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.

And then there is the question of Pole’s supposed hostility to a Jesuit presence in England. The standard argument has been that he feared them, as too fiery, too zealous. In fact, Pole’s lack of interest in what the Jesuits and St Ignatius offered did not spring from timidity about Counter-Reformation activism, or disapproval of the Jesuits. Ignatius did not offer Pole the help of Jesuit preachers, as is commonly thought: apart from anything else, there were as yet no English-speaking Jesuits. He suggested, instead, that Pole should send two or three hand-picked young men to study with the Jesuits in Rome, either in the Germanicum, the training college for priests for Germany, or else in the international Collegio Romanum. Once imbued with a proper Roman spirit, they could return, several years down the line, to assist in the reconversion of their native land. Pole greatly admired the Germanicum, and made at least one donation towards its running costs. But a memorandum prepared for Pope Gregory XIII in the early 1570s, very probably by Nicolo Ormanetto, one of Pole’s closest collaborators, reveals that Pole had had ideas of his own for an English college in Rome which would do for England what the Germanicum was to do for Germany.

Ever since Henry VIII’s break with Rome, the English pilgrim hostel in via Monser-rato had been a largely wasted resource. The hostel, however, embodied one of Pole’s favourite apologetic themes, the ardent loyalty of the English to the papacy from Saxon times onwards, manifested in generations of pilgrimage to Rome. Ormanetto told the pope that Pole had repeatedly spoken of his wish to revive this function by converting the hostel into a seminary for elite ordinands and laymen, to be educated in ‘Romanitas’, the students to be selected from good families who had remained faithful during the schism. Such a school would provide a corps of educated and aristocratic clerics from whom a distinguished and loyal Catholic episcopate could be recruited. Pole, always conscious of his own Plantagenet blood, told Ormanetto that the supine acceptance of the royal supremacy by the Henrician episcopate was due in part to the low breeding of Henry’s bishops. Despised by the aristocracy, they lacked the spine to resist the evil desires of their royal master and stand by the papacy. An English seminary in Rome would rectify all that.

Given these plans for the foundation of what would ultimately emerge as the Venerable English College, it seems obvious enough why the cardinal did not take up Ignatius’s offer of places for students at the German college. Pole wanted an English national seminary in the Holy City, training elite diocesan priests, not places in an international school recruiting Jesuits, who might end up, whatever Ignatius’s intentions, working in Prague or Vienna, as the first English Jesuits did in fact do. This choice piece of evidence for Pole’s lack of imagination turns out, if it proves anything, to prove quite the opposite.

The charge that the Marian regime as a whole had failed to discover the Counter-Reformation is a very old one, first advanced by the Elizabethan Jesuit Robert Parsons. In a lengthy memorandum he composed in the 1590s, sketching out a reform agenda should Elizabeth be succeeded by a Catholic, Parsons suggested that Mary’s attempt to reimpose Catholicism had failed because it was ‘huddled’ and ‘shuffled up with … negligence’. It had attended, he thought, only to externals, ‘without remedying the Root, the renewing of the Spirit, which should have been the ground of all’. Mary’s efforts had been fatally flawed by her Church’s willingness to settle for half measures, its compromise with apostasy. Married clergy were permitted to return to the parish ministry, ‘without other satisfaction than only to send their Concubines out of Men’s sight, and of some it is thought they did not so much as confess themselves before they said Mass again.’ Others ‘that had preached against Catholicks, were admitted presently to preach for them’, while ecclesiastical officials ‘that had been Visitors and Commissioners against us, were made Commissioners against the Protestants’, and on Elizabeth’s accession ‘were Commissioners again of the other side against ours’, while the ‘owners’ of alienated monastic lands had been allowed to retain them. And so ‘the matter went as a Stage-Play, where Men do change their Persons and Parts, without changing their Minds or Affection.’

This contemporary Jesuit critique may have been a counsel of perfection, but Parsons had undoubtedly put his finger on a real weakness in the Marian settlement. Pole himself lamented the necessity of employing the Henrician episcopate and parish clergy to undo the schism they had helped foment, though it’s hard to see how he or anyone else could have done things differently.

