The Life and Historical Reputation of Mary Tudor

Chapter 13 : Religion

Which brings us, in the end, to religion. Mary is often described as England’s Catholic Queen, as if to emphasise her difference and how out of step she was from what came before and after her. Nothing could be more misleading than this label. Of course, Mary was a Catholic – at the time of her birth, so was everyone else in England. Though Henry VIII had genuinely wished to reform religious practice in his kingdom when he broke with Rome he was an opponent of every leading Protestant thinker. Lutheranism and Calvinism were equally reprehensible to him. The changes pushed through by evangelicals in Edward VI’s reign by no means represented the beliefs of the population as a whole. Revolts in England in 1536 and 1549 demonstrated the extent to which many people still held traditional beliefs. It is easy to overlook the fact that Protestantism was a minority religion, confined to the mercantile and educated classes in key urban areas.

Mary Tudor was not wiping out something that had a firm footing or returning unthinkingly to some imagined past. She and Reginald Pole, her Archbishop of Canterbury, wanted to introduce a reformed Catholic Church to England, with emphasis on good preaching, and a more literate clergy, supported by a lively Catholic printing press. They wanted to work on the fabric of the Church in the literal sense, since so many had fallen into disrepair or been pillaged. This does not sound like the programme of a zealot intent on burning hundreds of opponents to death at the stake.The return of Catholic practices was not opposed by the majority of Mary’s subjects. So how can we explain this apparent dichotomy?

The answer may partly lie in Mary’s determination to make an example of high-profile opponents of her religious policy. Chief of these was Thomas Cranmer, who had pronounced the divorce of her parents. Mary was implacable in first imprisoning and then proceeding against Cranmer. Appalled at being forced to witness the deaths of Bishops Ridley and Latimer, Cranmer was so afraid of the flames that he at first recanted. When he realised that this would not save him from the fire, he denounced his retraction amid dramatic scenes at Oxford and died with great bravery. Mary had not intended to make martyrs of her opponents and she could not know that the deaths of many ordinary men and women would be recorded, complete with lurid woodcuts, by John Foxe in his Acts and Monuments, commonly known as Foxe’s Book of Martyrs after her death, or that her sister would order this work to be placed in every English church, alongside the bible.

It is impossible to defend the Marian persecution, but recent work by the eminent historian Eamon Duffy, has explained the reasoning behind it and suggested that, far from being the failure that Mary’s detractors have claimed, it did actually work in reducing opposition. We should also remember that religious opponents were viewed as seditious and that sedition was a crime against the state. It is also worth pointing out that, as with all forms of terror, which this undoubtedly was, there was an eagerness to impose it at local level which is particularly disturbing. Neighbours reported each other and even denunciations among family members were not uncommon.

Nevertheless, the view that Mary Tudor’s reign is an aberration needs to be challenged by anyone interested in the Tudors.Her death at the age of 42, hastened by the deadly viral epidemic which swept northern Europe in 1558, changed the course of English history.

Elizabeth’s Act of Uniformity would almost certainly not have passed had the numbers of English bishops not been decimated by disease. England might have remained a Catholic country, albeit one that did not necessarily see its future in Europe, as Mary had done. But Elizabeth inherited from her sister a series of reforms which she never acknowledged, in financial management, local government and, most notably, in the preservation of the navy, which probably owed as much to King Philip as to his wife. And Mary’s was a far more cultured court than most people imagine, with plenty of music and masques to entertain. In this year, the 500th anniversary of her birth, Mary I deserves to be remembered for what she achieved, not the least of which was to demonstrate that women could rule in their own right. It was a lesson which her half-sister, despite her resentment of the way Mary treated her, never forgot.