The Reformation Struggles in England

George A. Wells

Fires of Faith: Catholic England Under Mary Tudor, by Eamon Duffy (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2010, ISBN 9780300152166) 249 pp. Paperback, $29.17.

Fires of Faith: Catholic England Under Mary Tudor by Eamon Duffy, professor of the history of Christianity in the University of Cambridge, is another of his informative studies of the Reformation struggles. We already owe his “What About the Inquisition?” (in his 2004 book, Faith of Our Fathers) for a valuable assessment of that evil institution, to name another one of his contributions.

Duffy knows well enough that the reign of Mary Tudor (1553–1558) has had few friends among historians. The regime’s religious dimension provided most of the copy for this bad press, for it entailed putting to death 284 Protestant men and women. Many more died in jail, for “Tudor prison conditions could be bestial” (91).

The well-known antecedents can be briefly recapitulated. Henry VIII’s Queen Catherine of Aragon had produced a sickly daughter (the later Queen Mary) but no son, and Henry was acutely aware of the insecurity of a throne that lacked a male heir. The pope was too afraid of the emperor, Catherine’s nephew, to grant Henry a divorce, and so Henry constituted himself the supreme head of the English church and forced Thomas Cranmer, archbishop of Canterbury, to annul his marriage. Apart from thus overthrowing the papal supremacy (and in consequence being able to plunder church property by the dissolution of the monasteries), Henry remained thoroughly Catholic in outlook, and his England was simply “catholicism without the pope” (37). But Protestantism in Europe was escalating to an extent that threatened the stability of this Henrician settlement, and in the brief reign of Henry’s successor, the sickly boy king Edward VI, son of Henry’s third marriage, centuries of devotional elaboration were “bulldozed away,” and the cathedrals and parish churches of England were “stripped bare.” Music was particularly badly affected, since “the heavy emphasis of reformed protestantism on the intelligibility of the written or spoken word in worship left no place for Latin word-setting and elaborate polyphony.” In addition, altars were pulled down and statues smashed. “The hammers were out everywhere” (3f.). The motives involved were not exclusively religious: “Edward’s government, desperate for war funds, had turned this religiously inspired repudiation of catholic externals into a fiscal resource” (4).

After those years of aggressive Protestantism (1547–1553), a full two-thirds of the nation was ready to re-embrace Catholicism (just as was its posterity later to restore royalism after the Commonwealth). And the current belief in a ruling providence could prompt the conviction that Mary, the despised daughter of Henry’s one lawful wife, had rightfully come to her inheritance.

There was certainly “a strong providentialist element” (36) in the thinking of Mary’s chief advisor, Cardinal Reginald Pole, appointed papal legate in England upon Edward’s death. In a speech to Parliament in 1554, he declared that “God in his miraculous providence had preserved that ‘desolate Ladie’ Mary in purity and innocence to restore her people” (45). For Pole, unmistakable lessons of history proved that the papacy was the instrument of providence. Had not the Byzantine Empire’s repudiation of the pope been immediately followed by its succumbing to Turkish rule (39)? He urged Mary not to honor her father, who had martyred Thomas More, lord chancellor of England, and John Fisher, bishop of Rochester, for their refusal to acknowledge him as supreme head of the English church: “If Henry was ‘of blessed memory,’ then More and Fisher had died in vain.” Had she not read Christ’s own precept, he asked (39f.), that it was a Christian duty to hate one’s father for the sake of the Gospel? “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14: 26).

The thoroughness of Mary’s regime in its measures of enforcement invite comparison to the recent experiences of eastern Europe. Pole “instigated a systematic visitation of all the dioceses.” Parishioners absenting themselves from church or behaving without due reverence there were “targeted and examined” (131). Bonner, bishop of London, instructed his clergy to submit to him lists of the names of all parishioners who failed to make their confession during Lent (90). There were, of course, many who succumbed to pressure, although unconvinced, whose attitude was: “If you say the crow is white, I will say so too” (168). But there were also many who, after having recanted their heresy, were sufficiently plagued by conscience to reaffirm it and in consequence paid the ultimate penalty.

For all the religious zeal of those who supported or at least acquiesced in Mary’s impositions, secular interests were not in abeyance—as is clear from the refusal of those who had profited from the confiscations under Henry to restore their plunder to the church. (Henry had had to give much of the takings to the aristocracy, to keep them on his side.) Pole indeed “made the recovery of ecclesiastical property one of his highest priorities.” But “eventually he bowed to political reality and agreed that the possessors of church lands would not be legally obliged to return them.” Mary knew quite well that to try to force her Parliament to enact otherwise would cost her her throne, and she had to rest content with surrendering her own, the crown’s, share of “the loot of the reformation” (26f.).

