Rolling Back the Reformation

Eamon Duffy

The reign of Mary Tudor has had few friends among historians, and the regime’s religious dimension has provided most of the copy for the bad press. Until comparatively recently, almost everyone who wrote about what has been routinely described as the ‘Marian Reaction’ agreed that to a greater or lesser extent the Catholic Church during her reign was backward-looking, unimaginative and reactionary, sharing both the queen’s bitter preoccupation with the past and her tragic sterility. Marian Catholicism was strong on repression, weak on persuasion. Its atrocious campaign of burnings was not only an outrage against human decency but a devastating political blunder, which alienated moderate opinion and inoculated the English nation against Catholicism for ever. Marian apologists and polemicists were dismissed as uncharismatic second-raters, the regime in general as fatally unaware of the crucial importance of argument and debate in the battle for hearts and minds, and thus neglectful of the power both of the pulpit and of the printing press.

Mary’s Church was led by Reginald Pole, a man, it has been claimed, strongly averse to preaching, whose capacity for positive action had been sapped when his crypto-Lutheran theological vision and his understanding of reform were rejected at the Council of Trent. He was that saddest and most contradictory of spectacles, an Inglesei italianato, who had been an exile in Italy for so long that he utterly failed to grasp how deeply Protestantism had already penetrated the religious life of England. That damning appraisal was most clearly set out in the late Geoffrey Dickens’s The English Reformation (1964), which dominated the historiography for thirty years. Dickens distilled his overwhelmingly negative picture into the claim that the Marian regime, bedevilled by an ‘arid legalism’, had ‘failed to discover the Counter-Reformation’. That verdict, fatuous but fatally quotable, has stuck, and has had an influence in inverse proportion to its plausibility. Deluded in believing that Protestant ideas had established only a superficial hold in England, the case goes, Cardinal Pole drew back from the strenuous evangelisation that was so urgently needed, and refused help from the Jesuits because he ‘simply did not want men with the fire of the Counter-Reformation in their bellies’.

Over the last twenty years, this negative consensus has been chipped away at by many historians. Yet major barriers to a genuine reassessment of Mary’s Church remain. The greatest of these is the burning of more than 280 Protestant men, women and teenagers between February 1555 and November 1558. This was the most intense religious persecution anywhere in 16th-century Europe, and has seemed to most historians conclusive evidence of the Marian regime’s shortsightedness and instinct for self-destruction. Yet the case can be made that in 16th-century terms the burnings were inevitable, and that they were efficiently carried out and persuasively defended. The regime had to break the back of Protestant resistance, and pressed the device of painful public execution into service as a powerful tool, as Elizabeth, mutatis mutandis, would do against Catholics from the 1570s onwards. Mary’s regime was well aware of the potential of such executions to alienate public opinion, and Pole and his colleagues took considered and on the whole effective steps to justify the campaign to contemporaries. Though it is very unlikely that the Protestant minority could ever have been eliminated by force alone, the signs are that the campaign of repression was having the desired effect. By the summer of 1558 the numbers being executed for heresy were tailing off dramatically, a trend which has usually been interpreted as a sign of the regime’s growing demoralisation, implying a sense of failure and futility on the part of its agents. I would argue, on the contrary, that it reflects the fact that there were fewer defiant activists to execute: the Protestant hydra was being decapitated.

The historiographical consensus would have it, then, that mid-Tudor Catholicism was ineffective, half-hearted, unimaginative, insular, lacking in leadership, trapped in the preoccupations of the 1520s or 1530s: in short, that it had failed to discover the Counter-Reformation. That is not the case. On the contrary, as the first and indeed the only formally Protestant nation to return to papal obedience, Marian England was the closest thing in 16th-century Europe to a laboratory for Counter-Reformation experimentation. There was nothing backward-looking about the reform measures devised for England. Indeed, those proposals were taken up and published by a reforming ginger group at Trent in 1562, and later provided the inspiration for some of Tridentine Catholicism’s most distinctive measures, including the creation of seminaries to form a new priesthood. Those who had been Marian activists constituted the backbone of Elizabethan recusancy, and some of them helped shape the wider Counter-Reformation, from the practical reforms in Milan under Borromeo and the post-Tridentine liturgical reforms, to the historical and theological underpinning of Counter-Reformation polemic.

The notion that the Marian regime was somehow peripheral to the Counter-Reformation is particularly absurd when applied to Pole, the man in charge of the whole enterprise. Seven years before his appointment as legate for England, Pole had presided at the opening sessions of the Council of Trent: he had composed the opening address to the council, which remains one of the defining documents of the Counter-Reformation. Throughout the 1540s and into the 1550s, he was figurehead and spiritual counsellor to some of the best minds and most ardent spirits of the Italian Counter-Reformation, including Giovanni Morone and Vittoria Colonna, and he commanded the respect even of those, like Marcello Cervini, the future Papa Marcello, who favoured a harder and sterner version of Catholicism. All that time he remained, despite the mounting hostility of his arch-enemy Cardinal Caraffa, Pope Paul IV, a ‘power in Rome’. And in the conclave which eventually elected Julius III, Pole was offered the papacy by acclamation on the night of 4 December 1549, and next day came within one vote of formal election. There is every reason to think that had he survived the flu epidemic of 1558 he would have been a strong contender to succeed Paul IV in 1559. To suggest that such a man had failed to notice or chosen to ignore the Counter-Reformation, and was trapped in an English time warp of the 1520s or 1530s, is not far short of preposterous.

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