Mary Tudor & the Dawn of the Counter-Reformation
Fires of Faith: Catholic England Under Mary Tudor
By Eamon Duffy
Publisher: Yale University Press
Pages: 249 pages
Review Author: Anne Barbeau Gardiner
Eamon Duffy has given us a brilliant, much-needed reassessment of Mary Tudor’s reign as queen of England (1553-1558) with his new book Fires of Faith. While he doesn’t palliate or excuse the burning of heretics, he shows that historians are wrong to see this reign as a throwback to medieval times and to charge it with “incompetence.” It was, in many respects, the dawn of the Counter-Reformation.
When Mary was crowned in 1553, the English Reformation was only twenty years old, and “sincere” Protestants were few and far between. Historians, Duffy points out, have insufficiently registered the rapidity and extent of the evangelical collapse that ensued. Many saw the hand of providence in Mary’s accession, and scores of prominent evangelicals reverted to Catholicism. The extent of “evangelical backsliding” was such that exiled leaders started a “campaign of samizdat publication” to stiffen the spine of the remnant. Historians have seen this campaign as a sign of strength, but Duffy sees it as a sign of “extreme anxiety.”
Historians have assumed that the “Marian regime” relied chiefly on force and was hostile to preaching. This is a myth. Preaching was its priority, especially in London, where multitudes — in five figures — would flock to hear a star preacher each Sunday at Paul’s Cross. Reginald Cardinal Pole’s record of preaching was actually better than his Protestant successor Matthew Parker’s. Pole, the last Catholic archbishop of Canterbury, saw it as laudable to “preach the Bible,” provided it was done by orthodox preachers, duly commissioned by the Church, for true doctrine was to be “received and not invented.” Cardinal Pole’s Legatine Synod of 1555 stressed the importance of preaching and ordered a book of homilies to be prepared. It was released in 1558 under the title Holesome and Catholyke Doctryne, and it contained thirty sermons full of scriptural and patristic learning given by Thomas Watson, the Catholic bishop of Lincoln. It contrasts favorably with the “tiresome and contentious” Elizabethan Homilies of 1563.
Historians have claimed that Mary Tudor’s reign had a poor record of publishing, but this too is inaccurate. Edward Baskerville listed 114 Protestant and 93 Catholic books for the period, but left out the devotional and liturgical works of Catholics, while including those of Protestants. He also left out John Rastell’s edition of Thomas More’s works. Moreover, he put Protestant pamphlets, of which only two hundred were printed, on a par with major works like London Bishop Edmund Bonner’s Profitable and Necessarye Doctryne, which went through ten printings and spread throughout 10,000 parishes. Also printed in the five years of Mary’s reign were five editions of the Missal, eight of the Processional, six of the Manual, eight of the Breviary, and thirty-four of the Primer. Perhaps the greatest coup was the Duke of Northumberland’s scaffold speech — widely publicized in Europe — in which the Duke admitted that his zeal for the Reformation had been a sham and that he now repented of his role in the sack and plunder of the Church. The accession of Mary Tudor came after the wholesale destruction of a millennium’s legacy of art on the grounds of “idolatry.” The entire repertoire of music had been trashed, along with paintings, statues of saints, stained glass, altars, medieval screens, and great roods or crucifixes. This Kulturkampf, Duffy notes, represents the “largest government confiscation of local property in English history.”
The Catholic writers of Mary Tudor’s time have been dismissed as “mediocrities,” while laurels have been accorded to contemporary Protestants for their “entertaining scurrility” and “invective.” Duffy admits that Catholics had no one “who rose, or descended, to the levels of scatological memorability achieved by John Bale.” Indeed, irreverence was one of the key charges Catholics leveled against Protestants at the time, along with changeability of doctrine and liturgy. To say that Protestants had the best of the argument, Duffy says, has not been proven.
The greatest obstacle to “a positive assessment of the Marian restoration” is that 284 Protestants were burned for heresy from February 1555 (when the heresy laws were revived) to November 1558. Of these, fifty-six were women. This was surely wrong. Yet one must realize that the concept of religious toleration was nonexistent back then. Wherever Protestants got the upper hand, laws were enacted against the Church of Rome, whom they satirized as the Whore of Babylon and the Antichrist, with the pope as her head “under the devil” and the Mass as damnable idolatry.
When Archbishop Cranmer told Edward VI at his coronation that it was his duty to see “idolatry destroyed,” he meant the Mass. So Catholics might have seen themselves as fighting for the survival of the faith in England. Though they were the overwhelming majority in England when Elizabeth brought back Protestantism in 1559, it took only a century to reduce them to a mere one percent of the population, thanks to anti-popery laws, which included crippling fines. From 1559 Catholics would not have full citizenship again until the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829.
To put the number of those executed under Mary in perspective, Duffy reminds us that, under Elizabeth, over two hundred Catholics were strangled, disemboweled, and dismembered: “I should not myself care to allocate marks for brutality between these different methods of slow killing.” Let us not forget that an unprecedented number — around 70,000 Englishmen — had been executed under Henry VIII during the religious and social upheavals he caused.
Catholics have been unjustly tarred as uniquely cruel for burning heretics, yet at the time it was accepted on all sides that heretics might be burned. Cranmer himself had persuaded the Duke of Somerset to burn the Anabaptist Joan Butcher, Duffy notes; and John Rogers, the first clerical leader burned in February 1555, had justified the execution of “unrepentant heretics” and even defended “burning, despite its popish associations, as the least agonizing of options and ‘sufficiently mild’ for so heinous a crime.”