Those executed were roasted alive not for unethical behaviour but because they steadfastly refused to subscribe to specific Catholic doctrines—although of course Pole urged his preachers to proclaim that the victims died as much because of their “evil life” as for their heresy (62, 150); he himself attributed King Henry’s schism not to his need for a male heir but solely to “the contemptible obsession of an ageing man with ‘the love of a harlot,’ Anne Boleyn” and “avarice for the goods of the church” (35). But the real case against the victims was purely doctrinal; in particular that they insisted that, whatever a mumbling priest might say, bread and wine remained bread and wine, and to worship it as the body and blood of Christ was gross idolatry.

Pole firmly believed that an unrepentant heretic not only died at the stake in torment but also “went straight to hell for all eternity” (147). Duffy adds: “Modern historians find it hard to credit such convictions as grounds for action, but they weighed heavily with sixteenth-century people.” In fact, it is only quite recently that hell has been quietly dropped from most preaching in the mainstream churches and then quickly almost forgotten, as indicated by the informative title of a 1985 article in the Harvard Theological Review: “Hell Disappeared. No One Noticed.”

Their horror of hell was one reason Pole and his inquisitors often did their utmost to talk the heretics into recantation. Another reason was, of course, the regime’s interest: “a repentant heretic was a potent witness to the error and inconstancy of protestantism; a dead one might be deemed a martyr” (110). Burning Cranmer, despite his multiple recantations, was a great mistake, in that “it robbed the regime of its most spectacular trophy convert” (82). Here, Mary for once acted against Pol
e’s advice, in order to avenge herself on the man who had ruined her mother’s life.

Altogether, “burning men and women alive for their fidelity to deeply held beliefs” evokes revulsion in “any civilised twenty-first century person” (79). But, Duffy adds, this “is a matter of moral hindsight, attained on this side of the Enlightenment.” Now it is all very well to say that fifteenth-century people were barbarous and ignorant. (He writes of “the sanctified savageries of the Tudor age” [x] and notes that the public torment of condemned criminals was then “a hugely popular spectator entertainment” [116]). But these people and their forebears, having been indoctrinated for centuries in what purported to be a “religion of love,” had failed to achieve willingness to as much as leave alone those who thought differently from themselves, let alone love them, as one should one’s enemies by the command of their scripture (Matthew 5: 44, Luke 6:27, 35), so that it needed the insights of “the Enlightenment” to improve on this.

“No sixteenth-century European state,” says Duffy, “willingly accepted or could easily imagine the peaceful coexistence of differing religious confessions” (79). As the late Hugh Trevor-Roper noted in the introductory chapter of his biography of Archbishop Laud, this intolerance was so widespread because in those days “religion was not merely a set of personal beliefs about the economy of heaven, but the outward sign of a social and political theory.” Protestantism’s tendency toward republican ideas struck at the very roots of monarchy, and Calvin’s Geneva was the very opposite of the monarchical system of the Council of Trent, whose decrees were at last promulgated in 1564. Duffy is well aware of this, and notes that Mary’s regime “identified protestantism with sedition—for very good reasons” (7). Pole “ was convinced that protestant insistence on the overriding priority of scripture and of preaching, however admirable in theory, had in reality given birth not only to fatal error, but also to an arid and rancorous intellectualism that left . . . the community of believers divided and confused” (56), as there was no agreement as to what the venerated scriptures actually meant, with strife and social disruption as the inevitable result. Mary’s administrators reported time and again that, whenever they interrogated half a dozen Protestants, they found themselves confronted with six different faiths. The Catholic alternative was to make interpretation of scripture the exclusive prerogative of the church.

Protestant intellectualism not only promoted strife but also, in the Catholic view, “left hearts hardened and withered” (56). “The religious superiority of devotional over controversial texts was an axiom of the counter-reformation, which valued devout heart above inquisitive head, and was inclined to distrust lay doctrinal curiosity” (191). Although one might be tempted to dismiss this appeal to the heart as meaning no more than “believe and shut up,” it was an effective policy. A train of thought involves reminiscence and organization of memories, and different individuals, quite apart from the additional complicating factor that their experiences differ, have different capacities for both of these. Emotions, however, are nowhere near as numerous as ideas and moreover are familiar to all alike, from childhood on. Hence it is much easier to promote uniformity in a group by appealing to a strong emotion than by appealing to reason, which results in discussion, argument, and disagreement.

