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Fires of Faith: Catholic England under Mary…

Fires of Faith: Catholic England under Mary Tudor (2009)

by Eamon Duffy

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[Fires of Faith: Catholic England under Mary Tudor] By Eamon Duffy.
Describing himself as a cradle catholic historian Eamon Duffy sets himself the target of re-evaluating the religious policy of Queen Mary 1 who ruled England from July 1553 until her death in November 1558. Mary Tudor known today as bloody Mary attempted to role back the protestant revolution instigated by her Father Henry VIII and taken forward by her half brother Edward VI. During a four year campaign she burnt alive 284 protestants 56 of them women who were found guilty of heresy. Duffy is keen to challenge the perception that Mary’s church was backward looking and reactionary sharing the queen’s bitter pre-occupation with the past and her tragic sterility and that her atrocious campaign of burnings was not merely an outrage against human decency but also a devastating political blunder.

One of the most high profile burnings was that of the Archbishop of Canterbury; Thomas Cranmer. This execution seemed personal as Cranmer had recanted and had embraced the catholic faith, but a witness to the execution while having every sympathy with the old man’s plight reflected that Cranmer must pay for his sins and so deserved his terrible fate. Duffy reminds us that:

This nuanced, humane, but ultimately steely assessment should give us pause before reading twenty-first century attitudes and values into the complexities of the remote past.

The hero of Duffy’s book (if we can call him that) is Cardinal Reginald Pole who came hotfoot from Rome when Mary seized her crown from Jane Seymour. Pole was Mary’s cousin and had been in exile, he returned to England and masterminded the queens religious programme. Duffy says that the policy was well thought out, well controlled and used inducements as well as coercion to change the face of religion in England. Duffy makes the telling point that the protestant reformation had been largely grafted onto the government of England. Henry VIII for conjugal, political and largely financial reasons had made himself Head of the church of England, but it was his son Edward who took the policy much further surrounding himself with protestant sympathisers. The old catholic religion was still very much the religion of the people especially in the north of the Country and the stripping of the altars had caused much resentment. It was not surprising therefore that a Catholic queen was able to first of all to get the support of the common people, who saw few problems in going back to the old ways.

Duffy does not play down the atrocities of the executions, but confronts them head on. He points out that much of what we know about the individual executions comes from John Fox’s [Acts and Monuments] written during Elizabeth I reign and by a protestant (the winning side). Duffy while not playing down the brutality of the burnings is concerned with putting them in the perspective of the religious policies. The executions were carried out only after the catholic commissioners were completely satisfied that their victims would not recant. Most of them were examined over long periods of time and every effort was made to get them to change their minds and so escape execution. Duffy points out that this could have been a propaganda coup for the catholics if they could get leading protestants to recant, but this must be seen in conjunction with the commissioners overarching belief that they were on a mission to save people’s souls. Duffy is able to provide evidence from the commissioners own paperwork and instructions to them provided by Cardinal Pole.

Duffy tackles issues surrounding martyrdom and the need for Queen Mary and her government to stamp out dissent which could have resulted in her overthrow. In his final chapter he talks about Mary’s governments legacy; with the death of the queen and very shortly after Cardinal Pole, the repressive measures died with them. Queen Elizabeth I made her own religious settlement making herself Head of the Church and welcoming back those protestants who had sought exile. Duffy says that the main legacy was in providing writers and thinkers who would influence the counter revolution in Europe. Duffy’s book provides ample reasons why it is worthwhile to look again at religious persecution during Mary’s reign.

