Fires of Faith: Catholic England under Mary Tudor 
by Eamon Duffy.
Yale, 249 pp., £19.99, June 2009, 978 0 300 15216 6
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In the reign of Edward VI, an Exeter clergyman named William Herne, an enthusiast for the gospel, told one of the city’s aldermen that he would rather be torn apart by wild horses than ever again say the Catholic Mass. In December 1553, Queen Mary newly enthroned, the alderman entered his parish church to find Herne at the altar, in his old vestments and all ready to go. Speechless, the alderman simply pointed to the spectacle before him; ‘but parson herne openlye in churche spak alowde onto hym. It is no remedye man, it is no remedye.’

Two hundred and eighty-four people, made of sterner stuff than the embarrassed Parson Herne, were martyred for their Protestant convictions between 1555 and 1558. Some of those who died – Latimer, Ridley, Cranmer – were high-profile victims, learned men and convinced Protestants who were executed after show trials. Others were hardly heard of outside their own parishes and perhaps barely understood what they were dying for. An Essex servant girl, Elizabeth Folkes, aged 20, was asked what she understood about the nature of the Eucharist. Did she believe in a ‘substantial and real presence’ in the host? She answered: ‘It was a substantial lye, and a reall lye.’ She had been questioned once and let go, she had been given her chance, and so although the judge wept when he sentenced her, she was burned with five other humble people outside the town walls of Colchester. Rawlins White was burned; he was an illiterate Cardiff fisherman. William Hunter was 19 years old, a silk-weaver’s apprentice; a priest sneered at him: ‘It is a merye worlde when such as thou arte shall teache us what is the truth.’ Thomas Tomkins, a weaver, was burned after Edmund Bonner, bishop of London, had forcibly shaved off his long evangelist’s beard ‘so he wold loke like a catholike’ even if he wasn’t one, and had held his hand in a candle flame to give him a foretaste of what was in store for him if he failed to recant.

Many of the victims had the opportunity to go into hiding or, if they had the connections, to flee abroad. Rowland Taylor was a friend of Cranmer and was married to William Tyndale’s niece. Arrested, released, arrested, he had plenty of chances to keep clear of the authorities, but ‘Verbum Dei made us goo to London.’ He was burned on the same day as Bishop Hooper, who had been led through London by night and taken to Gloucester wearing a hood so that his sympathisers could not recognise him. There he was burned in a slow, botched execution, ‘for the example and terror’ of the townsfolk, in the place where, according to the Catholic queen, he had done most harm. The burnings were a spectator sport; at Dartford in the summer of 1555, ‘thither came … Fruiterers wyth horse loades of Cherries, and sold them.’ Eamon Duffy says: ‘We should not project modern sensibilities onto the people of the past.’ But in a cruel world, these were exemplary cruelties. Those who saw 11 men and two women burned together in June 1556 are unlikely, he says, ever to have forgotten it.

What the regime had created was a theatre of cruelty, with both sides performing for each other and for any uncommitted onlooker. Mary’s bishops wanted recantations more than they wanted executions. There was always the possibility of a last-minute change of heart; this would not free the condemned person from the stake, but it would send the charred soul to heaven, or at least purgatory. The supporters of the condemned dreaded any show of weakness, and the authorities dreaded popular disorder. Preachers were on hand as the heretics died, to explain to the crowd that the present torments were nothing to what they would suffer in the hereafter. London apprentices were ordered to stay at home. Victims were sent ‘into odde corners into the countrey’, in order to get them out of the capital, where Protestant ideas had a firmer hold. Sometimes the heresy-hunters, out of pity or fear of local reprisals, seem almost to have conspired with dissidents, agreeing to let them go if they would keep their beliefs to themselves. But others were active in seeking out victims. In Kent, a magistrate known as ‘Justice Nine-Holes’ perched in his parish’s rood loft during mass, and ‘would trouble and punish very sore’ those who avoided looking at the elevated host. At executions, those who showed sympathy for the condemned had their names taken and were sometimes arrested. The Catholics were keen to deprecate the courage shown by their opponents. Heretics were ‘the devils deare derlynges’ and it was he who gave them boldness, boosting a man with false courage so that ‘lyke a bedlem madman he feareth not to fry.’ The devil looks forward to taking eternal possession of the depraved soul as he burns: the condemned man ‘lepeth like a flounder out of the frying pan of temporal death into the perpetual and unquenchable fier of God’s justice’.

