Duffy: Fires of Faith

May 31, 2011

Fires of Faith
Catholic England under Mary Tudor
Eamon Duffy (Yale, 2009)
263 p.

Mary Tudor’s short reign (1553-1558) has not been much admired. She attempted to reverse the religious changes wrought by Henry VIII and Edward VI, but her reforms were abandoned by her successor, Elizabeth I, and ultimately came to nothing, or next to nothing. And, it is said, her reforms themselves were badly conceived, poorly executed, and — speaking of execution — morally reprehensible: more than 280 people were burned at the stake for their religious beliefs during her reign. She is known to history as “Bloody Mary”.

In this book Eamon Duffy, a distinguished historian of late medieval and early modern English religion, attempts to rehabilitate Mary’s reputation. He re-examines the strategy conceived by Mary and her advisors, especially Cardinal Pole, to combat Protestantism, and he re-assesses the evidence for the plan’s success or failure. Had the effort been limited to burning heretics, we should find nothing to admire, but Duffy demonstrates that in fact the counter-reformation program was multi-faceted. It included a renewed emphasis on seminary training and effective preaching, publication of tracts and books aimed at correcting the errors of the Protestants, replacement of bishops by capable and articulate men loyal to the Catholic faith and the papacy, restoration of Catholic liturgy and devotion, re-furnishment of the churches that had been stripped and looted during Edward’s reign, and a renewed focus on the centrality of the Blessed Sacrament and the papacy to Christian faith.

Duffy also argues that, by and large, these reforms were quite successful, and would have resulted in a significant restoration of Catholic faith and practice in England had they been able to continue. Mary’s death brought an end to that possibility. Even so, the Marian initiatives during those few years gave shape and confidence to the Catholic recusant movement under Elizabeth, and it also had a considerable influence on the continental counter-reformation.

The most reprehensible aspect of Mary’s reign was, of course, the policy of burning intransigent Protestants. Duffy partly exonerates the authorities by demonstrating the great lengths to which they would go to avoid passing the death sentence, especially for lay people. Those who were executed sometimes appeared to actually want to die for their faith, and were openly provocative of and belligerent towards the authorities — and some of them were, I think it must be said, almost certainly mentally ill. This of course does not excuse the burnings, but it does signify that they were not all carried out in a spirit of bloodthirsty remorselessness.

Modern historians have tended to regard the Marian burnings as both morally disgusting — evidence of the backward, “medieval” mindset of Catholics — and as counter-productive, for, it was argued, the executions were more likely to inflame the hatred of the people against the regime than to effect a widespread re-conversion back to Catholicism. The most controversial and provocative claim that Duffy makes is that this latter expectation is false. He argues instead that, however it may offend our sensibilities, the policy of burning heretics was successful at combating heresy, and this was so simply because there was considerable agreement at the time that burning was a fitting punishment for heresy. Protestants, of course, did not agree that they should be burned; on the contrary, they thought it a suitable end for Catholics, but the point is that they thought it a suitable end. (Under Elizabeth, the shoe was placed on the other foot, and hundreds of Catholics were executed for their faith, though usually by strangling, disembowelling, and dismembering rather than by burning.)

It is difficult for me to judge the extent to which Duffy restores a fair portrait of Mary Tudor. Fires of Faith is written as a contribution to a long and ongoing conversation, yet this is the only part of that conversation that I have heard. Much of his argumentation is directed at changing the mind of readers who hold particular views about the period. The reigning presumption about Mary’s reign, says Duffy, is that it was saturated by incompetence. Since I do not hold that view, at least not in a considered way, I soon learned that I was not in the book’s target audience. My general impression is that Duffy raises many interesting points, and that his position is defensible, but, by the nature of the case, it is hard to present a true knock-down argument. His rehabilitation of Cardinal Pole, who has often been regarded as an incompetent and ineffective leader, is perhaps the most convincing part of the book.

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4 Responses to “Duffy: Fires of Faith”


  1. I was interested to read your take on this, having read Duffy’s book The Stripping of the Altars a couple of years ago. His work is well-researched and an important corrective to the triumphalist history of a previous generation, and for that reason extremely valuable – even if my ultimate conclusions about the merits and significance of the English Reformation are rather different from Duffy’s.

