FIRES OF FAITH: Catholic England Under Mary Tudor, by Eamonn Duffy

FIRES OF FAITH: Catholic England Under Mary Tudor, by Eamonn Duffy

Bishop Peter J. Elliott

Rescuing Mary Tudor's reign from 'grim myths and sinister parodies'

Catholic England Under Mary Tudor
by Eamonn Duffy
(Yale University Press, 2008, 263pp, $56.95.
Available from Freedom Publishing)

Some years ago I accompanied a prominent Catholic prelate to the film Elizabeth. We sat in the darkened cinema muttering with anger as a burlesque of English history unfolded before our eyes. The producer Shekar Kappur gave us a sweaty 'Bloody Mary' ranting and rolling her eyes, the mad papist Queen in league with evil Spaniards, surrounded by wall-eyed Catholic bishops (with black silk mitres - to rub in the 'black legend').

In Fires of Faith, Catholic England Under Mary Tudor, Prof Eamon Duffy brings the reign of Mary I (1553-1558) out of grim myths and sinister parodies. His serious analysis is based on extensive evidence.

Building on the work of other revisionist historians of the English Reformation such as Christopher Haigh, Professor Duffy dismantles the interpretation of Mary's reign in A.G. Dickens, The English Reformation (1989). He also confronts the lingering influence of the Protestant propagandist John Foxe, author of The Book of Martyrs.

Nevertheless, at the beginning of his work Duffy makes it clear that he does not seek to justify the burning of 280 Protestant men and women. That remains a blot for ever on the history of Catholicism in England. In the latter chapters of his book Duffy examines the burnings. He sets them in the context of the mentality of the pre-Enlightenment age and the problems confronting Mary I, but he does not try to excuse them.


Professor Duffy's main goal is to set out two corrective interpretations of Mary's restoration of Catholicism. Firstly she led an administration that was intelligent, efficient and effective. Secondly, under the guidance of Cardinal Reginald Pole, the last Catholic Archbishop of Canterbury, her administration was the first in Europe to implement the Counter Reformation in line with the concurrent, but incomplete, reform project of the Council of Trent.

Her own project was neither 'medieval' nor reactionary, rather it was driven by the forward-looking vision of the great Council. Indeed, in the last year of her reign the reform-minded Queen and Cardinal faced accusations of heresy from a paranoid Pope!

The Marian restoration anticipated reforms and spiritual and pastoral renewal that only developed later on the Continent. In this context, Duffy brings out the key role of preaching, catechesis and piety in winning England back to the Faith, factors that have been ignored or dismissed by most other historians. He also demonstrates that, at the time, Mary's project to restore the Faith enjoyed the support of most of the clergy and laity of England and Wales.

Professor Duffy's eye for detail, particularly concerning liturgy and devotion, is evident in his other masterly works (see The Stripping of the Altars, the Voices of Morebath). Mary restored Catholic worship through a national edition of the Sarum Missal. Her restoration of devastated and pillaged churches focused around rebuilding the stone altars.

This project included the first mandated use of the tabernacle, locked and securely fixed to the altar. Reserving the Eucharist in a pyx suspended above the altar had only made the Sacrament vulnerable to acts of sacrilege. Profanation of the Eucharist is one of the hideous sub-plots of the Reformation.

When Duffy examines the burnings, he does not play down the role of Cardinal Pole in seeking out, trying and executing heretics. But he demonstrates that Pole sought first to gain recantation and repentance, and in some cases he was successful. Duffy argues that the case of Archbishop Cranmer was a bungled example of this policy.


Pole knew that converted heretics better served the Catholic cause than martyrs. These victims of Catholic restoration were already becoming central to Protestant polemics which depicted Catholic bishops as bloodthirsty monsters. Foxe's Book of Martyrs was published only five years after Mary's death. It soon became an official tool in Elizabeth's campaign against Catholicism and is still in print.

The courage of the Protestant martyrs is moving. It is interesting to note that most of those who suffered were 'common people'. However, in some cases their heresies went far beyond mainstream Lutheran or Calvinist views. Radical Protestants and religious fanatics had been burnt under Henry VIII and Edward VI, and some of those burnt by Mary were of the same stripe, particularly Anabaptists. Everybody persecuted the Anabaptists. These distinctions are largely glossed over in Foxe's Book of Martyrs.

Implicit in Professor Duffy's detailed study is one of the great 'might-have-beens' of English history. Mary and Pole died on the same day, 17 November 1558. Had they survived even a few more years, would Elizabeth have been able to restore Protestantism? Indeed, would she have still been of a mind to choose that path?

In our century, her Anglican Settlement of 1559 has finally fallen apart. That it lasted for four centuries may have been partly due to the brief success of Mary Tudor and Cardinal Pole. To undo their effective work Elizabeth had to condemn Catholic martyrs as traitors, but she never dared execute them as heretics. She had to get into people's minds the image of Catholicism not only as cruel and repressive, but as foreign and unpatriotic. By propaganda and terror she succeeded in undoing her half-sister's work, but not entirely.

In the last chapter of his book, Professor Duffy also refutes the claim that the Marian restoration was a reactionary failure by showing what became of its key figures.

Mary's Catholics did not vanish when she died. Her bishops, unlike those under Henry VIII, courageously resisted Elizabeth. They were deprived of their dioceses and most spent their remaining years confined in houses or prison. But Elizabeth did not execute any of them. Other leading clergy and laity, including the cream of Oxford and Cambridge, fled to Europe to organise the heroic mission to the 'recusants' at home. With the exception of the reign of James II, the underground Church they established only fully emerged from its catacombs with Catholic Emancipation in 1829.

This book thus provides a new key to the history of post- Reformation Catholicism in England. It offers readers a fresh and balanced interpretation of a Counter-Reformation project still misunderstood by most people because of propaganda that has turned out to be more effective than all the efforts of a Goebbels.

Bishop Peter J. Elliott is a Melbourne auxiliary bishop and Episcopal Vicar for religious education.

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