Fires of Faith: Catholic England under Mary Tudor

Jon Wright is impressed with a book that examines how Mary Tudor brought England back to Roman obedience

Book review image

Reviewed by: Jon Wright
Author: Eamon Duffy
Publisher: Yale University Press
Price (RRP): £19.99

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Eamon Duffy has done as much as anyone to make us rethink the religious history of late medieval and early modern England. His portrayal of the pre-Reformation devotional landscape has sometimes been excessively roseate, and commitment to Reformist ideas in some sectors of early Tudor society was a little more robust than he’d like to admit, but Duffy’s basic points remain intact. The medieval church wasn’t a creaky, moribund institution, and the early English Reformation was slow to win over the hearts and minds of much of the populace.

The reign of Mary Tudor ought to represent the clinching argument for this revisionist case. Mary brought England back to Roman obedience and, so far as we can tell, many people were rather pleased. The trouble is, it has never been easy to summon up much affection or respect for Mary’s Catholic revivalism. Aside from all the victims (almost 300 of them) perishing in the flames, it has been customary to dismiss Mary’s policies as unimaginative: a swan song to medieval attitudes that ignored the bold, stable-cleansing aspirations of the Counter Reformation.

Professional historians have been steadily debunking this negative appraisal for more than 20 years. By and large, however, ‘Bloody’, bewildered Mary is still regnant in the popular historical imagination. Duffy’s book therefore serves an important purpose. It introduces a broader readership to the fact that the religious strategies which unfolded between 1553 and 1558 were brimful of dynamism. If they were sometimes brutal they were often astute.

The Marian church oversaw the restoration of the fabric of Catholic worship. It turned the universities into engine-rooms of Catholic theologising and, far from being blind to the power of propaganda, it launched vigorous campaigns (in both print and pulpit) to win over the befuddled masses.

Instead of being suspicious of preaching, as we used to assume, it mounted efficient preaching campaigns. Instead of only producing humdrum books, the literary legacy of the Marian establishment was far more accomplished than most historians have acknowledged. Above all, the church’s leadership was, at the very least, efficient.

If Mary Tudor has endured a bad press, then her chief lieutenant, Reginald Pole (cardinal and archbishop) hasn’t fared much better. The historian Thomas Mayer has spent the last few years revitalising Pole’s reputation, and Duffy is happy to join this chorus of approval. The image of the sourpuss, disillusioned Pole, haunted by his own setbacks, no longer rings true. Instead, we ought to see him as an energetic leader of the English church who worked hard in his ecclesiastical courts and embraced both the power of preaching and the trends of the Counter Reformation.

That still leaves all the burnings. Duffy makes the valid point that, while numerically exceptional, they were certainly not aberrant. The idea that heretics ought to be punished permeated the early modern world view. Duffy also insists that significant efforts were often made to win over Protestants rather than kill them. True enough, but mainly because it made better propagandist sense to secure a turncoat than produce a martyr.

Duffy even ventures the notion that the persecution worked. The number of burnings fell off during the latter part of the reign. Duffy suggests that this was because the number of committed Protestants was in sharp decline: to use his unfortunate phrase, “the protestant hydra was being decapitated”. Given what happened next – the emergence of a dynamic, if muddled Protestant England within 50 years – it seems the hydra had more heads than Duffy would allow.

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What Duffy does prove is that Marian Catholicism was more vibrant and competent than we ever imagined. It produced a clerical elite that, for the most part, resisted the religious policies of Elizabeth I and a much broader Catholic constituency that helped to cultivate the English recusant tradition. Some of the reign’s most cherished ideas – seminary-making, sacramental piety, papalism – helped to define European Catholicism. Duffy’s book sometimes replaces old generalisations with new ones, but it brings us much closer to an elusive goal: a rounded history of the Marian church.