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Wednesday, May 17, 2017

What if Mary Hadn't Burned Heretics?

Queen Mary I is most remembered for the burning of heretics that took place during her reign, and she has been given the cruel sobriquet of 'Bloody Mary'. But what would have happened if Mary had not allowed the burning of heretics?

We assume because religious persecution is unacceptable today that it must have been the same during Mary's lifetime, but that couldn't be further from the truth. Monarchs were expected to lead their subjects in matters of faith, but that became much trickier with the advent of the Reformation. Suddenly, people were divided in ways they had never been before, and rulers had to determine how best to proceed in this new world.

According to historian Eamon Duffy, 'No sixteenth-century European state willingly accepted or could easily imagine the peaceful coexistence of differing religious confessions, and such a coexistence does not seem a particularly realistic aspiration for Mary's England.' In his book, Fires of Faith: Catholic England under Mary Tudor, he points out that we only believe that the counter-reformation was doomed to fail because we have the advantage of knowing that it did. To Mary and those who advised her, they were doing the only thing they logically could do in seeing to the salvation of Englishmen.

The idea that burnings were repugnant to Mary's contemporaries and further drove people from Catholicism is a false idea based on our modern mindset that people must have felt that way. Mary's subjects, from the moment they supported her rule over that of Lady Jane Grey, expected the return of the old faith and the stomping out of the new that would go along with it. Throughout Europe, rulers continued to attempt to regulate the faith of the people long after Mary's reign ended in 1558, and the forms of punishment were no less brutal with Elizabeth ordering the hanging, drawing, and quartering of Catholics during her reign.

Had Mary not attempted to see England united in faith, she would have been viewed as a weak and ineffective monarch - a concern already at the forefront as she ruled as England's first queen regnant. Her supporters expected her to punish heretics and would have been disappointed in her had she sat back and done nothing. In contrast, there was very little outcry regarding the punishments when they took place. The discontent that Mary did have to cope with was the public disapproval of her marriage to Philip of Spain. For those unused to being ruled by a woman, the fear of becoming one more piece of the Holy Roman Empire was very real.

Just as her brother, Edward VI, had been encouraged to lead the nation in faith and punish those who did not follow, Mary had an obligation to uphold holy laws. Protestants and Catholics did not disagree on a monarchs role, but on who were the heretics that should be punished. Mary is often accused of seeking revenge for the many wrongs that she had suffered before she became queen, but in reality she was doing her duty of putting the country's church affairs in order with the advice of an extensive and learned council.

Mary also did not immediately resort to the burning of heretics. For more than than the first year of her reign, her focus was on ensuring that the true faith was preached so that those who had grown up during her brother's reign had the opportunity to hear and learn. Beginning in 1555, those who continued to lead people away from Catholicism were given harsh punishments for their role in what many believed was the spreading of heresy which doomed people to eternal damnation. Those who refused to correct the error of their ways, served as examples for those they led astray.

When people were burned, it was believed that they were given a foretaste of hell that would be their last chance to repent and receive eternal life in heaven. In its way, this punishment was intended as a final effort to convert those believed lost to heresy. Had Mary simply allowed her subjects to live and die condemned for eternity, she would have been accused by her contemporaries of failing to do her duty, but we might not remember her today as 'Bloody Mary'.



18 August 2022 UPDATE: Due to an unreasonable number of nonproductive interactions on this post which I have had to delete, comments will no longer be open. I apologize to the majority of my readers who contribute to civil discourse. It is unfortunate that one person makes this no longer possible.

49 comments:

  1. Nice piece. I wonder how many Edward burned? And was there a current of sexism running here? It's okay for a male monarch to hunt down and execute heretics, but for a female one?

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    1. Thank you, and good point. It seems like Edward's actions would have been judged more harshly since he was the one changing traditions rather than reinstating them. Then again, much of the way they are remembered is based on how Queen Elizabeth wanted them remembered, and she gained more by turning Mary into a villain.

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    2. Edward was also,a child king and Mary was an adult monarch. That likely has something to do with it too.

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    3. Edward also treated Elizabeth much better than Mary did

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    4. Did he? He tried to disinherit them both.

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  2. Monarchs also would have perceived the Protestants and other sects as existential threats to their government. Thank you for this Samantha. Will share.

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  3. This is very insightful.

    Did Mary allow anyone to convert?

