Thursday, 28 July 2016

Inn Catholics talk, 1 December 2015 - Defending the ‘indefensible’ by Dr Gregory Slysz...

Thank you very much for inviting me to address this important issue.

At a time when the Catholic Faith is under attack from external forces and seemingly also from within, I feel that setting the historical record straight whenever one can is crucial given that flawed history has been used as a hammer against Catholicism for hundreds of years summarised so aptly by the American Archbishop, Fulton Sheen who said that  “There are not one hundred people in the United States who hate The Catholic Church, but there are millions who hate what they wrongly perceive the Catholic Church to be.”

There are many issues which fall into this category, from the Crusades to Galileo, the Inquisition to more recent controversies but today I should like to talk about an issue close to these shores, that of Queen Mary, England’s first Queen regnant.
Before I talk about the issue of the burning of heretics I first should like to briefly address the question: why were Queen Mary and her reign so grossly misrepresented by scholars for hundreds of years? The answer to this question will lead us to an understanding of why the Marian anti-heresy campaign was also so misrepresented.

The answer to this question involves much more than merely searching for flawed methodology and personal prejudices of the writers, though these two aspects feature prominently in any investigation. No, the more we delve, the more we realise that there is something altogether much more sinister at play here. In short, lurking conspicuously behind anti-Marian hyperbole is nothing other than anti-Catholic politics that went on to form one of the key pillars of the British state.   

Indeed, the assault on the Marian legacy fitted in well with the narrative on the Reformation in general commencing with Henry VIII’s curt and prophetic utterance in Parliament on 11 May 1532 when he accused England’s clergy of being ‘but half our subjects, yea, and scarce our subjects’ when many of them opposed their submission to the Crown. It was a narrative that continued to be developed until well after the Second World War and which continues to prevail in many circles to this very day. In short it claimed that the English Reformation was an inevitable popular revolt against a corrupt and detested Church, and Queen Mary as one who attempted to stop this process with extreme cruelty. This imagery became an important component of a political-national ideology that underpinned ‘liberal’ England/Britain until quite recently.
Anyone brought up on the Whig idea that a national ideology was something practised by Continentals may be surprised at the suggestion that politically sober Britain was founded on a prejudicial ideology which viewed the Catholic religious outlook as essentially evil and those who espoused it as traitors.

The mythology surrounding Mary was fostered by centuries of political conditioning, which skewed opinion against her. Notwithstanding Mary’s methods in suppressing Protestantism, which as a reaction to heresy was not atypical for Protestant and Catholic rulers alike at the time, something that I shall later address, her politics and religion were incompatible with those favoured by her successors. The more England, and later Britain, distanced itself from the old religion and political commitments, the more its rulers had to denigrate those who were associated with them. As such, Mary, as a Catholic monarch, whose brief reign was sandwiched between two ‘great’ Protestant rulers, Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, was a key target. Britain’s unity and very idea of nationhood was mostly built on Protestantism. In ruling the waves and regularly confronting Catholic foes, Britain would accommodate little goodwill for those whose religion automatically rendered them alien and as such a security hazard for the realm. In time, Mary would acquire the sobriquet ‘Bloody’, her reign and policies would be maligned and her sanity questioned.

The historiography of these themes offers crucial insight into the motives behind the manner in which they have been treated. The dominant trend for most of the four centuries since Henry VIII broke from Rome was of course Protestant triumphalism and most of the literature that was on offer for at least the first two centuries of this time was not history at all, but embittered polemic, highlighted by the sixteenth-century offerings of the austere Scottish Presbyterian John Knox and his English counterpart John Foxe. Here Catholicism and the work of its key devotees were essentially equated with satanic machinations against what was hailed as divinely inspired religious purification. Even when writing on the subject became more ‘reasoned’ with the likes of the eighteenth century Enlightenment writer David Hume and the nineteenth-century Whig historian Thomas Babington Macaulay, its core retained the erstwhile polemic: the Reformation may have been unpleasant, at times driven by greedy and objectionable individuals, but ultimately it brought forth salvation from superstition, and set England on the course to prosperity and modernity. Catholic writers down the centuries like Sanders and Dodd, Lingard and Gasquet sought to counter this polemic but they were largely ignored in a continuing anti-Catholic atmosphere even after Emancipation in 1829.  It was only really when the twin pillars of Britishness – Protestantism and national sovereignty – began to be challenged, the former by secularism, the latter by membership of various international and supra-national bodies, especially the European Union, that the conditions a reappraisal of the Marian legacy was made possible.

