Quite Contrary

Eamon Duffy is perhaps best known to general readers as the author of Saints and Sinners: A History of the Popes (1997), a one-volume history of the papacy from St. Peter to John Paul II. But in his particular field of expertise, Duffy has arguably done more than anyone else in the past two decades to revise our understanding of the English Reformation. In The Stripping of the Altars (1992), he demonstrated the widespread vitality of late medieval parish Catholicism right up to Henry VIII’s repudiation of papal authority in the mid-1530s. According to Duffy, English Protestantism betokened not the appearance of a popularly desired, better, purer form of Christianity, but rather the politically enforced destruction of a religious culture that had been a millennium in the making. The Stripping of the Altars included a reassessment of the reign of Mary (1553–58), a subject to which Duffy returned at greater length in his 2007–08 Birkbeck Lectures in Ecclesiastical History at Trinity College, Cambridge. Those lectures, revised and expanded, have now been turned into a book. Fires of Faith is dramatic historical revisionism at its best.

In order to appreciate Duffy’s achievement and the force of his argument, it is necessary to understand something about the still-dominant interpretation of England’s return to Catholicism under Mary. According to the received wisdom, the reign of Mary, sandwiched between aggressive Protestantization under her half-brother, the boy-king Edward VI (1547–53), and the institutional consolidation of the Protestant Church of England during the reign of her half-sister Elizabeth I (1558–1603), was a reactionary throwback: an ineffective, unimaginative, and nostalgically futile attempt to restore Catholicism to a realm whose people had indicated their preference for a Protestantism that had already taken firm hold. However sincere in her convictions, Mary was politically inept and out of touch, and her aloof incompetence was evident in her decision to make Cardinal Reginald Pole (who had spent more than twenty years in Italy) archbishop of Canterbury. Pole’s inability to address English realities was manifest in his disdain for preaching, his aversion to religious polemic, and his failure to accept Ignatius Loyola’s offer of Jesuit aid in England. In the influential estimate of historian A. G. Dickens, in these respects and more the Marian regime “failed to discover the Counter-Reformation.” Not only was Mary’s reign an un-English hiccup in the country’s progressive Protestantization; even within the world of mid-sixteenth-century Catholicism, it was a backward-looking medievalism out of step with the dynamism of the Society of Jesus, the stipulations of the Council of Trent, and the reinvigoration of Catholic devotion and worship.

Failing to “get it” and lacking leaders who could persuade, the Marian regime could only repress—witness the 284 Protestants executed for heresy in less than four years, which only served to steel resistance and inspire more heroic martyrs. This cruel policy and practice cemented the people’s hatred of the regime, whose leaders even came round to recognizing its ineffectiveness: hence the decline in the number of executions in 1558, the last year of Mary’s reign. “Bloody Mary,” in stark contrast to her politically savvy successor, achieved little more than the creation of reasons for English Protestants to hate Catholics, as so many of them—and their American successors—would do for centuries.

In piecemeal fashion, some historians have been revising this negative assessment of Mary’s reign for the past twenty years or so, attempting to lighten the long, powerful shadow cast by the Elizabethan martyrologist John Foxe, whose Acts and Monuments is both our most important single source for information about Mary’s reign and a scathingly hostile condemnation of it. There is nothing piecemeal about Duffy’s book: Fires of Faith is a revisionist floodlight that not only makes use of new sources but reads old ones in original ways. Duffy’s knowledge of Catholicism on the Continent also sets him apart from most other historians of the English Reformation, and exposes the shortcomings of scholarship that ignores wider European realities.

On nearly every significant interpretative score, Duffy shows how the received picture of Mary’s regime is seriously misleading or simply mistaken. Neither Mary nor Pole was inept or unimaginative. Working closely together, they understood exactly what they were doing, and were largely successful despite the brevity of Mary’s reign. In very few areas of England were there significant numbers of convinced Protestants in the 1550s. There was nothing irreversible about the religious innovations of the preceding twenty years, as the widespread Marian restoration of Catholic liturgy and devotion demonstrated. England’s return to Rome was integrally related to post-Tridentine Catholicism on the Continent. And the last-resort executions were not only typical of contemporary judicial practice, but unlike executions in France or the Low Countries, which helped to precipitate civil war, they achieved their purpose. What doomed England’s return to Catholicism was simply the death of Mary and Pole on the same day, November 17, 1558.

Duffy devotes five of his nine chapters to the most infamous aspect of Mary’s reign, the execution by public burning of nearly three hundred men and women for heresy between February 1555 and November 1558. Drawing especially on the research of Thomas Freeman, he pays close attention to the geographical variation, chronological particularities, and gender dimensions of the burnings. The result is the best account we now have of the phenomenon in all its stages. Far from seeking to slaughter “the other,” authorities who examined suspected heretics made several attempts to persuade them of their errors, and often went to great lengths to fashion life-saving doctrinal formulas that they hoped the accused would affirm (as many did). Only those who repeatedly refused were sent to the stake.

