|YALE UNIVERSITY PRESS|
the observer Sat 20 June 2009
When Philip II of Spain arrived in London to meet his prospective wife, Mary Tudor, he was accompanied by Anthonis Mor van Dashorst, a Dutch painter. It was 1554 and Mary had been on the throne for a year when Philip commissioned van Dashorst to capture her likeness. The portrait shows a woman without charm, with coarse features in a pug-like face and an intense unflinching gaze. Those eyes (and the rest) must have made Philip's heart sink; the centuries since have consolidated the impression of a prig, a much-hated monarch whose inglorious reign lasted five years. Under "Bloody Mary's" watch, we read of persecutions, papal spies, plots; above all, her reign has become synonymous with a moral outrage so unpopular as to seal the fate of Catholicism on this island: the burning at the stake of 280 Protestant martyrs.
The overwhelming case against Mary would have discouraged most scholars from attempting to revise history's judgment. Not so Eamon Duffy. With his earlier book, The Stripping of the Altars, Duffy revealed the strength of grassroots loyalty to the Catholic church under Henry VIII, despite his iconoclasm, which saw altars profaned, monasteries plundered, even church music banned. With Fires of Faith, Duffy peels away the myths and partisan accounts that have distorted the image of Mary's reign.
Instead of senseless cruelty and unpopular demagoguery, Duffy argues that Mary's five years were characterised by a brilliant campaign for hearts and minds; a systematic intimidation of errant Protestants; and far more public support, even for the most brutal incidents sanctioned by the regime, than historians have ever credited it with. Had Mary not died, barren and prematurely, England may well have returned to the fold.
Fatefully, on the very day of Mary's death, the central figure in her reign also breathed his last. Reginald, Cardinal Pole had spent many years at the Vatican - he was nearly elected Pope - before returning home to help his Queen (and cousin) fight the Protestant enemies. It was Pole who understood the need to found the English College in Rome, a seminary as intellectually demanding as it was theologically orthodox, to educate the priests who would carry out his experiment in Counter-Reformation. Pole exercised further quality control over the clergy by appointing 20 new bishops with a proven pastoral track record. It was Pole, too, who decided that, alongside the pamphlets and preaching that would disseminate the Catholic truth, there might be recourse to force.
Traditional historians of the Reformation present the 280 Marian martyrs as a catastrophic own goal for Mary's regime, a dark chapter that filled contemporaries with loathing for their queen, her cardinal and the faith they espoused. Most take their lead from the most famous book of that time, John Foxe's Acts and Monuments, which "lovingly recorded every scrap of popular support for the martyrs at their arrest or execution". Duffy's audacious revisionism questions Foxe's interpretation of the public burnings and uncovers evidence of as many signs of public hostility to the victims as of support. The majority of the executions, in fact, passed off without fuss; the great outcry at the sufferings of their fellow Protestants, and the impassioned allegiance that ordinary people felt with the likes of Bishops Latimer and Ridley as they burnt for their beliefs - these were grafted on to the history of the 16th century by moral hindsight.
With its scholarship and lucid prose, Fires of Faith succeeds in making the reader think the unthinkable: Mary Tudor's reign did not mark the kingdom's darkest hour, but the opening salvo in the Counter-Reformation that, elsewhere in Europe, successfully beat back the Protestant onslaught. In Duffy's hands, history shakes off its crust of prejudice and received wisdom to emerge full of surprises and very much alive.