Despite his careful and no doubt deeply felt disclaimers, it sometimes sounds as if Eamon Duffy is cheering on the executioners. This book, powerful and interesting in its own right, is an addendum to his huge enterprise The Stripping of the Altars, published in 1992, in which he contended that ‘late medieval Catholicism exerted an enormously strong, diverse and vigorous hold over the imagination and the loyalty of the people up to the very moment of Reformation.’ Far from being a decayed institution, as it is often represented, the Catholic Church was energetically remaking itself even on the verge of the break with Rome; transfused with humanist energy, it still commanded almost universal loyalty, from the court to the backwoods parish. Duffy downplays the influence of early Protestants, Lollards, and those residual rural pagans who so excitingly populate the works of Keith Thomas, and prefers to speak of ‘traditional’ rather than ‘popular’ faith, so shrinking the gap between the superstitious peasantry and the sophisticated Renaissance thinkers of court and metropolitan circles.

After The Stripping of the Altars, Duffy produced a glowing example to illustrate his thesis about the vitality of the pre-Reformation Church. The Voices of Morebath (2001), chronicling a remote and poor Exmoor parish, introduced us to a gentle and seductive world of late medieval piety and community. Like the earlier book, it is a monument to scholarship and a stimulus to controversy. It touches the reader emotionally as well as intellectually. Who would not sympathise with the long-serving priest Christopher Trychay, trying amid the upheavals of four reigns to hang on to his parishioners, his income, his integrity and his vestments? The people of Morebath do not seem to have been eager for reform, or change of any kind. In Duffy’s view, the reign of Edward VI, with its iconoclastic, radical Protestantism, was an aberration; we should repudiate the value-laden term ‘Marian reaction’, and see Mary’s reign as a time of ‘creative reconstruction’, when old values were revived, old symbols reinstated.

It all sounds very reasonable; if we are not convinced, is it that we have been suckered by the triumphalist Protestant version, and is the smoke from those human bonfires still blinding our eyes? In Fires of Faith, Duffy sets out to show how the Marian reconstruction worked. Until now the orthodox view has been, broadly speaking, that Mary and her bishops were not only despicable bigots, but also ineffectual and unimaginative; that they did not know how to fight for their cause; that they faltered in the face of popular resistance; that they were – and should have known it – on the wrong side of history. On the contrary, Duffy tells us, Marian prosecution of Protestants was monstrously successful. It was well organised, perpetrated by able and determined clerics, and backed by enthusiastic preaching and propaganda. It was cruelty, but effective cruelty. Its pace wound down not when it became unsustainable in the face of popular protest, but when there were few victims left to burn; the campaign against heretical books and heretical thought was vigorous and sustained, and ended only with the queen’s death.

Duffy’s introduction suggests that he expects trouble in getting a fair hearing. Our national myth, he says, makes it hard for us to be objective about Mary’s reign. ‘Even in our self-consciously secular times, 16th-century stereotypes, consolidated in the triumph of Protestantism under Queen Elizabeth, persist in popular culture.’ We still cherish a ‘Black legend’ of Catholicism, he says, and instances ‘the lurid portrayal of Mary and her court in Shekhar Kapur’s enormously successful biopic Elizabeth’. It is true that in that film the opening scenes of brutality make the viewer recoil, but the overall effect probably has less to do with residual prejudice against papists than with the viewers’ natural preference for the willowy Cate Blanchett, as Elizabeth, over Mary as represented by the stumpy Kathy Burke. It is perhaps hard for historians to accept that, despite the recent popularity of factual history on screen, their close and canny arguments have less immediate influence on popular perception than the novels of Philippa Gregory and the interminable, incoherent TV series The Tudors. It is likely that a British audience will resist Jonathan Rhys Meyers’s portrayal of Henry VIII as camp, weedy and short. But they will believe almost anything else: that Thomas More was a martyr for freedom of conscience, that Anne Boleyn was a witch, and that the monasteries were dissolved by men on horseback who rode in mob-handed and decapitated monks with battle-axes. It is a long time now since triumphalist Protestantism held sway, either in academic or popular belief. Among historians, Duffy himself has changed the orthodoxy, undermined the old narrative; as for popular preferences, they always favour the picturesque, and the papists have all the best costumes.