Duffy rightly distinguishes between the modern aversion to such executions (which he describe as “a horrifying moral blot on any regime claiming to be Christian”) and the historical questions of whether the executions under Mary were exceptional, unpopular, or ineffective, as some have claimed. Compared to executions elsewhere in sixteenth-century Europe, the Marian burnings were relatively concentrated, but far from exceptional in principle. The medieval practice of executing unrepentant heretics continued in the sixteenth century; it was employed not only by Catholics but also by Lutherans and Reformed Protestants (against radical Protestants). Duffy’s case would have been strengthened had he noted that nearly five hundred Anabaptists were executed by Catholic or Protestant authorities in the Holy Roman Empire and Switzerland between 1527 and 1530. Several sources, including Foxe, provide evidence against any general claim that onlookers were mostly sympathetic toward the victims, or that opposition to the Marian executions increased over time. And Duffy interprets the decline in the number of executions in 1558 (fewer than half the number in 1557) not as proof that the regime had finally acknowledged its failure to curb Protestantism, but rather as evidence of the regime’s success. The repression, together with the reinvigoration of Catholic practice, had diminished the number of Protestants willing to die for their convictions. Although Duffy does not mention them, there were precedents on the Continent earlier in the sixteenth century: determined repression, including executions, all but eliminated Anabaptism from Bavaria in the late 1520s, for example.

Duffy situates the burnings within a broader reinterpretation of the aims and activities of the Marian regime. He throws fresh light on Cardinal Reginald Pole: “The gulf that historians have discerned between the young and eager Italian reformer and the allegedly weary, disillusioned, and passive English legate...is an optical illusion.” Attuned to English particularities but also shaped by the complexities of Italian religious life, Pole emerges from the shadows as “the single most influential figure in the Marian restoration” in all its aspects. He fostered better clerical formation, better preaching, the revamping of Oxford and Cambridge universities, traditional devotions, catechetical initiatives, a robust return to the liturgy, the reequipping of churches for the Mass, and the patronage of anti-Protestant polemical literature. Pole “rejected” Ignatius Loyola’s offer of help because he did not want young Englishmen formed as Jesuits in Rome and then dispatched elsewhere on the Continent. Moreover, he wanted to convert the languishing English pilgrim hostel in Rome into a seminary explicitly for anglophone priests—a plan that later bore fruit under Pope Gregory XIII with the creation of the English College there. Neither Pole nor other authorities led with repression. Rather, like leaders in virtually all sixteenth-century polities, they resorted to executions when efforts at persuasion and exhortation had failed.

The most original and ramifying of Duffy’s arguments in Fires of Faith comes in the final chapter, “The Legacy: Inventing the Counter-Reformation.” Implicitly criticizing the scholarly division of labor between medievalists and early modernists, Duffy rightly notes that “much that we consider most characteristic of Counter-Reformation piety (its high sacramentalism or its systematic use of affective meditation, for example) was essentially the focusing and routinization of familiar aspects of late medieval devotion”—witness the abiding popularity of Thomas à Kempis’s Imitation of Christ in the sixteenth century. Turning A. G. Dickens and company on their heads, Duffy argues—with reference to devotional writing, Eucharistic piety, frequent Communion, and increased emphasis on papal authority—that “the Marian enterprise did not merely reflect developments in European Catholicism. That enterprise itself became a crucial influence in the final stages of the Council of Trent and, through Trent, in the Catholic Church as a whole.” Above all, Trent’s provision for the seminary formation of parish priests “was to be little more than an expansion of the arrangements that Pole and his colleagues had conceived and set in place for England.” Throughout Fires of Faith, Duffy’s knowledge of Catholicism across the English Channel exposes the insularity of research by scholars content to confine themselves to the island.

Beyond its rehabilitation of Mary’s reign, Fires of Faith implies a wider lesson about history and human self-understanding in the present. It reminds both professional historians and general readers of the danger of reading the last half-millennium of Western history as a story of steady and inevitable progress, one in which the Protestant Reformation not only rejected but transcended Catholicism before passing the baton on to the Enlightenment, modern liberalism, and us. To those who tell themselves this story, arguments in defense of Catholicism are widely construed as “nostalgic,” while the faith’s persistence is attributed to reactionary politics and a stubborn failure to acknowledge the demands of modernity. The truth is considerably more complicated. When that thoroughly modern intellectual Joseph Ratzinger went head to head with Jürgen Habermas in Munich in 2004, he wasn’t calling for a return to the Middle Ages.

Published in the 2009-11-06 issue: 

Brad S. Gregory is associate professor of history at the University of Notre Dame and author of Salvation at Stake: Christian Martyrdom in Early Modern Europe (Harvard University Press).

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