The book is not a general history of religion in England during Mary’s time, nor is it a political assessment of her reign; it focuses on her religious policies and how they were implemented. It is an interesting and thought provoking read backed up with notes, an index and a select bibliography. A four star read. ( )
  baswood | Jun 1, 2017 |
Definitely a good read but may have a bit too much of an axe to grind and a case to make. Revisionist history swings wildly in one direction or another. Still, a useful corrective to those who consider the Marian church a predestined failure. ( )
  JaniceLiedl | Mar 31, 2013 |
I read Duffy's excellent book: The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400-1580 and found it a feast of Reformation History that heretofore was untold and somewhat obscure. This book, Fires of Faith, is more of a Roman Catholic apologetic for intolerance and incompetence wreaked by Mary Tudor's regime, precisely that aspect of her reign that is quite indefensible. Duffy tries to highlight positive attributes of the regime, but is unconvincing at every turn. The grotesque burnings are defended as part of the times and we are asked to consider this as part of a zero sum game between 16th Century Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. Maybe so, but this still leaves naked the sheer inanity of the regime; Duffy admits as much in acknowledging that the burnings and circus-like show trials were counter-productive. I should say so. Although alluded to, Mary's morose psychological need for settling scores by acting in a self-destructive manner is never discussed at length. This is important given the evidence of her severely depressed and delusional state. Likewise Duffy ignores the larger historical context, including Mary's extremely unpopular marriage to Philip II (who surreptitiously left the squalid scene posthaste for Spain, never intending to return), the loss of Calais, and Mary's (ironic) tearful and significant fights with Pope Paul IV over his anti-Habsburg policies.

At the end of the book, I felt an amazing sense of relief that Elizabeth I came on the scene and established the Via Media. Her dislike of Mary's religious policies was well known by the public and it was expected that a change would occur when she became Queen. They were correct. Upon her accession, heresy laws were instantaneously repealed and the the burnings ceased, immediately. During Mary's reign one could be reported to the authorities for not fingering Rosary beads. Her intolerance is not to be measured by our standards, I grant you that. However, it should be noted that the great English Church composer, Thomas Tallis, was a Catholic and a Gentleman of Elizabeth's Chapel Royal, until his death. In 1575 Queen Elizabeth granted Tallis and William Byrd (Tallis's pupil and also a Catholic) a monopoly in England on printing music. Yes, Elizabeth I established an ambiguous religious settlement but as long as one did not express the wish to overthrow her (alas, Pope Paul IV made it a sin for Catholics to obey her - Regnans in Excelsis, the papal bull deposing Elizabeth, 1570), you could practice your Catholicism after paying a fine. After reading Duffy's book, the prospect of finding a comparable example of such intelligent and open thinking during Mary's reign is grimly ludicrous. ( )
  craigkay | Aug 29, 2012 |
Got to page 40, and I couldn't go any further. The writing style was far too jumbled and dull. A shame, as this period of history truly fascinates me. ( )
  lisa.wade | Jul 8, 2012 |
Fires of Faith is not a history of the reign of Queen Mary, nor even of her religious policy. Instead, it concentrates on the relative roles of argument and persecution in the attempt to reconvert England to Roman Catholicism. Contrary to conventional wisdom, Professor Duffy argues that (i) the Marian authorities placed a high value on preaching and printing as persuasive tools, (ii) the nearly 300 executions of heretics by burning - the reason why the Queen is known to history as "Bloody Mary" - were not particularly shocking by 16th Century standards (except, of course, to the victims), and (iii) the church that Mary and her chief advisors tried to build was imbued with Counter-Reformation ideals, not a pre-Tridentine throwback. He is particularly concerned to assess the true role of Reginald Pole, Cardinal Legate and later the last Catholic Archbishop of Canterbury, whom he identifies as the principal shaper of both the mild and the severe sides of the regime's persuasive efforts. His conclusions both burnish and mar the cardinal's reputation, showing a figure more astute and influential than the standard portrait, but also more zealous as a persecutor.

Among religious polemics, those produced by Catholic defenders of Mary's initiatives are almost all forgotten, and therefore widely assumed not to exist. Professor Duffy calls them up from oblivion and shows that they were on at least the intellectual level of their Protestant adversaries. Likewise, he demonstrates that the Catholic side did not neglect preaching. The entrenched notion that Cardinal Pole, in particular, saw no point to it rests on isolated, misunderstood scraps of evidence. On these matters, the case made here seems quite conclusive.

