for treason in denying the royal supremacy. Henry had designed it this way in order to portray himself as even-handed. The victims were taken to execution tied two to a cart, one Protestant and one Catholic on each.

Nevertheless, I am in sympathy with conclusion of this article. I am reminded of the words of a village headman, when being asked about the widespread murders of members of an ethnic minority in his country. "But we didn't run riot in our village - we had an orderly massacre".

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at August 16, 2009 02:30 PM

God Bless the Pope.

Posted by: Robert Sharpe at August 19, 2009 01:51 PM

Part of the issue with the Marian burnings was the rate of them. She was only Queen for about 5 years, but had 10 times as many burnings as there had been in the first 130 odd years that burning heritics had been the law in England.

I suspect it was like the Black and Tans. It was going to produce resentment and harden opposition if it was not ruthlessly carried through for years and years. If it had of been it may have been able to demoralise and stamp out their opponents. However what Mary needed wasn't just a long life, but a Catholic heir. Elizabeth was succeeded by the Protestant King James who was fairly content with the settlement. This was perhaps her ultimate failure.

Posted by: PT at August 20, 2009 06:04 PM

does anyone know how many people Mary tudor burned in coventry??

Posted by: miss princess at November 6, 2010 03:25 PM
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