    It’s fascinating to think about what would have happened had Mary succeeded in implementing a counter-Reformation program in England; history would have proceeded very differently if the culture that produced the King James Bible and the English Prayer Book had had the opportunity to contribute to the broader Catholic Church. My own suspicion, however, is that something like the Elizabethan Settlement was inevitable; certainly the sheer scale of the Marian persecutions suggests a certain amount of desperation, as though Mary knew she was fighting a losing battle and was trying to ward off the inevitable as long as possible. (280 executions in three years is, after all, a much greater rate of persecution than any other ruler of the time.) One might have wished that the English Church during Elizabeth’s reign had done certain things differently, and the execution of so many Roman Catholic and Calvinist leaders is certainly a great tragedy, but it seems unlikely that either a return to Rome or an implementation of Geneva-style Presbyterianism would have had wide popular support, or that a nation thus divided along religious lines would have survived the Spanish Armada or the Civil War.

  2. cburrell Says:

    Thank you for your comments, Osbert. I apologize for having taken a few days to respond. I do not intend to be rude.

    I have also read The Stripping of the Altars; I agree with you that it is an impressive piece of work. The present book is far less ambitious, but not (I hope it is clear) without its merits.

    Counterfactual history is always a little tricky, but I’ll try. Perhaps you are right that the violence of Mary’s reign betrays desperation, but, if so, there was some justification for it. Several decades had elapsed since the the break with Rome, and a good deal of water had passed under the bridge in the meantime (much of it littered with the flotsam and jetsam of broken-up church furniture, artwork, and music-books, alas!). They must have known that time was not on their side. A return to the unity — unsettled here and there, but substantial nonetheless — of pre-Henrician times was probably not possible, but I think it plausible that a return to a majority Catholic state may have been. Mary and her ‘counter-reformers’ found a good deal of Catholic piety re-emerging when the coast was clear. Whether Mary’s reign could have found a way to accommodate those who could not return to Catholicism is questionable.

    I am not sure about the Civil War, but I believe that had Mary succeeded better than she did the Armada would likely not have sailed in the first place.


  3. Alternate history is dicey stuff. One of Kingsley Amis’s novels takes place in an alternative timeline in which the impact of the Reformation was very limited, resulting in a vastly different twentieth-century political landscape. These possibilities are interesting, but I tend to be pessimistic; most of the alternate histories I imagine end up being significantly worse than the “real” one. . .

    So: there are two contrasting scenarios I’m imagining here. In the first scenario, the English Reformers follow a continental Protestant model (i.e., Calvin/Zwingli) and attempt to institute something like Scottish Presbyterianism. This represents an irrevocable break with Catholic teaching and practice, and is poorly received by the general population; the result is ongoing religious strife, hampering the country’s ability to repel the foreign invasion when it arrives.

    In the second scenario, Mary or one of her successors is successful in reintroducing Roman Catholicism as the majority religion, but Protestant views retain a substantial foothold from the Edwardian era. In this scenario, the conflict with Spain is probably averted; however, a Cromwell-like figure arises well before the 1640s, and is able to attract a much greater level of popular support.

    Neither of these scenarios ends well. (In the first scenario, England is probably conquered by Spain; in the second scenario, a bitter sixteenth-century civil war results in the ascendancy of a Puritanism under which the plays of Shakespeare, for example, could never have been written.) One can dispute the plausibility of these suggestions, but they illustrate the basic sense I have when reading English history of this period: that the country stood on the brink of disaster throughout the Reformation era, and that only by trying to conciliate Catholic and Protestant opinion could the national Church hope to survive the period more or less intact.

    The problem with this policy of compromise and “conciliation”, of course, is that the Church of England has too often settled for a sort of wishy-washy Latitudinarianism, the fruits of which can be all too readily seen in contemporary “bring-your-dog-to-Communion” Anglicanism. I’m very far from suggesting that these developments are entirely positive, only that they have resulted in certain clear political benefits.

    My apologies for the length of these remarks: these issues have been much on my mind recently, so I am probably just using your comment box to think out loud.

  4. cburrell Says:

    Quite possibly you are right about the practical impossibility of a general (and official) return to Catholic faith and practice at that time. But surely it would have been easier then than subsequently (unless, of course, we take the very long view)? I suppose that I wish there had been just a little more toleration, and fewer punitive measures, directed at Catholics (and non-conformists, for that matter). To look for freedom of religion at that time and place is, I know, anachronistic, but somehow I can’t help it.

    I can see your point about the threat of a Spanish invasion against a nation divided against itself; I don’t see as clearly the inevitability of “Cromwell” in the alternate scenario you sketch, but this is probably due to the fuzziness with which those episodes present themselves to my memory.


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