Recent scholarship indeed has done much to exonerate Queen Mary I and her reign and to make good on over four centuries of anti-Marian Protestant spin. To dismiss the Marian reign as a failure as was the case by historians for hundreds of years or to claim that had it lasted longer it would have yielded few triumphs is at odds with its key signposts – the achievements of Cardinal Pole’s restoration programme, the successes in trade policy, the financial and military reforms, to name but a few. All this suggested that further progress in these and other areas would undoubtedly have been made had time allowed.

But while the Foxe-Dickens fantasies have been shattered forever, the exoneration of Mary and her reign continues to encounter obstacles. And there are credible reasons why this should be so. Though considerably less of a thorny subject than it once was, the Reformation, or aspects of it, continues to govern important areas of Britain’s public life, not least that of the essentially Protestant Constitutional make-up of the country, which if challenged, could threaten political stability. In fact this threat is deemed too great for the old Reformation narrative to be rejected outright at the political level. The Reformation myth, however, also serves another constituency. The growing secularisation of society which is, in some part, rooted to a profound hostility to traditional religion in general and Catholicism in particular, still makes challenging the fundamental basis  of the Reformation rude in ‘polite company’. For atheists and secularists the existence of ‘rational’ myths is preferable to the legitimisation of a religion that would make life more difficult for them than the relativist religion that Protestantism has become. As such the image of ‘Bloody Mary’, who attempted and failed to put a spanner into the works of religious reform, continues to enjoy much mileage in such circles.

At the popular level one too still occasionally encounters old stereotypes of Mary. For instance film portrayals of Mary have generally stuck to the traditional narrative of her as either the naive though well-meaning simpleton of the 1971 television adaptation of Elizabeth I or the sickly, quivering, vengeful, Mary of Shekhar Kapur's highly acclaimed film of 1998, Elizabeth. Stereotypes were plentiful at an attraction in 2012 at the London Dungeons, an indoor theme park of medieval gore. Any visitor to the ‘Killer Queen’ exhibition who was unfamiliar with the recent scholarly revisions would have been left with a lasting impression of Mary as a bloodsucking, merciless woman determined to inflict the most severe pain on heretics.
However, after all that is said and done the nature of the suppression of recalcitrant Protestants remains the most difficult aspect of the Marian reign to justify or defend and which overshadows the government’s numerous achievements and it is to this issue that I shall now turn.

It is its most maligned and best remembered policy. ‘The madness of a system’, wrote the Protestant historian AG Dickens, ‘which would burn a virtuous human being for his inability to accept a metaphysical theory of the Eucharist must stagger even a generation well accustomed to institutional and doctrinaire crimes.’[1] The image of Mary as ‘that horrible monster Jezebel of England’ was made famous by John Knox in his The first blast of the trumpet against the monstruous regiment of women published in 1559 while the cruelties of her regime were enshrined for posterity by John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, first published in 1563, which according to the historian GR Elton ‘did not (as apologists would have it) create a legend; it commemorated a truth.’[2] But even allowing for partisan hyperbole that for too long passed for scholarship, the burning of nearly 300 men and women, mostly from lower social strata, argues Professor Eamon Duffy, presents the ‘greatest barrier to a positive assessment of the Marian restoration.’[3]

But justification and even defence of what seems indefensible is possible as I shall now argue.