How should the revolution have been rolled back? The Marian episcopate as a whole, and Pole in particular, were convinced that sincere Protestants were an unrepresentative minority, and that the country at large was still, even in 1553, essentially Catholic in sympathy. In this they were certainly correct. There probably were communities in the Stour Valley or (less probably) in the Weald of Kent where Protestants outnumbered Catholics, but at the start of Mary’s reign such places were few and far between. Nevertheless, whatever the numbers involved, a rank shift had occurred in certain hearts and minds. The Kentish gospeller John Newman explained the matter to the turncoat bishop of Dover, Richard Thornden. He and his fellow gospellers, he declared, had drunk too deep of the teaching of the Edwardine reformers to renounce it simply on command. For, he told Thornden,

their doctrine was not beleued of vs sodainly, but by their continuall preachyng: and also by our continuall prayer vnto God that we might neuer be deceiued … . We wayed that they laboured with Gods word, and we asked the aduise of our frendes: neyther could wee finde that they preached false doctrine. We considered also … that the kinges Grace and his Counsell, and the most part of al the whole realme, beleued as they taught, because no man preached the contrary … And by their dilligent setting forthe of it, by the kinges commaundemente, and the whole consent of the whole Counsell, and by the authoritie of the Parliament, we embrased it, and receiued it, as a very infallible trueth taught vnto vs, for the space of vii. yeares.

The defeat of Protestantism would not, therefore, be a pushover. But historians have insufficiently registered the nationwide disarray of the Protestant cause in the wake of Mary’s accession. The advent of a Catholic queen was the signal for a stampede of Protestant leaders to the Continent – ultimately more than eight hundred exiles, including most of the best brains in the evangelical camp. It was an exodus enthusiastically encouraged by the authorities, and in the early months of the regime Lord Chancellor Gardiner seems to have leaked advance warning of arrests, in the hope that the dissidents would take themselves off and save him the embarrassment of dealing with them. But the collapse was hardly less dramatic among those who remained. Mary’s astonishing and, as many thought, miraculous defeat of Northumberland’s conspiracy, her rapturous popular reception as queen, and the failure of Wyatt’s rebellion, seemed to many observers the unmistakeable hand of a directing providence, what the earl of Derby described as ‘the euill luck of the dukes of Northumberland and Suffolke … because they fauored not the true religion’, and the contrasting ‘good hap and prosperitie of the Queenes highnes’, by which we may gather ‘the one to be good, and of God, and the other to be wicked, and of the deuil’.

This widespread conviction was almost certainly the key factor leading scores of prominent evangelicals to abandon their reformed opinions and convert to Catholicism. They included Thomas Harding, a one-time ardent evangelical, and chaplain to Lady Jane Grey’s father. Harding’s much publicised return to Catholicism at the end of 1553 elicited from Lady Jane a bitter tirade as she awaited execution in the Tower, for having become so soon the ‘vnshamefast paramour of Antichrist, sometyme my faythfull brother, but now a straunger and Apostata, sometime a stoute Christen souldiour, but now a cowardly runneaway’. Yet Harding was no mere opportunist. At Elizabeth’s accession he remained true to his Catholic convictions, fled to Louvain, and became the leading Catholic controversialist of the 1560s. In a sermon at Oxford during Mary’s reign Harding explained that he had been reconverted to Catholicism when he saw the miracle God had worked in restoring the Catholic faith to England through her. There were other equally spectacular changes of heart. Henry Pendleton, an itinerant Protestant preacher in Edward’s reign, encouraged his friend Lawrence Sanders to stand by his Protestant convictions at Mary’s accession. Pendleton, a corpulent man, vowed that ‘I will see the vttermost drop of this grease of mine molten away, and the last gobbet of this flesh consumed to ashes, before I wil forsake God and his truth.’ In the event, however, he himself rapidly conformed, became a notable Catholic persuader, preacher and disputant, and, as one of the two compilers of Bishop Bonner’s book of homilies, one of the official voices of the regime.

The impact of these dramatic changes of heart, real or pretended, was by no means confined to London. Ralph Houlbrooke’s study of the evangelical community in Norwich documents a rapid collapse, including the capitulation and recantation of all the leading Norwich evangelicals. Two of these recantations, those of Thomas Rose and Robert Watson, were coerced, and both men subsequently revealed their true opinions by fleeing abroad, but their surrenders were skilfully publicised at the time by the Catholic authorities, and certainly helped demoralise the Norwich gospellers. The recantation of the most prominent Norwich evangelical, John Barret, by contrast, was undoubtedly genuine. Barret, an ex-Carmelite, a preacher and scholar, became an active and effective persuader for the Catholic cause, and eventually bequeathed to Norwich Cathedral a library that included editions of the Greek and Latin Fathers, a range of Counter-Reformation apologetic works, and a notable absence of Protestant books. He took the oath of supremacy again at Elizabeth’s succession, but made a fervently Catholic will in 1563, which leaves no room for doubt about his convictions.

