Votes : 0

Blood on her memory – the legacy of England's first and only Catholic queen

Penelope Middelboe , Jon Rosebank - The Tablet - Fri, Jun 17th 2022

Mary I has become “Bloody Mary”, only remembered for burning Protestants at the stake. But is there more to her than this?

Blood on her memory – the legacy of England's first and only Catholic queen

Mary I by Antonis Mor, 1554; and Philip II of Spain by Titian, 1554-1556

More than 300 people were put to death for heresy between 1555 and 1558, most of them burned at the stake. But is there more to the reign of England’s first and only Catholic queen than a legacy of religious persecution?

A small number of English ­monarchs have acquired a reputation in the popular imagination as bad sorts. And once it has stuck, nothing historians do seems able to dislodge it. John is remembered as “not a good man”. Henry VI and George III were mad. Charles I is gleefully memorialised in the corridors of the parliament that executed him. George IV attempted to divorce a popular wife; Edward VIII was determined to marry an unpopular one. And Mary I has become “Bloody Mary”, only remembered for burning Protestants at the stake.
Mary’s fall from grace began in the 1560s when the Elizabethan Protestant preacher John Foxe wrote his immense Acts and Monuments, popularly known as “Foxe’s Martyrs”. Foxe pinned the blame for the burnings firmly on Mary herself. A century later she became Bloody Mary, when James II’s opponents used her story to hound the last Catholic English king from the throne. On the eve of the Great War, the historian A.F. Pollard delivered his much quoted nugget of anti-Mary misogyny, that “sterility was the conclusive note of her reign”. And in 1066 and All That W.C. Sellar and R.J. Yeatman satirised her with their usual perceptive brilliance. “Broody Mary’s reign was, however, a Bad Thing, since England is bound to be C. of E., so all the executions were wasted.”

As Sellar and Yeatman were cleverly pointing out, Mary’s reign makes no sense when English history is written from a Protestant point of view. As, for most of the last five centuries, it was. In the last 20 years, however, the history of England’s first queen has been so completely reassessed by a new generation of historians, including Susan Doran, Eamon Duffy and John Edwards, that Alexander Samson writes “it feels as if we are at the start” of making sense of it all.

The most obvious readjustment historians have been making is to take el Rey Felipe seriously. In July 1554, a year after she and her half-sister Elizabeth rode triumphantly into London, her accession celebrated by street parties and ringing bells, Mary married Prince Philip of Spain, a great-nephew of her mother Catherine of Aragon and, like Mary, a Catholic. 
Philip had just been created King of Naples and would soon be Lord of the Netherlands and King of Spain. Together, Philip and his family ruled half the Western world. Philip was 27 when he married Mary, who was 38. It was, of course, a diplomatic marriage, intended to encircle the French, bitter enemies of Philip’s Habsburg family. For four short years, little, marginal, impoverished England briefly joined what was then the world’s greatest empire. Philip signed himself el Rey, and in documents and on its coins England was ruled by joint monarchs Philip and Mary. 
Research by Gonzalo Velasco Berenguer of the University of Bristol shows that Philip recruited eight of England’s shrewdest and most experienced councillors and set up a Spanish-style consejo código, a select council, where policy was decided. El Rey himself went along on Tuesdays and Fridays when he was in England and had all the select council’s affairs reported to him when he was not. Mary never attended, but she was no fool. She had always been one of England’s wealthiest individuals, efficiently running large estates. She was described as “Mary in the morning, Martha in the afternoon”, and we know that she spent her afternoons hard at administrative business. But between July 1554 and November 1558, although England had a joint monarchy, in practice it was governed more by Philip of Spain than by Mary I. 
For several months in 1554 and 1555, and again in 1557 when Philip was in England, London became one of the world’s great capitals. The court of Philip and Mary – he, you remember, in his twenties and she in her ­thirties – was a focus of learning and the stage for a glittering succession of parties and ­cultural events that rivalled anything ­accomplished by Henry VIII in his prime. Alexander Samson has shown that Mary and her husband presided over an outpouring of print, music, entertainments and scholarship. The English court enjoyed “an unrivalled magnificence and sophistication not seen for decades nor seen again”, he writes. It was also politically shrewd. The English nobility were having a good time. Among the people who mattered, in noticeable contrast to the reigns of all the other Tudors, there was not a murmur of discontent. 

But you cannot overlook the burnings. According to Thomas Freeman’s meticulous British Academy database, 313 people were put to death for their beliefs in England and Wales between 1555 and 1558, most of them burned at the stake. The campaign against heresy began while Philip was in England and it is obvious the Spanish played a signifi­cant part. The Basque priest and historian José Ignacio Tellechea Idígoras has revealed the importance of Bartolomé Carranza, a Spanish Dominican who had come over to England ahead of Philip and who wrote the most significant documents of the English Church in this period.
Carranza sat in on many English heresy trials. His documents make it clear, for ­example, that – contrary to the inveterate insistence of many English historians – Mary tried to prevent the burning for heresy of Thomas Cranmer, the man who had annulled her parents’ marriage in May 1533 five days before declaring Henry VIII’s formal marriage to Anne Boleyn – four months earlier – valid. It was Carranza, not Mary, who insisted that the sentence against Cranmer be carried out.