The reality of the burnings was very different from the sensationalist spin put forward by Foxe. And here context is all too important, something which of course Foxe completely omitted from his accounts.  For one, the hearings and executions were not determined by hatred of the condemned.[4]Great moderation was used’, and execution of those charged with heresy was the final part of a meticulous process that offered the accused earthly, as well as spiritual salvation and the chance of last minute conversions. The Marian Church was clear that the role of tribunals was to save souls and as such any burning of heretics was deemed by the authorities to be a failure. The burnings, therefore, were intended as a last resort to serve not only as punishment but also as a source of purification of the condemned as well as a deterrent against those intending to lapse into Doctrinal error. No one in the Marian administration expected to burn so many; they wanted the heretics to be reconciled rather than die, and if burnings were to occur they were to be carried out judiciously and without vindictiveness.’ [5]

This was not the malicious Church and state of Foxian fantasies. Foxe’s own records of the lengthy and meticulous exchanges between the accused and their interrogators indicate that the administration and its ecclesiastical officials sought primarily to redeem rather than condemn the accused, though Foxe’s intention here is to illustrate the anxiety and traumas to which the accused were subjected.

The context goes beyond England’s shores. What crucially needs to be remembered here is that every European state in the Sixteenth century considered heresy to be a grave sin that required purging not only for the sake of the guilty individual but also for the general good of society itself. Heresy was as much associated by the Marian administration with sedition as it would be by Protestant administrations that followed.[6] Mary fundamentally believed, that heresy ‘had ruined her mother’s marriage and her own early life. When it took hold, it destroyed the immortal souls of those whom it afflicted, and the most extreme steps were justified in eliminating it and thus protecting the realm.’[7] As such, it did not matter from which background or social standing heretics came from, whether they were genuine in their heretical beliefs, or opportunist, male or female. What the ‘majority of Christians of all shades of opinion believed was that the death penalty was appropriate for obstinate heretics.’[8] ‘Toleration of all religious opinions, was in sixteenth century eyes’, not a realistic option. No English government had ever practised it and the only European governments that accepted the existence of dissident religious minorities did so out of necessity, because they were too weak to crush them.’[9]
Modern commentators may regard such a situation with indignation, but to inhabitants of the Medieval world such treatment of heretics was not only acceptable but essential.  To have chosen to adhere to a particular variant of Christianity as opposed to another, a heretic had both transgressed against God, and threatened the integrity of society itself. John Fisher’s view that heresy was ‘a perilous weed’ that corrupted hearts, quenched faith and murdered men’s souls was not that of a religious fanatic, but of a bishop concerned about the devastating social and political consequences of men deviating from orthodox teaching for personal gain or from ill-thought out or erroneous interpretation of Scripture. With religion being at the core of political and social life, as well as defining people’s view of personal salvation, the state saw the suppression of a creed, which it perceived to be distorted or alien, to be as necessary as states see the suppression of terrorism today. The fate of dynasties, of social and political order and the welfare of millions, both spiritual and material, could be disturbed by heretical views, which is why such a hard line was taken against them.

By the time of the Reformation, a complex set of laws to deal with heresy prevailed across Europe, notably in Spain with the Inquisition but latterly in Protestant areas as Edward VI’s and Elizabeth I regimes demonstrated. In fact no sooner had Protestants obtained ascendancy that they displayed a persecuting spirit which they had formally condemned; Mary’s view, in this respect, was that of ‘a thoroughly conventional person.’[10]

Gruesome torture, especially public executions, was nothing new in either Medieval England or Europe. Nor was it infrequent, or for that matter, socially disapproved of. Huge bloodthirsty crowds would gather wherever the latest hanging, pressing, boiling, ducking, flogging, burning, decapitation or quartering was being staged. Specifically during the reign of Henry VIII, tens of thousands were executed for a variety of crimes, including every surviving member of the Plantagenet dynasty. The Edwardian regime, continued to burn heretics while Elizabeth, though more lenient than her father, was responsible for around 2500 executions, among which five were by burning. Particularly severe was her persecution of Catholic recusants during the latter half of her reign during which her leniency became exhausted after the discovery of a number of plots to depose her. Between 1577 and 1603, 183 Catholics were executed. These cases, however, have been viewed by historians more as objectionable details than as reign defining events. For pursuing those who refused to accept her laws, Elizabeth has been commended for her shrewdness and competence in the face of adversity. Mary for her part has been demonised as bloodthirsty for doing the same during her reign.