From the Protestant standpoint, Catholic orthodoxy was just as disruptive. Mary’s successor, Elizabeth, although she burned no Catholics, nevertheless “strangled, disembowelled and dismembered more than 200” of them (82)—obviously because these missionaries, for whom she was a bastard and a usurper, were a threat to her throne. As Trevor-Roper observed in the context already quoted, “it was only after the struggles of the [seventeenth] century were over that the Church of England, looking back upon them, and seeing what disasters had attended her when she backed the wrong horse in politics, decided in future to prefer safety to influence, and never back any horse in politics again.” So both the church and the monarchy “withdrew from the rough-andtumble of political life” and remained as “unmolested ciphers.”

At Mary’s death, England had known real Protestantism only in the brief reign of Edward, and that could not dislodge a Catholic outlook that had gone pretty well unchallenged (except by the Lollards) for centuries. That the country was still by and large truly Catholic was shown by the steadfast refusal of Mary’s higher clergy to accept the Elizabethan settlement. Henry’s bishops (apart from Fisher) and his Parliament docilely followed his lead, and the Edwardian bishops had likewise caved in to Mary, who inherited sixteen who had served her father, her brother, or both and supplemented them with twenty new appointments of her own. But only one of all these was “willing to swallow the royal supremacy and serve under Elizabeth as well” (23). Duffy justly notes that “this astonishing conscientious exodus from the cushioned stalls of Barchester to jail or the wilderness was something new in Tudor England, indeed in reformation Europe” (199)—so new that Elizabeth could taunt those of them who had served Henry or Edward by reminding them of their earlier compliance with conditions of service identical to those that she was now seeking to impose (196), just as, earlier, Mary’s lay victims had been able routinely to remind their judges that they had themselves under Edward professed and promoted the very same beliefs for which the accused were now to be condemned (111). Such was the seesawing of those turbulent and unstable times.

Elizabeth herself had no faith to be fanatical about. As J. M. Robertson noted in his still valuable 1926 book, The Dynamics of Religion, she remarked to the complaining Archbishop Grindal that three or four preachers in a county were plenty. But she was committed to Protestantism by the hostility of the Catholic powers—France and particularly Spain; it was hatred of this new national enemy that decisively turned English people against Spain’s religion.

This is the kind of motivation that has so often been decisive in religious controversy and in the conflict between religion and skepticism. On the latter count, one may think of the way in which the French Revolution led English people to associate criticism of religion with mob rule and regicide or of how loathing Soviet Russia engendered American hostility to irreligion. Such secular motives have been so important in religious attitudes over the centuries that Trevor-Roper could go so far as to say that “the more we analyse the ‘Wars of Religion,’ the less of religion, properly so called, do we find in them.”

Professor Duffy is a Catholic, indeed in his own description (in his Faith of our Fathers) a “cradle Catholic” who had “God is love” “thumped into him with a stick and the penny catechism.” And so TrevorRoper’s judgement (like some others in this review) probably goes well beyond what he would be willing to endorse. Nevertheless, his book fulfills what its opening pages characterize as the historian’s task—not to preach or moralize but “to understand the dauntingly different values of other times.” The same is true of his most recent book, Saints, Sacrilege and Sedition (London, etc.: Bloomsbury, 2012), which gives a much wider ranging view of the English Reformation conflicts, as well as showing what it was like to be a Catholic in T
udor England. But that book, with its detailed assessments of the conflicting views of various recent historians, is less accessible to the general reader than Fires of Faith.



George A. Wells is emeritus professor of German at the University of London and a former chairman of the Rationalist Press Association. He is the author of numerous books on the origins of Christianity, including most recently Cutting Jesus Down to Size: What Higher Criticism Has Achieved and Where It Leaves Christianity (Open Court, 2009).

George A. Wells

George A. Wells is emeritus professor of German at the University of London. He is the author of numerous books and articles on the origins of Christianity and on German intellectual history.

Fires of Faith: Catholic England Under Mary Tudor, by Eamon Duffy (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2010, ISBN 9780300152166) 249 pp. Paperback, $29.17. Fires of Faith: Catholic England Under Mary Tudor by Eamon Duffy, professor of the history of Christianity in the University of Cambridge, is another of his informative studies of the …

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