The reign of Philip and Mary coincided with a wave of executions of alleged heretics right across Europe. Its peak – in England as in Europe – followed the election, in May 1555, of Gian Pietro Carafa as Pope Paul IV. Carafa had refounded the Roman Inquisition in 1542 and declared he would burn his own mother if she stepped out of line. He even accused Carranza of heresy, alleging he had been too lax with English heretics.

But Spanish and Roman pressure does not entirely explain the persecutions in England between 1555 and 1558. The English campaign against heresy was distinctively English. The Cambridge historian Paul Cavill has shown that it was different from any other in Europe. It was not to be funded by seizing heretics’ land or goods: the English Church would not benefit by even a penny or a yard of land. The English campaign, in marked contrast, and in the teeth of Spanish objections, was also to hold its trials not in private but in public, so that justice could be seen to be done.

Setting up this very English campaign was the subject of controversy in the course of 1554. And here is a mystery. Opposing sides of the debate had been led by Stephen Gardiner and William Paget, both soon to be members of King Philip’s select council. But Gardiner had played a starring role in Henry VIII’s original break with Rome; and Paget had been key, after Henry’s death in 1547, to the launch of the most violently Protestant government England and Wales has ever seen. Nor were these men unusual. Look closely, and almost all the members of King Philip’s key consejo código had for decades been living, practising and governing as Protestants. How on earth could they now be leaning into a campaign of persecution against heretics led by Catholics?

It only begins to make sense when we look more closely at the identity of the victims. William Monter, studying the execution of heretics across Europe, found that two-thirds of them did not belong to mainstream Protestant Churches. He calls them “Anabaptists”, a catch-all title not only for Anabaptists but also for a wide range of individuals whose unconventional beliefs pre-dated the Reformation. In the past they had often been ignored. But as religious tension everywhere escalated in the 1540s and 1550s, these small nonconforming congregations and connections were being winkled out and suppressed. And they were persecuted by both mainstream Protestants and Catholics. 

Was this also what happened in England? It is difficult to tell because, in 80 per cent of cases, John Foxe, our main source, tells us nothing about the beliefs of those who were executed. Patrick Collinson and Diarmaid MacCulloch have shown that Foxe suppressed any evidence he came across of heterodoxy: he wanted the persecution to look like a simple clash between Catholic and Protestant. But get out a map. What you discover is that there were hardly any executions at all in the overwhelming majority of the kingdom.

Nearly two in three of the victims came from the Stour Valley and the High Weald – remote areas along the county and diocesan borders of Essex and Kent, along with a little knot from around nearby Mendlesham in Suffolk and some dissenting congregations meeting in the taverns of the Essex town of Colchester. These parishes all had a known history of heresy dating back into Henry VIII’s reign, and usually far beyond, well into the fifteenth century – a tradition of “crysten brothers and systers” as they were known in Mendlesham. Some of the 1550s victims had themselves previously been arrested by Protestant authorities under Henry or Edward. Like people from rural communities across Europe in the 1550s, many of these do not look like mainstream Protestants, but dissenters and radicals who had held on to older beliefs and now found themselves hauled before the authorities and told that they had to abandon their cherished faith. 
So perhaps the “Marian” burnings may not have been – as we have always been told – a hopeless Catholic attempt to hold back the tide of Protestantism. Most historians now believe that Protestantism did not take root in most English parishes until the 1570s or 1580s. The gruesome executions of the 1550s were an episode in a decades-long programme of government-led persecutions against religious dissidence with roots going back several generations and with connections across Europe. Moves to hunt out this kind of heresy had already begun under Henry VIII and had escalated under Edward VI. But the young king’s sudden death meant that it was under Philip and Mary that the former Edwardian councillors found themselves carrying it out.

In England, however, the death rate was higher than anywhere else in Europe. Even Carafa’s Roman Inquisition executed fewer than 50 people in its first three decades. Were there many more heretics in the muddy corners of Essex and Kent than anywhere in Europe? It seems unlikely. Were these remote villagers, as Thomas Freeman suggests, just more greedy to denounce their neighbours? There is certainly an intriguing – if imperfect – correlation between the fingers that pointed at heretics and those that, a few years later, would be pointing at witches. 

Alfonso de Castro, King Philip’s chaplain, may have dropped a clue in a sermon he preached on 10 February 1555. Castro told courtiers that they were going about their investigations in the wrong way. The English preoccupation with open, public trials would backfire: it would give heretics a platform. He may have had a point. We now know, from research done by Silvana Seidel Menchi, that behind closed doors Roman inquisitors quietly worked out compromises with the accused, often on generous terms, so that nobody lost face and few ended up at the stake. By contrast the English investigators, working in open hearings, found themselves facing breath-taking reluctance to compromise. Take Simon Miller, accused of heresy before the Bishop of Norwich in 1557. Miller got permission to go home to Middleton, near the port of King’s Lynn. There he put his affairs in order. Then, turning his back on the chance to jump aboard a ship and escape, Miller trudged the 40 miles back to Norwich, turned himself in and, on 13 July 1557, was burned at the stake. And Miller’s case is very far from unusual. 

share :
tags icon tags :
comments icon Without comments


write comment
Please enter the letters as they are shown in the image above.