Hundreds of Catholics continued to be executed during the seventeenth century under the treason laws while tens of thousands perished in Ireland during on-going anti-Catholic purges.

So contrary to Dickens’ claim denying Transubstantiation was not merely a religious act but an act of political defiance. To say, therefore that the victims were blameless is to miss a most crucial point. They were to blame in the sense that they chose to engage in a criminal act by the standards of the mid-sixteenth century, and a serious one at that.
By ridding the country of the most radical Protestants the Restoration of Catholicism could continue more or less unhindered.[11] This was only made possible, however, because of the intensity of the campaign against heresy. Indeed, the claims that the Church ‘had come no-where near destroying its heretics’[12] or that the stream ‘of ordinary men and women who were prepared to die for their Faith showed no sign of drying up’[13] are unconvincing. The evidence indicates that the burnings were in fact tailing off by the summer of 1558 not because the authorities and local magistrates were having second thoughts about the effectiveness of the policy, or that the machinery of state was breaking down, but because the ‘protestant hydra’ was being finally decapitated. The reduction in the number of defiant activists to execute would suggest so.[14]

For all the enthusiasm of officials in their pursuit of heretics , there was little to suggest, apart from the pursuit of Cranmer to the stake, that vengeance played any significant part in the proceedings to hunt down heretics. At times, the campaign was intense, but this was not due to vengeance but to strategic necessity when the authorities had discovered that the lenient approach that had been pursued at the start of Mary’s reign proved to have been ineffective. Many of those who had been released after they had recanted relapsed to provoke the government anew. Of the 22 in Essex, for instance, who had been released after they had recanted, seven were burned a few months later and an eighth was awaiting execution.[15] The case of the Munt Family is most illustrative. Having been released after initial investigations, they continued to meet in secret, abstain from Mass and publicly mock the Host. They were rearrested and duly executed, having rejected further opportunities to recant.[16] For this to have gone unpunished would have showed weakness that could well have undermined the entire programme of Restoration.

Yet as horrific as the burnings were of undoubtedly brave men and women, sympathy towards the victims was by no means widespread, universal or necessarily motivated by confessional solidarity. Residents in areas other than London, Canterbury or Colchester, where most of the executions occurred, were unlikely to have witnessed a burning. And even in these areas the burnings would have eluded most people. It is understandable why Protestant historiography should focus so much on the burnings, but what was familiar to people who read it was unfamiliar to the vast majority of people during Mary’s reign. Moreover, the campaign against heretics frequently offered local opportunities to settle scores, in many cases which used religion as a cover. Indeed, the unsettled religious climate offered much scope for denunciation and accusation especially if the prospects of punishment of the accused resulted in some material benefit for the accuser in these economically challenging times. Husbands reported wives because they were tired of them, fathers reported sons over inheritance issues, and neighbour informed on neighbour to avenge some dispute or another. It is important to add, therefore, that thousands of those who had been subjected to investigations were subsequently released, the accusations against them having found to have been spurious.  All this counters the claim that the heresy hunts were were initiated solely from above.

That is not to say, however, that the burnings did not provoke local disturbances, because they did, but never to the point of threatening the general peace of the realm. Empathy expressed at the pyres by onlookers towards the victims may well suggest the persistence of Protestant sympathies, but it does not offer evidence either of widespread national disillusionment with the burnings or of burgeoning Protestant support.[17] In Colchester, for instance, the burnings did provoke some ill-feeling but none of the protests ever came close to threatening the stability of the government itself. Not only were they relatively small, but they were local. Apart from London and Colchester, the response towards the burnings elsewhere does not merit the claim made by AG Dickens that it was ‘both hostile and immediate’.  What also needs to be stressed is that even in Protestant hotspots like London, the burnings were occurring against a backdrop of a revival of Catholic practice and against considerable hostility towards Protestantism, which even Foxe was compelled to acknowledge. There was no universal opprobrium towards the burnings and so it must follow that claims that the burnings severely damaged the standing of the Marian administration are exaggerated.[18]  Moreover it is difficult, to identify the conditions for ‘a religious civil war on the French model’ which Professor David Loades suggests could have potentially occurred had Mary remained Queen for longer.