Less conclusive, though certainly refreshing, is the discussion of the burnings. The author reminds us that contemporaries did not have 21st Century sensibilities. Almost everyone agreed that death was not an unthinkable sanction for religious dissent, and burning was not the era's most gruesome form of punishment. The disagreement was largely over who deserved the ultimate penalty. Queen Elizabeth put over 100 Catholics and separatists to death during her reign; most were hanged, drawn and quartered, next to which fire does not seem quite so merciless. Moreover, the Marian preference was for repentance rather than execution. Many anecdotes illustrate how the stake was generally a last, reluctant choice after argument had been repeatedly rebuffed.

A key contention - well-supported though probably not provable beyond reasonable doubt - is that killing opponents did the Catholic cause more good than harm. One would like to think the opposite, and such is the impression left by Foxe's Book of Martyrs, from which much of our information about the persecution derives. Professor Duffy counters that, even on Foxe's telling, the most frequent reaction to Protestant sufferings was indifference or approval. Very few "martyrdoms" were anti-Catholic propaganda coups. The most conspicuous exception was the decision to burn the nominally reconciled Archbishop Cranmer. As a "trophy convert", the weak old prelate would have been valuable to Catholicism. His dramatic renunciation of Rome was correspondingly valuable to the Protestants. Professor Duffy attributes this blunder to Mary's personal loathing of the man whom she blamed for her mother's tribulations. It was an anomaly, not the rule.

On the whole, the restoration of Catholic faith and Papal authority in England had progressed mightily before Mary's and Pole's untimely deaths. One indication of the Old Religion's strength is the tenacity of its followers after Queen Elizabeth came to the throne and reversed her sister's course. Many of the bishops had blandly conformed to the changing wishes of Henry VIII, Edward VI and Mary. Yet only one renounced "Popery" under Elizabeth. The rest, some of whom had before looked like models for the Vicar of Bray, chose exile or imprisonment instead. Similar steadfastness can be traced throughout the ranks of the clergy. It is scarcely plausible that a spiritually dead creed imposed solely by force would have inspired such devotion.

There is, nonetheless, a pertinent area that Fires of Faith doesn't explore. Granted that killing men and women for the sake of religion was not as shocking then as it is now, the fact remains that the Marian persecution was extraordinary in its severity. In the course of 3½ years, Mary put almost three times as many heretics to death as her successor did in 45. There was, indeed, no comparable ferocity anywhere else in Europe. Can it really be contextualized as a run-of-the-mill phenomenon? Leaving morality to one side, did so many cruel deaths serve any purpose? Professor Duffy gives little or no attention to this Marian exceptionalism. Thus, I think, he leaves an important part of his subject unexamined. Still, that oversight does not detract of the depth of scholarship and freshness of thinking that mark this fine study of a hard-to-comprehend period of history. ( )
  TomVeal | Jan 8, 2010 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0300152167, Hardcover)

The reign of Mary Tudor has been remembered as an era of sterile repression, when a reactionary monarch launched a doomed attempt to reimpose Catholicism on an unwilling nation. Above all, the burning alive of more than 280 men and women for their religious beliefs seared the rule of “Bloody Mary” into the protestant imagination as an alien aberration in the onward and upward march of the English-speaking peoples.

In this controversial reassessment, the renowned reformation historian Eamon Duffy argues that Mary's regime was neither inept nor backward looking. Led by the queen's cousin, Cardinal Reginald Pole, Mary’s church dramatically reversed the religious revolution imposed under the child king Edward VI. Inspired by the values of the European Counter-Reformation, the cardinal and the queen reinstated the papacy and launched an effective propaganda campaign through pulpit and press.

Even the most notorious aspect of the regime, the burnings, proved devastatingly effective. Only the death of the childless queen and her cardinal on the same day in November 1558 brought the protestant Elizabeth to the throne, thereby changing the course of English history.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:16:44 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

The reign of Mary Tudor has been remembered as an era of sterile repression, when a reactionary monarch launched a doomed attempt to reimpose Catholicism on an unwilling nation. In this text, Eamon Duffy argues that Mary's regime was neither inept nor backward-looking.… (more)

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Yale University Press

2 editions of this book were published by Yale University Press.

Editions: 0300152167, 0300168896

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