- Fires of Faith: Catholic England under Mary Tudor
Few other living historians have had as much of an impact on the history of the English Reformation as Eamon Duffy. He boldly challenged many long-held assumptions in Stripping of the Altars (New Haven, 1992), proposing that England did not turn into a Protestant nation very eagerly, as had been argued for generations. Opposition to Duffy's Altars was intense. Chief among the charges leveled against Duffy was that of stacking the evidence—that is, hand-picking facts that would support his thesis and ignoring those that would not. Later Duffy offered a counter-blast to his critics, The Voices of Morebath (New Haven, 2001), an exhaustively detailed microhistory of a Devonshire village during the most critical years of the Tudor dynasty. In Voices, as in Altars, Duffy contested the notion that the English Reformation was a smooth and well-received transition.
Now, another nine years later, Duffy continues his revisionist campaign in Fires of Faith, a reassessment of the reign of England's most vilified monarch, Mary Tudor, otherwise known as Bloody Mary. Revising the history of Mary's reign is perhaps the greatest challenge yet to be tackled by Duffy, not just because of her role as chief villain in English history and in the dominant Reformation narrative but also because of the indisputable fact that she did execute 284 Protestants during her five-year reign. In our day and age, such unenlightened cruelty seems so unacceptable that it is next to impossible to attribute any positive qualities to those responsible for it.
Undeterred by such obstacles, Duffy offers as serious a challenge to the dominant Reformation narrative in this book as in his previous ones. Acknowledging up front that the burning of so many men and women was reprehensible, Duffy quickly moves on to contest a series of longstanding myths about Mary's reign. In the process, ironically, a historian who has never viewed Reformation iconoclasm in a positive light proves himself a master iconoclast. One by one, he gleefully strikes down conventional assumptions.
First, he argues that the Marian persecution was not a tactical error in the struggle against Protestantism. Appalling and inexcusable though it was, Mary's reign of terror did manage to cripple seriously the Protestant movement. Moreover, it should not be assumed that all of her efforts were in vain, or that England had already become irreversibly Protestant. Popular support for Mary's policies was intense, Duffy insists. The Marian persecution cannot be ascribed solely to the queen and her rabidly Catholic clergy, he claims, for the persecution of Protestants was also enthusiastically embraced by lay people and especially by magistrates, informers, executioners, and spectators who assumed their roles with evident relish. At the very top, he also argues, cruelty was never the objective: Cardinal Reginald Pole seemed even more tolerant than many in his flock, favoring conversion over punishment. [End Page 798]
Duffy tackles a long list of long-held assumptions about Mary's re-Catholicizing efforts, building up to his central argument: Queen Mary was no mere reactionary, he avers, but a true reformer who in many ways was leagues ahead of the Council of Trent. The same can be said of Pole, who is portrayed as England's own version of St. Carlo Borromeo, the ultimate reforming prelate. Preaching? Yes, he says, preaching was central to the work of Pole's clerics. How about the quality of the clergy, especially the bishops? Exemplary, he says: Mary appointed more learned and zealous bishops than any other monarch of her age: "Marian England was the hare to the rest of Europe's tortoise," he concludes (p. 25). Seminaries? Mary and Pole were not only ahead of Trent on this issue, but provided the Council with patterns to follow. Printing and publishing? Mary did not neglect books, as previously thought. If liturgical and devotional texts are taken into account, the number of titles published under Mary compares most favorably or...