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