- Fires of Faith: Catholic England under Mary Tudor
Despite recent reassessments of Mary Tudor's reign as England's first crowned queen regnant, she is still best known as the monarch in whose reign almost 300 Protestants died by burning. The verbal and pictorial images in John Foxe's Book of Martyrs, published in four successively enlarged editions [End Page 205] from 1563 to 1583, ensured those deaths have remained unusually potent in English historical traditions. Now they have been revisited in Professor Duffy's most recent book, a reworking of his 2007 Birkbeck Lectures. The work retains much of his easy lecturing style, but nothing can disguise the challenging nature of some material. His wider argument attacks and subverts the enduring view that Marian Catholicism was reactionary, strong on repression and weak on persuasion.
William Wizeman's The Theology and Spirituality of Mary Tudor's Church (Aldershot, 2006) had previously argued for a strong theological renewal which anticipated many Counter-Reformation decisions, but said little about the treatment of religious dissent. Duffy's is a wider-ranging work, covering the whole spectrum of Marian strategies to restore England to its Catholic loyalties. In that, Duffy's Reginald Pole, traditionally the 'invisible man of the Marian restoration', played a crucial part. A cardinal since 1536, and Mary's Archbishop of Canterbury, Pole preached frequently, encouraged others to do the same, and was the primary driver for the entire religious renewal. The tradition that the restored church failed to counter Protestant printed works with effective Catholic printed alternatives is also persuasively refuted. And much attention was paid to the refurbishing of churches to meet Catholic expectations.
In brief, Eamon Duffy's new book is a comprehensive assault on the older view of Catholic failure during Queen Mary's reign. If, however, Hilary Mantel's review (London Review of Books, vol. 31, no. 18, 24 Sept 2009) is any guide, nothing could mitigate the horror of those Protestant burnings. Mantel writes: '[d]espite his careful and no doubt deeply felt disclaimers, it sometime sounds as if Eamon Duffy is cheering on the executioners.' His offence, it would seem, is that, instead of simply deploring the burnings, Duffy discusses their place in the much wider process of reclaiming England for the Catholic faith.
Although he never disguises his distaste for those deaths, he also offers an entirely fresh perspective. He is insistent (if not always completely persuasive) that although the clerics were the ultimate judges, the pressure for the heresy trials came much more from the Privy Council and from Mary herself. However that may be, the bishops certainly played their part in the examinations. Making creative use of Foxe, as well as many other sources, in a chapter titled 'The Theatre of Justice', Duffy demonstrates that the examinations of many heretics, well beyond the familiar cases of Latimer, Ridley and, [End Page 206] above all, Cranmer, attracted crowds of spectators to whom all participants appealed. There, he argues, despite Foxe's interpretations, Protestant obduracy could alienate, rather than win over, the crowd. The same was true of some burnings, although London was one place where burnings were particularly problematic. Where Foxe saw crocodile tears as examiners failed to persuade their prisoners to recant and perforce proceeded to their condemnation, Duffy – at least as plausibly – sees real distress at the imminent anguish and the eternal torture of yet another soul. Where Foxe sees large crowds at burnings as Protestant demonstrations, Duffy uncovers a range of reasons – including their coinciding with market day and the uncomfortable fact that our forbears were often attracted to public executions. He also uncovers a range of responses to the dying from the entirely sympathetic to the indisputably callous. At the heart of the spectacle was 'an ideological struggle inscribed in the quivering flesh of suffering human beings' (p. 123), but the opportunity for an edifying sermon was seldom missed. One response to what Catholics understood as Protestant 'presumptuous self...