So there is little to hinder Duffy in making his case, except that we flinch from being shown how successful a terrorist policy can be. We like to think that nothing will get in the way of an idea whose time has come, and that the individual’s wit and tenacity will defeat state bullies. Not so. Fires of Faith shows how successfully consciences can be forced, if a ruthless will drives a policy of violent repression. An expanded version of five Cambridge lectures given in 2007 (the first of which was published in the LRB in February last year), it is directed principally at fellow historians. Its toughest quarrel is with the dead and their influence, and particularly with A.G. Dickens, author of The English Reformation (1964). Dickens saw Marian Catholics fighting a sterile campaign against the inevitable, trying to turn back the clock instead of injecting fresh ideals into their struggle. He said that, short-term and insular in their thinking, they had ‘failed to discover the Counter-Reformation’, a verdict which Duffy calls ‘famous, fatuous, but fatally quotable’. Among the living, Duffy takes issue with David Loades, the biographer of Mary who, while he has modified his earlier views on the ineffectiveness of the Marian bishops and their campaign, still believes (in Duffy’s account of his position) that they did ‘too little, too late’ to restore England to Catholic belief. Duffy is concerned to show that, in slightly different circumstances, England could have settled back into the international Catholic community: that those who led Mary’s forced march back to Rome were not adherents of a dead tradition, but were inspired by nascent Counter-Reformation spirit and connected intellectually to the European movements of their time. The chief actor in Fires of Faith is not Mary herself but Reginald Pole, the churchman who was the queen’s closest adviser in her campaign, and who had spent much of his life in exile.

Born in the year 1500, Pole was a Plantagenet, with a claim to the English throne. Both his grandfather, George, Duke of Clarence, and his uncle, Edward, Earl of Warwick, had been attainted and executed for treason; the latter, the Plantagenet heir, had been shut up soon after the Tudor victory at Bosworth and imprisoned by Henry VII for most of his short life. Henry VIII had restored the family fortunes. He had allowed Pole’s mother, Margaret, to succeed to the title of Countess of Salisbury, and had paid for Pole’s upbringing and education at Oxford and Padua. Pole spent the years 1521 to 1527 travelling and studying, making important intellectual and political contacts and impressing foreigners with his high status. He returned to a troubled England, where his patron the king was already thinking of a new marriage which would provide him with an heir. In 1529, on a visit to the Sorbonne, Pole made the case to the university for Henry’s divorce from Katherine of Aragon, and made it successfully; it was a success he would later be keen to forget. A year later, it is said, Henry offered him the archbishopric of York in return for his open support for the divorce. But Pole delayed showing his hand in any public way, and early in 1532 took himself out of the national debate and returned to Italy. This was the beginning of 23 years of exile, during which time a high-powered ecclesiastical career almost propelled him to the papacy. But in the mid-1530s his situation was delicately poised. Henry asked him to state his position. He had supported him and expected support in return. Pole’s religious beliefs were complex and constantly shifting. At one time he appears to have taken up a quasi-Lutheran position on the question of faith and works, and he had doubted the divine origin of the papacy. But he had now made up his mind, and replied to Henry in a very long letter, denouncing the king’s presumed supremacy of the Church, his divorce and the Boleyn marriage. Thomas More, John Fisher and the Carthusian monks whom Henry had executed were now cast as religious martyrs. Henry himself, worse than Nero, was guilty of incest and adultery, and heading straight to hell.