Throughout 1554 and beyond, devastated evangelical leaders lamented the rapidity and scale of this nationwide collapse. From the safety of his exile in Strasbourg, Thomas Sampson rebuked his former parishioners at All Hallows, Bread Street, for inconstancy and cowardice: ‘O London, London, is this the gospelling fruite, to be the first that withoute a lawe shouldest banish trew preaching … whyche not in persecution but before persecution cometh do goe backe’. And in the bitterness of his imprisonment, Nicholas Ridley came to believe that the Edwardine reformation had never in fact penetrated the hearts even of the nation’s political elites, much less the common people: ‘it may be truly sayd of them,’ he wrote,

as of the most part of the Clergy, of Curates, Vicares, Persons, Prebendaries, Doctors of the law, Archdeacons, Deanes, yea, & I may say, of Bishops also, I feare me, for the more parte … they wer neuer persuaded in their harts but from the teeth forwarde and for the kings sake, in the truth of Gods word, and yet all these did dissemble and bare a copy of a countenaunce as if they had bene sound within.

This universal return to conformity was not left to individual initiative. In the spring of 1554, the bishops set about rolling back the revolution by ensuring that each and every adult man and woman in England made a personal statement of Catholic faith before taking Easter communion. Instructions issued to the clergy of the York diocese insisted that the curate was to examine ‘his parishioners at the time of Confession, not being Reconciled’ on the articles of the Catholic faith, inquiring of every one of them ‘whether he mai believe undoubtedly’ the real presence of Christ in the eucharist, whether he rejected justification by faith alone, and whether he accepted ‘that the Apostolicall See of Rome, and our Holy Father the Pope … is and ought to be the head of the universall Catholike Church of Christ in earth.’ They were also to ask parishioners whether they owned any heretical books, and if so, to order them to surrender them to the bishop for burning. Only after all this, and after an explicit declaration of sorrow for their involvement in schism, might they be absolved and permitted to receive communion. Any parishioner who had already confessed to another priest was to be summoned to confess again to their own curate, so he could satisfy himself of their orthodoxy.

This detailed scrutiny gave the authorities a much clearer sense of the scale of hardline evangelical resistance: those refusing conformity were cited in the episcopal and archidecanal visitations which began in the summer and autumn. In the epicentre, the London diocese, 470 men and women were presented, of whom at least half were probably Protestants; the overwhelming majority conformed, at any rate outwardly. The same close scrutiny was replicated in other Marian visitations, especially in Canterbury, another Protestant hotspot, where Archdeacon Nicholas Harpsfield’s eagle eye noted and pursued every sign of deviance, from the refusal of those with good voices to sing at Matins and Mass, to the failure of any unable to read to carry rosary beads.

It isn’t perhaps a great surprise to find that Bloody Mary’s Church was rather good at coercion. Yet it has been widely asserted or assumed that the regime relied too heavily on force, and didn’t follow through on the evangelical collapse more positively, failing to grasp the need for an adequate propaganda machine, and especially neglecting preaching. This is one of the more baffling myths about the regime, if only because the sources everywhere contradict it. Pole’s legatine synod of 1555 emphasised the fundamental importance of preaching: its fourth decree defined the pastoral office as consisting ‘chiefly … in the preaching of God’s word’. The decree demanded that all bishops and archbishops preach in person, and that clergy ‘either personally or through other fit persons … feed the people committed to them with the wholesome food of preaching, at least on Sundays and feast-days’. Pole placed this message at the head of his legatine visitation articles for the dioceses, insisting in Article One that ‘all parsons, vicars and curates having the gyfte and talente of preachinge’ shall ‘frequentlie and diligentlie’ preach to the people as the synod instructed, ‘opening the scriptures accordinglie’. They were also to use the liturgy as the basis for re-education in Catholicism, teaching ‘the right use of the godlie ceremonies of the churche’. And the legate prescribed that all incumbents and curates ‘being no preachers’ must ‘earnestlie emploie themselves to studie the holie scripture’, making an annual report on their progress to their bishop.

For the majority of priests unfit to preach, the synod decreed the composition of an elaborate body of homilies covering not only the fundamentals of faith and practice, but especially contested doctrines; pending their publication, Pole himself prescribed the provision of weekly sermons by reading sections aloud from the Profitable and Necessary Doctrine and its attached homilies, which had been issued by Bonner in 1555 for use in the London diocese. Other bishops followed suit: in his visitation of Durham Cathedral in the summer of 1556, Cuthbert Tunstall urged the dean and chapter ‘in the bowels of Christ’ in every church over which they had patronage ‘to sow the seed of God’s word … especially in Lent, by means of frequent sermons delivered either by yourselves or others to be sent by your care and industry; lest, through want of instruction in the law of God, the flock of Christ not being fed with the food of life, should be obliged to die for hunger of God’s word’.