So did the burnings damage the Marian administration at all? On balance, the answer to this question, despite the nuances of the issue, is not really. Professor Loades noted that the burnings were a ‘catastrophic mistake’[19] and had Mary’s ‘policy of coercive uniformity been more politic and sensitive there would have been less anger, and the cry that England was under judgment for murdering the saints of God would have had no resonance.’[20] This view, however, seems valid only within the context of the myth-making of Protestant propagandists in the aftermath of the Marian reign. Talk of damage, therefore, should be confined to that which was inflicted on the memory of the administration rather than on the administration itself. To recall, the Marian programme of Catholic Restoration was designed for the long haul. Had the administration survived for longer, subsequent generations would have regraded its policy of burning heretics with little amazement, particularly as these generations would have been Catholic and which would not have been subjected to incessant Protestant propaganda which the likes of Foxe purveyed.

The Marian pursuit of heretics was counter-productive for Catholicism only in the context of the short-lived nature of Mary’s administration. In an otherwise different world in which Mary had lived to see the fruits of her actions more fully, the contrast that the administration had highlighted between the seditiousness of the Protestant victims and the virtuousness of Catholic martyrs like More and Fisher would have held good in subsequent histories of the period, as it did at the time among most of the people. The mythology later invented by Protestant propagandists that not only depicted the perpetrators of the burnings as the epitome of evil but also dignified a cause that otherwise would have had little to commemorate, would not have transpired. Foxe’s martyrs would not have existed, so to speak but for Foxe…’,[21] whose book was to reappear several times down the centuries offering successive generations insight into his propaganda. History here was exclusively written by the victors.

There is no denying that a degree of inept management of the process surrounding the burnings made things much easier for Protestant propagandists. For instance, allowing victims to communicate with the public shortly before their death added to the drama, which polemicists like Foxe could later embellish. Similar poor judgment accompanied the government’s failure to make more capital from the recantations of Thomas Cranmer, Henry VIII and Edward VI’s Archbishop of Canterbury. Here, Mary’s judgment was clouded by her desire to avenge her mother’s treatment, for which she held Cranmer responsible to a large extent. The opportunity that Cranmer’s recantations presented for a public relations coup was not taken. So complete was his capitulation to the Faith that he had so recently scorned, that it should have served as the crowning victory over heresy for the Marian administration.[22] At the point of having expressed elation at having been re-joined to the Catholic Faith and asking and receiving sacramental absolution, his life should have been spared under the normal practice of Canon Law.

Doubtless he would have retired as a living symbol of the prodigal son, returning from error to the bosom of the merciful Catholic Church. Instead, spurious reasons were given as to why Cranmer should die a heretic’s death.[23] Cornered and with nothing to lose, he recanted his previously made recantations in dramatic form. ‘Forasmuch as my hand offended writing contrary to my heart’, he declared from the place of his execution as the fire was being stoked, ‘my hand shall first be punished therefore.’[24] Then, in theatrical fashion, he stretched his right hand into the fire and while he still could, uttered the dying words of Stephen, the first martyr, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my Spirit … I see the heavens open and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.’[25] With this, noted Dermaid MacCulloch, Cranmer’s most recent biographer, the ‘Catholic Church’s publicity coup lay in ruins.’[26] Well, not quite. The authorities did have Cranmer’s recantations, which they duly published and his transgression were subsequently hammered home across the country by preachers. But the campaign to limit the damage caused by Cranmer’s last minute ‘re-conversion’ was not all that convincing. By the time a pamphlet with his recantations was published, the revised version of events was being peddled by Protestant sympathisers, the truth of the drama surrounding his death having already become common knowledge both at home and abroad.[27]

