An American student once told me that as a rebellious child she was told to be good, "or Bloody Mary will get you". This shows the staying power of this particular Protestant myth as it travelled seamlessly from mid-Tudor England to 20th-century America, and it also hints at the scale of the problem tackled by Eamon Duffy in his latest book. Fires of Faith is a spirited piece of historical revision that seeks to pull apart the web of prejudice, misinformation and ignorant assumption that obscures our understanding of Mary I's religious policies. At the heart of the debate, and of this book, is the fact that the Marian regime burned nearly 300 people at the stake for heresy. The sufferings of these martyrs swiftly acquired iconic status for English, and indeed European, Protestantism, as John Foxe's Book of Martyrs gave the fledgeling Church of England the credibility and emotional resonance it had previously lacked.
Elizabethan Protestants were the first to write the history of Mary's reign, and they characterised the regime as violently repressive, spiritually empty and resoundingly unsuccessful. All subsequent histories have struggled with this legacy, the consequence of a very particular (at the time probably minority) religious viewpoint, but no less pervasive for all that. Reconfigured as modern historical judgment, it emerges as A.G. Dickens' "famous, fatuous, but fatally quotable" assertion that Mary's regime was characterised by a "sterile legalism" and "failed to discover the Counter-Reformation". Throughout this book, the complex interweaving of confessional prejudice and historical misconception is clear.
To take one example: Cardinal Pole (Archbishop of Canterbury and the head of Mary's Church) is famously known as the man who refused the help of the Jesuits. This one fact has been extrapolated into damning conclusions about Pole's lukewarm qualities as a religious leader, his distrust of preaching and his unwillingness to embrace the movement of spiritual renewal and ecclesiastical reform that we call variously the Catholic or Counter-Reformation. Duffy points out that the help Pole refused was, in fact, an offer of two or three student places in Rome; he was not turning away a crack regiment of Jesuit preachers. Pole probably refused because he was himself planning to establish an English college in Rome in the old English pilgrim hostel there. The reason this has been misunderstood is because we are predisposed to make negative assumptions about Marian Catholics.
Duffy's book gives a richly textured survey of the Marian Church, making an eloquent and forceful case for a complete reassessment of the traditional view. Other historians have recently discovered hitherto unrecognised strengths within Marian Catholicism. Duffy weaves the strands together to demonstrate a Church that was dynamic, popular and capable of both building on tradition and developing new initiatives. Contrary to the usual assumptions, he shows that the Marian Church promoted good preaching, handled the printing press with skill, recruited an impressive array of educated and devout leaders, and was led by a Cardinal Archbishop of impeccable reforming credentials who turned Catholic England into a blueprint for later European Tridentine reform. Above all, the careful piecing-together of parish worship established a solid base for Catholic renewal.
The central question, however, is how we should understand the persecution, here confronted head-on. Although it is repellent to modern sensibilities, it was still the necessary response of the time to obdurate heresy, Duffy argues. The suppression of heretics was not ill-considered savagery; indeed Mary insisted that the policy be pursued "without rashness", and there are many examples of the authorities striving to persuade, not convict. Nevertheless, at a time when the death of the soul was viewed with greater horror than the death of the body, heretics posed the same kind of threat as terrorism poses today, and the response was similarly extreme. Duffy argues - with some distaste, but with evidence on his side - that this was a policy intelligently handled and largely successful. By the end of Mary's reign, the number of prosecutions was falling; persecution was working.
In short, this book turns old assumptions on their head. In large part, the proof of this case lies in what happened after Mary was dead. In a compelling final chapter, Duffy demonstrates the unprecedented resistance to Elizabeth's attempts to forge a Protestant settlement. All but one bishop opposed her; more than half the cathedral clergy resigned or were deprived; the universities were emptied. Meanwhile the ideas of Pole - who might, had he lived, have been the next Pope - were circulated in Tridentine Italy, even finding their way to Borromeo's Milan. The intellectual and clerical elite showed a formidable level of commitment and principled opposition, which many carried into exile. The radicalising effects of Edward VI's Protestant initiatives had been compounded by the inspirational effects of Mary's "laboratory for Counter-Reformation experimentation". Five years of Marian Catholicism had given the English a new understanding of Catholic identity, and a new sense of loyalty to the faith that Mary and Pole had revived and reformed.
This book is a skilled and convincing piece of historical polemic. Arguing such a powerful case, it inevitably loses some of the finer distinctions. It contends that the Marian Church presented a unified religious message, but fascinating glimpses of internal conflict emerge, too. Duffy has to admit that renewed papalism took a while to sink in; that the notion of Thomas More and John Fisher as "true" martyrs (in opposition to the false ones being burned by Mary) emerged only gradually; that Mary needed bullying by Pole to stop referring to Henry VIII as "our father of most blessed memory". And if England's Catholic revival mirrored that in Europe, so perhaps did its internal friction. Pole's negative reputation was founded partly on Protestant propaganda, but 16th-century Catholics were rude about him, too, from the Spanish ambassador Count Feria to the English Jesuit Robert Persons. "True" Catholicism was a contested phenomenon. It may indeed be striking that the catechism for England written by Bartolome Carranza, later Archbishop of Toledo - which Pole was having translated when he died in 1558 - was fashioned into the Tridentine catechism; a symbol of the English contribution to the Counter-Reformation. But it is also striking that Carranza, who had visited England and contributed to the Marian restoration, spent the last 18 years of his life imprisoned by the Spanish Inquisition. This book bears testimony to the confusion of the time, and the scale of contested religious truth - within different religious camps as much as between them.
This is an important book, and it argues a pivotal case. If we are truly to understand the religious complexities of the 16th century, we need once and for all to throw off the shackles of religious prejudice and evaluate the Marian restoration on its own terms. Mary burned nearly 300 Protestants; Elizabeth hanged, disembowelled and dismembered more than 200 Catholics: these facts should not be deployed on some kind of historical scorecard, but used to appreciate the fear and fury involved in carving out religious and political identities. Fires of Faith is a gripping read; it is also, at times, a painful one.
It was a terrible price we paid for the Reformation.
Eamon Duffy was born in 1947 in Ireland, where he lived for most of his childhood before moving to Birmingham.
After taking an undergraduate degree in philosophical theology at the University of Hull, he studied for a PhD in Church history at Selwyn College, Cambridge.
He taught at Durham University and King's College London before returning to Cambridge in 1979, where he now holds a personal chair as professor of the history of Christianity. He is a fellow and former president of Magdalene College.
In his free time, he says, he enjoys landscape painting, walking with his wife, and the company of their two red Border collies, which he describes as "the most beautiful dogs in the world".
Fires of Faith: Catholic England under Mary Tudor
By Eamon Duffy Yale University Press 240pp, £19.99 ISBN 9780300152166 Published 31 May 2009