John Philpot, the last Protestant leader burned in 1555, had said that Joan Butcher was “a heretic indeed, well worthy to be burnt”; and Hugh Latimer, who would be burned in Oxford, had given a sermon justifying “the burning of Anabaptists and Arians.” Indeed, John Calvin himself ordered the burning of Servetus. As Duffy observes, in that era, “most Protestant leaders agreed with their Catholic counterparts that false faith was worse than no faith at all, and that those stubbornly adhering to religious error were rightly condemned to death.” In his Catholic Apology (1674), Roger Palmer, the First Earl of Castlemaine, pointed out that two hundred of those burned under Mary Tudor were so far out of the mainstream they would have “rotted” in prison for Nonconformity under the Anglican establishment of the Restoration, 1660-1685.
Duffy finds no evidence for a nationwide disenchantment with the burnings, as some historians have assumed or asserted, and says we should be careful not to project modern sensibilities onto the people of the past. The bishops and their associates took great pains to convert those charged with heresy or to have them agree to keep their consciences to themselves.
At that time, a controversy arose over who could be considered a martyr. James Cancellar, in Pathe of Obedience (1556), and Miles Hogarde, in Displaying of the Protestants (1556), argued that the “pattern of martyrdom” could be found in Thomas More, John Fisher, the Carthusian monks, and other Henrician martyrs. More’s letters from the Tower came out as a “counterweight to the prison letters of the Protestants then circulating.” Duffy paraphrases the author of Treatise on the Masse (1555), saying that “the fundamental lack of charity that is the root of heresy could not be concealed. The very language in which the condemned Protestants defied and reviled the authorities of church and state, who had justly condemned them, revealed at the last what they truly were.” The controversy over martyrdom culminated in Nicholas Harpsfield’s Life of More, a masterpiece that wasn’t published until the twentieth century — possibly because Lord Rich, the Judas who had given “the fatal and probably perjured evidence” against More, was now a “key figure” in the campaign against heresy. Perhaps it was feared that he’d be offended if the book came out. Rich wasn’t the only one working in that campaign who had a murky past.
What survived from this period was John Foxe’s Protestant martyrology, Acts and Monuments (1563), a book that made available the victims’ stories of their arrests, examinations, and letters from prison, along with eyewitness accounts of their burnings. Foxe’s book is “partisan” and shows Mary Tudor’s campaign against heresy “almost entirely through the eyes of its victims and opponents.”
It is with regard to Foxe that I have a small objection to make against Duffy’s otherwise excellent history. Roughly half of Fires of Faith is based on Foxe’s writings, and though Duffy concedes that this is a lurid, intensely hostile, and tendentious picture of Mary Tudor’s reign, he mentions only in passing Nicholas Harpsfield’s critique of Foxe. Harpsfield was a major figure in that period, and he accused Foxe of “deliberate lies and incompetent errors.” His critique was effective enough that Foxe had to make some corrections in the next edition of this book. Duffy doesn’t quote anything from Harpsfield’s 250-page rebuttal, comprising the sixth dialogue in Dialogi Sex contra Summi Pontificatus (1566). Nor does he mention Thomas S. Freeman, a recent critic of Foxe. To be fair, he does refer to the schoolmaster William Flower, who came into St. Margaret’s Westminster on Easter 1555 and stabbed a priest distributing Holy Communion. Foxe listed him as a martyr: “Even a crazed would-be assassin might be a warrior in the battle against Antichrist, if his death could be presented as martyrdom.”
Historians have regarded Queen Mary’s reign as the last gasp of medieval Christendom, but Duffy persuades us that it was the cutting edge of the Counter-Reformation in its “papalism,” “heightened interiority,” and “intense sacramentalism.” For one thing, Cardinal Pole, who died in 1558, created a bench of bishops who were university-trained theologians noted for their loyalty and zeal. These bishops chose to resign, go to prison, or be exiled rather than take Elizabeth’s Oath of Royal Supremacy in 1559. Nicholas Heath, archbishop of York, a former Henrician and Edwardian conformist, now warned that Church unity was based on Peter, and so “by our leaping out of Peter’s ship, we must needs be overwhelmed by the waters of schism, sects and divisions.” Equally astonishing was “the rejection of Elizabeth’s settlement by a majority of the clerical elite of England.” An “extraordinary exodus” ensued after 1559 of “cathedral prebendaries and office-holders conscientiously unable to conform.” More than half resigned or were deprived, a “dramatic stiffening of spine and principle among the higher clergy” that was completely new in Tudor England, and even in Europe. The pope and the Mass had become the “touchstones of conscience” for which they were willing to give up everything.
At Oxford and Cambridge, the Oath of Royal Supremacy and the Book of Common Prayer were widely rejected. Almost every head of house in Oxford stepped down, and many “ardent young intellectuals” fled to Louvain or Douai — among them Thomas Stapleton, William Allen, Richard Bristow, and Nicholas Sander. These men’s convictions would merge “seamlessly into those wider movements for reforms” called the Counter-Reformation. At the Council of Trent’s final sessions, the English reform under Mary Tudor took on a new European significance: It inspired Trent’s greatest innovation — the seminary. Moreover, the catechism that Bartolomé Carranza had prepared for England became the framework for the Catechism of the Council of Trent.
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