The suffering of those who went to the stake should by no means be demeaned, but once the burnings are placed in proper historical context and stripped of the hyperbole that has been built up around them and which has determined how they have been perceived, they lose much of their ability to shock. ‘While in no way seeking to condone the horrors of the Marian persecution’, wrote the Victorian Catholic historian John Lingard, ‘it is well to remember that those responsible for them should be judged, not by our standards of tolerance, but by the ethics then accepted as guides for man’s conduct.’[28] Appropriate contextualisation in turn contributes to a reappraisal of the Marian administration, which for so long has been primarily associated with cruel persecution.

Given the way that events unfolded since Mary’s death, the ‘burning of Protestants, ‘was a policy that ultimately failed, and in its failure it did enormous damage to English Catholicism.’ But the ‘persecution failed for the same reasons that the restoration of Catholicism failed: the sudden death of Mary and the accession of a Protestant successor.’[29] 

[1]  Dickens, English Reformation, p. 371
[2]  Elton, Reform and Reformation, p. 386.
[3] Duffy, Fires of Faith,  p. 7
[4]  Elton, Reform and Reformation p. 387.
[5] Whitelock, Mary Tudor, England’s first queen, p. 265
[6]  Loades, ‘The English Church during the reign of Mary I’. In: Edwards and Truman, eds., Reforming Catholicism in the England of Mary Tudor, p 36.
[7]  Ibid., 2005, pp. 38-39.
[8]  Loades, ‘The English Church during the reign of Mary I’. In: Edwards and R. Truman, eds., Reforming Catholicism in the England of Mary Tudor, p. 34.
[9] T. S. Freeman, ‘Burning zeal: Mary Tudor and the Marian persecution’. In: Doran and Freeman, eds., Mary Tudor, Old and new perspectives, p. 203.
[10]  Richards, Mary Tudor, p. 193.
[11] Freeman, ‘Inventing bloody Mary’. In: Doran and Freeman, eds., Mary Tudor, p. 203.
[12] Loades, Mary Tudor, pp. 202.
[13] Ibid., p. 263
[14]  Duffy, Fires of Faith, p.7. See also, Freeman, ‘Inventing bloody Mary’. In: Doran and Freeman, eds., Mary Tudor, p. 179.

[15] Ibid., p. 178.  

[16] Queene Mary. The burning of Rose Allins hand by Ed. Tyrrell persecutour. Anno 1557 August A Letter sent to Boner Byshop of London, from Syr Thomas Tye Priest’, Acts, book 12, 1583, p. 2030; ‘Queene Mary. The story apprehension, and examination of George Eagles Martyr’, Acts, book 12, 1583, p. 2033.
[17]  Duffy, Fires of Faith, p. 161
[18] Freeman, ‘Burning zeal: Mary Tudor and the Marian persecution’. In: Doran and Freeman, eds., Mary Tudor, p. 202.
[19] Loades, ‘Introduction: The Personal Religion of Mary I’: In: Duffy and Loades, eds., The Church of Mary Tudor, p. 28.
[20] Loades, ‘The English Church during the reign of Mary I’. In: Edwards and Truman, eds., Reforming Catholicism in the England of Mary Tudor, p. 48.
[21] Ibid., p. 333.
[22]  For details of Cranmer’s hearing and recantations see ibid., chapter 13.
[23]  Ibid., pp. 600-1.
[24]  Ibid., p. 603.
[25]  Ibid., p. 603.
[26]  Ibid., p. 603.
[27]  Ibid., p. 607.
[28] Norbert ed., Lingard’s History of England,  p. 354
[29] Freeman, ‘Burning zeal: Mary Tudor and the Marian persecution’. In: Doran and Freeman, eds., Mary Tudor, p. 204.