These were serious and practical attempts to institutionalise and improve regular parochial sermons. But the regime was also aware of the inroads that evangelical preaching had made under Edward, and so was alive to the need to fight back. A major feature of the restoration, which positively shouts at one from the sources, was the concerted campaign of preaching which the regime mounted to refute Protestant error. In London, star preachers like John Feckenham, Richard Smith, Henry Cole, William Peryn, Thomas Watson and William Chedsey defended Catholic doctrine from many pulpits, but the focus of this campaign was London’s major preaching venue, Paul’s Cross. As Pole told Bartolome Caranza in June 1558, a major set-piece sermon was given there every Sunday, which multitudes attended. Pole was not exaggerating. The London chroniclers estimated that the number of listeners was sometimes well into five figures. Given the size of Paul’s churchyard in the 16th century, audiences on quite that scale do not seem likely, but clearly the crowds were often very great. The authorities took enormous pains to ensure the highest possible attendance, with the mayor and aldermen prominently present in their robes. Bonner instructed churchwardens to see to it that during the Paul’s Cross sermons there should be no ‘ryngynge of belles, playinge of Children, cryenge or making lowed noyse, rydynge of horses, or otherwise, so that the Preacher there or his audience was troubled thereby’.

The sermons were also occasions for propaganda exercises, such as the public recantation of heretics, the disciplining of married clergy and the exposure of Protestant conspiracy. In June 1554, for example, Elizabeth Croft recanted at the Cross. Croft was an 18-year-old maidservant who had been involved in a notorious hoax, in which an oracular voice issuing from a hole in a wall in Aldersgate Street praised the Lady Elizabeth and denounced Catholicism to a large crowd. Croft, whom Myles Hogarde called ‘the party that played bo-peep in the wall’, stood at sermon-time in a specially constructed scaffold beside the pulpit, and confessed that she had been bribed by gospellers ‘that have the Lorde in [their] mouthes and the devil in [their] hartes’. In tears she urged the crowd: ‘beware good people beware of these heretyks … they wyll undo you all,’ as they had undone her.

Another London pulpit tradition, the Spital sermons, was also revived, with considerable display. In 1557, the Spital preachers were two star controversialists, Henry Pendleton and John Young, Master of Pembroke, one of the architects of the Marian reconstruction. Of the 26 London aldermen, 25 turned out to hear them, with the children of St Mary’s Hospital attending uniformed in blue, an array of judges, and a crowd estimated at 20,000, ‘the wholl cete’, as the chronicler Henry Machyn noted, ‘boythe old and yonge, boythe men and women’.

The preaching campaign was not confined to the capital. From at least March 1555 special preachers were being sent to heretical hotspots like Essex and East Anglia, backed by instructions from the Council and the queen to local grandees and justices to ‘be aiding and assisting’ by being conspicuously present themselves at the sermons and ‘using the preachers reverently’. We have details of one tour round villages in the Harwich area by the heresy-hunting former evangelical parson of Much Bentley in Essex, Thomas Tye; his activities were replicated in other dioceses. George London, a former Benedictine principal of Gloucester College, Oxford, was employed by Pole’s client and collaborator Bishop Richard Pate, himself a notable preacher, to combat heresy in the Worcester diocese, and in the light of his effectiveness there, Pole licensed him to preach anywhere in England. Pole showed a similar concern for preaching in other dioceses and in May 1558 licensed a cluster of preachers for Salisbury, including Thomas Harding and Thomas Heskins, who in Elizabeth’s reign would join the Flanders province of the Order of Preachers.

Sermons directed against individual heretics were an invariable feature of the executions themselves, preached from temporary pulpits erected near the pyre, or in the parish church on the Sundays before or afterwards. The queen and Pole wrote separately to the bishops in 1555 to insist on the presence of able preachers at all burnings, because, as Pole explained, heretics could harm the ignorant and rude multitude at least as much by their deaths as ever they did alive. In London and elsewhere, condemned heretics were often preached against in advance by name, and might be brought from prison into church to hear their errors denounced from the pulpit.

Contemporaries were well aware of the range, scale and effectiveness of this preaching campaign: Elizabeth Fane reproached Bonner not only for murdering the saints, but for causing ‘lyinge preachers’ to ‘blaspheme and belye them with railynge sentences when they are deade’. The Protestant exile John Olde complained bitterly in November 1555 of the flood of papistical propaganda poured out by ‘the prechours in Englande now promoted and set up in throne by the Queenes highnesse, as wel at Paules Crosse as commonly in open pulpittes’. Bafflingly, historians have ignored, overlooked or denied all this, and it has become an axiom that the Marian Church gave ‘no special emphasis’ to preaching, and, by oversight or design, failed to make use of the pulpit in the service of Counter-Reformation. Like so many other aspects of the historical consensus about the reign, this is simply and demonstrably untrue, and the failure to register the campaign has seriously distorted perceptions of the effectiveness of the Marian regime as a whole.