Pole’s manuscript was suffused with a sense of his own aristocratic status – his right to speak for England – and his possible dynastic importance meant that European courts took his opinions seriously. He was an enthusiast for a crusade against England, an invasion of his native country to depose Henry and bring the realm back under papal jurisdiction. At the time of the Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536, with England on the brink of civil war, Pole tried to raise support for the rebels. His family at home suffered the consequences. His brother was executed in 1539, his aged mother in 1541. Pole himself kept ahead of Cromwell’s assassins. He remained abroad during Edward VI’s reign. On Mary’s accession he was named within days as papal legate to England. Yet he did not return at once. Where would he fit in the new power structure? His letters suggest he fantasised about an England in which the practical as well as spiritual consequences of the Reformation could be undone. This was a faint hope. The Church’s vast landholdings had been privatised and God himself was not going to persuade the landowners of England to part with their loot. In time, Pole settled for the queen’s assurance that the Crown would give up some former Church revenues and make what practical restitution it could. When he returned to England in November 1554, he had to displace in the new queen’s confidence her lord chancellor, Stephen Gardiner, a formidable politician who found himself in a difficult situation. Doctrinally he was conservative, and under Edward he had been imprisoned, but as bishop of Winchester under Henry he had been a leading proponent of the royal supremacy, one of the old king’s most effective propagandists. He was compromised; and it was for Pole to seize the moral ascendancy over Mary, whom he called ‘that good saint the queen, fair as the moon, whom God hath not suffered to be tainted with any spot, either of schism or heresy’.

Pole ignored the accommodations Mary had made to stay alive during the 1530s, just as he ignored and overwrote his own former expedients. But he was afraid Mary would make accommodations now. Perhaps she would settle for returning the faith of England to what it had been at the end of Henry’s reign – notably Catholic, but not papist. So he set himself to turn her against her dead father. Even in her darkest days Mary had clung to her mental construct of a benign parent who wished her well; only Henry’s evil advisers, she told herself, had created a breach between them and made him threaten her. With conventional filial piety, she had spoken to Pole of ‘our father, of most blessed memory’. Pole reminded her that Christ recommended hating one’s father and mother for religion’s sake, and she should not fail to hate Henry; ‘yff yow wyll not speak yll of him, let hym alone, speake no good off hym.’

This psychological ruthlessness was matched by Pole’s attitude to his religious opponents. When new heresy laws came into effect in January 1554, Mary’s prisons were already full. Many historians have imagined Pole as shrinking from the task of stoking the fires. The martyrologist Foxe said that he was ‘none of the bloody and cruel sort of papists’. Duffy demonstrates that Pole, installed as archbishop of Canterbury, was quite bloody enough for the job, and an energetic proponent of a spiritual and intellectual revival – on his own terms, of course. Protestantism was fissiparous, argumentative, self-contradictory, its opponents alleged; Catholicism would restore community and consensus, and it would be a consensus monitored by priests. Truth was not negotiable, it was not up for debate. Lay people, Pole said, should receive God’s word as parvuli, children, and not argue with the priest. If it was necessary to rewrite recent history, the will was there to do it. An anonymous pamphlet published in summer 1555 painted a terrifying picture of a Protestant England in which the fabric of society had been eroded,

all good order broken, the magistrates contempned, and the people so farre divided that the father dread the childe, the marchaunt hys prentysce, the master hys man … Amitie and friendship was fled the realme, truth and trust was outtroden, al good maners and nurture in youth exiled, the very norishe of chastetee in maydens cast of cleane, so that what eche man liked and lusted, that he thought lawful.

This communistic free-for-all cannot have been what people remembered of Edward’s reign. Perhaps they thought it had all happened in the next parish, or just over the hill. The Marian propagandists appealed to a yearning for peace and stability. But a whole generation had grown up since Henry’s break with Rome, and much of the Marian effort surely represents the unseemly spectacle of men trying to catch the genie of free thought and put it back in the bottle. Protestantism, certainly, was a minority faith, but though the numbers who stood up to witness could be counted, it was less easy to anticipate or evaluate the undercurrent of strong feeling that showed itself on the execution grounds. The advisers of Philip of Spain, Mary’s husband, grew nervous; it was possible that public opinion would blame Philip’s influence for the burnings, so perhaps, on pragmatic grounds, the executions should be suspended, or held in secret? The imperial ambassador told Philip that at the burning of John Rogers at Smithfield in February 1555, ‘some of the onlookers wept, others prayed to God to give him strength, perseverance and patience to bear the pain and not to recant, others gathered the ashes and bones and wrapped them up in paper to preserve them, yet others threatening the bishops.’ The ambassador was afraid of popular revolt. It did not happen, and there was, Duffy says, no loss of nerve on the part of bishops, queen or the cardinal-archbishop. The regime had succeeded with its chosen weapons of teaching, preaching and burning alive, and by 1557 very few held out; most of the intransigents had gone into exile or knuckled under. The parish constable of St Bride’s, Fleet Street, once a strongly evangelical area, assured the authorities that ‘if you say the Crowe is white, I will say so too.’

