BOOK REVIEW: News Weekly
FIRES OF FAITH: Catholic England under Mary Tudor, by Eamon Duffy
, December 12, 2009
Scholarly reappraisal of "Bloody Mary"
FIRES OF FAITH:
Catholic England under Mary Tudor
by Eamon Duffy
(Yale University Press)
Hardcover: 263 pages
Rec. price: AUD$56.95
Reviewed by Michael Daniel
Mention Mary Tudor and the popular imagination conjures up images of "Bloody Mary", a religious fanatic who imposed an unpopular religion upon her English subjects and condemned 300 people to hideous deaths because their beliefs differed from hers.
Even Catholics have been reticent to challenge this popular interpretation, and even historians more sympathetic to Mary's regime have argued that the Catholicism she restored was backward-looking, rather than being informed by the Counter-Reformation that was beginning to sweep Catholic Europe.
However, in recent decades, some scholars such as Irish-born Cambridge historian Eamon Duffy have offered an alternative interpretation. Building upon previous work, particularly his monumental study The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400-1580 (published 1992), Duffy argues that the vast majority of the English people welcomed the restoration of the Catholic religion.
Many historians have interpreted the fact that so many Protestants were prepared to be burned to death as heretics as evidence of the strength of popular resistance to the restoration of Catholicism. Duffy, however, argues that, within months of Mary's accession, Protestant resistance rapidly collapsed. Many of the movement's leaders fled abroad (the so-called Marian exiles), and, according to Duffy, Mary's regime did little to impede their escape. Many other evangelical congregations went underground.
Given that Mary's reputation is mostly remembered for her burning of Protestants, it is not surprising that Duffy devotes a significant proportion of his work to analysing these executions in detail.
Duffy starts by placing the burnings within their historical context: that is, they were carried out in an age which, unlike ours, accepted such punishment for religious nonconformity as normal. Heretics were regarded as a threat to the social stability of a country and as deserving the most severe punishment.
The difficulty in analysing the burnings of Mary's reign is that the primary historical source, John Foxe's Actes and Monuments (better known as Foxe's Book of Martyrs), is extremely biased.
However, Duffy, by careful sifting Foxe's work and other source documents of the period, has identified four significant trends.
First, Mary's pursuit of Protestants for heresy was uneven. It seems that Protestantism had made greater inroads in certain locations, such as London and England's south-east, than in other parts of the country.
Second, the rigour with which Protestants were pursued varied, depending upon the locality.
Third, while the authorities, particularly those in London, feared negative reactions from crowds witnessing the burnings, in some instances the crowds actively supported the burnings, yelling abuse at the victims and purchasing snacks whilst they witnessed the macabre "entertainment".
Fourth, Duffy argues that the burnings were symptomatic not of the strength of resistance to Catholicism but of the increasingly desperate stand a collapsing evangelical movement was making. By 1557 - the fourth year of Mary's five-and-a-half year reign - a significant proportion of those being executed were those who had previously recanted their Protestant beliefs and who now felt guilty about doing so. (Duffy observes that a significant numbers of those examined for heresy did recant.)
Duffy also looks at the positive steps that the religious and secular authorities took to restore Catholicism. For example, they re-established some religious orders, addressed the problem of the shortage of clergy, and founded university colleges for the purpose of training priests. Furthermore, they undertook extensive preaching campaigns and published sermons and other religious material to reinvigorate Catholic life.
The willingness of the vast bulk of English people to embrace the restoration of Catholicism under Mary is perhaps most evident in the extensive re-outfitting of churches that took place during her reign.
A key aspect of her restoration was her careful choice of personnel from among individuals who possessed a loyalty to the Catholic faith that their predecessors had lacked. Thus, apart from Bishop Kitchen of the Welsh see of Llandaff - who, Duffy says, would have converted to Hinduism to retain his bishopric - none of Mary's bishops who survived her reign was prepared to accept Elizabeth I's Protestant settlement, and significant proportions of higher clergy were deprived of their offices for the same reason.
Many of them fled to the continent and provided external support for Catholic resistance to Elizabeth's imposition of Protestantism. Furthermore, the strong spiritual legacy of Mary's Catholic Church sustained the continuation of Catholic faith among people of all social classes.
Duffy concludes that Mary's Catholicism, far from being backward-looking, anticipated many of the reforms of the Council of Trent. Mary's chief minister and adviser, Cardinal Reginald Pole - the last Catholic archbishop of Canterbury - had spent his formative years on the continent and was closely associated with key players in the first stages of the Council of Trent. Some of his synod decrees were adopted by Charles Borromeo (later canonised by Rome) in reforming his archdiocese of Milan.
However, perhaps the most striking legacy was the fact that university colleges founded for the training of clergy during Mary's reign became the prototypes for what was perhaps Trent's greatest legacy, the seminaries inspired by the Counter-Reformation.