In 1557 and 1558 a flu epidemic caused huge fatalities and disrupted the administration of the Marian version of justice. On 17 November 1558 it finished off the queen, who was already ill. Cardinal Pole died the same evening. The bishop who gave Mary’s funeral sermon praised her ‘singular mercy towards offenders’ and claimed she had ‘the Love, Commendation and Admiration of all the World’. Philip of Spain expressed ‘a reasonable regret’, and the Londoners held parties; their bonfires now were a sign of rejoicing. With Elizabeth’s accession, many of the reign’s Catholic activists fled abroad, where they enriched with their talents, Duffy says, the European Counter-Reformation. Given the suppleness of belief which many churchmen had shown since Henry’s break with Rome, you might have expected at least some of Mary’s bishops to gamble on continuing their careers; the story told in Fires of Faith demonstrates, on the one hand, heroic and godly stubbornness, and on the other the surprising versatility of clerics who clearly had more regard for their fortunes in this world than the next. But all those bishops who had survived the flu refused Elizabeth’s Oath of Supremacy and were deprived of office. Those who did not emigrate suffered imprisonment. Only one old cynic navigated the choppy waters of change. Anthony Kitchin had been a bishop under Henry, under Edward and under Mary, and come Elizabeth’s reign he was a bishop still, adapting once more to a new sort of god and hanging on grimly in the see of Llandaff.

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Vol. 31 No. 20 · 22 October 2009

In her review of Fires of Faith: Catholic England under Mary Tudor Hilary Mantel writes that ‘despite his careful and no doubt deeply felt disclaimers, it sometimes sounds as if Eamon Duffy is cheering on the executioners’ (LRB, 24 September). Contrary to her imputation, there is no covert approbation of the Marian burnings to be found in Duffy’s book. He makes plain his moral disapproval of the executions for heresy under Queen Mary, writing unambiguously that they constitute ‘a horrifying moral blot on any regime purporting to be Christian’. His main purpose is neither to condemn nor defend the policy of executions but to explain it, assessing its effectiveness in terms of what the Marian regime was trying to achieve. This is a legitimate scholarly approach to the past, not a form of cheerleading. Heresy (however defined) was generally regarded as a threat to social order and stability in this period; it is not surprising therefore that the repression of religious unorthodoxy was so often violent. This emerges not just from Duffy’s work on the reign of Mary but also, for example, from Bruce Gordon’s recently published Calvin, in which similar arguments are advanced concerning the role of the Genevan reformer in the trial of the anti-trinitarian Servetus.

Mantel writes that Cardinal Pole (Mary’s Archbishop of Canterbury) ‘had to displace in the new queen’s confidence her lord chancellor, Stephen Gardiner’. There is no good evidence of the tensions between Pole and Gardiner that she suggests. She also writes that Gardiner ‘had been a leading proponent of the royal supremacy, one of the old king’s most effective propagandists’. To many with only a superficial knowledge of the subject this statement may well appear unarguable. However, there is good reason to believe that the bishop of Winchester was a crypto-papalist who hoped and worked for reconciliation with Rome after the Henrician schism.

Colin Armstrong

Hilary Mantel writes of the cynicism of the 16th-century English and Welsh bishops who changed their religious beliefs with a change of monarch. My putative ancestor Myler Magrath went one better, being at the same time both Catholic bishop of Down and Connor and Protestant archbishop of Cashel. He accumulated a number of other dioceses and about 70 livings. His true religious beliefs remained safely ambiguous: he married (an option not open to Catholic clergy) twice but raised his children as Catholics. The success of his policy of open-mindedness in theological matters is evident in the fact that he lived to be 99 or 100 (his year of birth, 1522, is an estimate), which was good going for an Irish clergyman during the Reformation.

Michael McGrath

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