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    1. According to Eamon Duffy in 'Fires of Faith,' in the spring of 1554 470 men and women were accused of heresy after failing to make Lenten confession and Easter communion. After examination 3 were burned, though 'at least half were probably protestants.' This was more the norm for the first part of Mary's reign. Mercy after claimed conversion seems to become less likely the more time went by, but her goal was to save people, not punish them. Of course, Mary suffered the same problem as other monarchs in having people such as Bishop Bonner, who was much more ruthless than Mary herself, serving and representing her. Dioceses such as Canterbury saw higher rates of persecution than in areas with bishops more open to reconciliation.

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  4. Sorry still no sympathy for Mary.

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    1. That's fine. I don't ask people to sympathize with Mary, only to better understand the mindset of the era.

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  5. An astute and historically correct analysis long overdue but, alas, probably not going to be seen as much as it should.

    So many readers see Mary as the pinch-faced hysteric who was "mean" to Elizabeth and who lit up the skies at Smithfield with all those poor innocent protestants. At the same time they see Elizabeth as WonderWoman, making England great again, perfect in every way, and especially by saving the nation for all time from the scourge of papacy.

    Absolutely nothing will change that mindset. Not history, not fiction, nothing.

    Of course, the question regarding Mary might well be how would she be perceived had she not married Philip of Spain? That was the real mistake she made, I think, since most Englishmen feared foreign power and intervention more than they feared Catholicism.

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    1. I couldn't agree more & appreciate your comment. I think Mary would have been much happier and more successful as queen had she married someone besides Philip.

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    2. I think an Englishman would have been a better choice. It would have caused some internal conflict over which family was favored but would have eliminated the concern that England would become a part of her husband's kingdom after her death.

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    3. Right. But given Mary's obsession with Spain that wasn't going to happen


      You do know the Catholic Church has a high opinion of Mary I right? So when 1 billion people admire her it's hard to say Elizabeth's side won.

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    4. I don't know that Mary was obsessed with Spain, but she did respect and trust her uncle Charles V as she did few others. I'm not sure Mary or Elizabeth 'won.' They each did their best and should be admired for their achievements, but, of course, neither was perfect.

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    5. Ok. I thought Mary was overly pro Spanish.

      But here's what would have helped both of them- a better father!

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    6. I always wonder why Charles didn't intervene and help Mary while Anne was queen and Henry was threatening her. Surely he understood the danger she was in. I also wonder why he didn't invade England on behalf of Katharine and Mary.

      Katharine was an incredibly powerful woman in her own right. The other wives couldn't hold a candle to her. I don't hold to your low opinion of Anne Boleyn but i can't really hold her responsible for what happened to KOA and Mary I either as she was a courtier, and then a queen consort, with no power of her own.

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    7. Charles did offer Mary refuge in Spain. There was little else he could reasonably do and was unlikely to invade a country and start a war on behalf of women.

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    8. Yet according to Homer all wars are caused by women ;)

      Good point. Just wanted to inject some humor.

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  6. Samantha what did Mary actually achieve?

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    1. One might as well ask what Henry achieved by marrying six wives. The benefit of hindsight and centuries of history may make it seem obvious, but Mary had no reason to believe that her counter-reformation would be unsuccessful as it was happening. I recommend Eamon Duffy's 'Fires of Faith' for a more in-depth study of this issue.

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    2. Right. Napoleon put it best. "History is an agreed upon set of lies."

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  7. Samantha were there any protestants left after Mary's reign?

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    1. Yes, thousands. There were less than 300 people executed for heresy during Mary's reign.

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    2. Oh. I see why you believe she was unfairly treated now.

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    3. Right. Hardly bloody.

      In fairness to Elizabeth though the "Bloody Mary" moniker wasn't applied till the 17th century.

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  8. Samantha why didn't Mary realize the only difference is they don't believe Jesus is a piece of bread? What would shd have thought of today's world, do you think?

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    1. I'm fairly confident the real presence isn't the only difference. In fact, Lutherans believe in transubstantiation as well.

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    2. Do you know any other differences?

      I keep wishing i could hold onto my past disgust for Mary but the more I learn the more I realize i can't as the research doesn't support the protestant propaganda against her.

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  9. Samantha would Mary have allowed England to modernize as Elizabeth did? Do you think she would have sowed the seeds for England being a world power?

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    1. I think it's impossible to say. The Armada attack, for example, would likely never have occurred if Mary were Queen. I think that the sisters were quite alike so far as their belief in England as a power to be reckoned with.

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    2. Right and maybe Spain and England joined would have prevented a lot of the later wars.

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  10. Could Philip have married Elizabeth after Mary passed with them being sisters?

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    1. That's a good question. Philip would have required papal dispensation, but Elizabeth was on poor terms with the Church.....so it would be interesting to have seen this situation play out.

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    2. Yes. Had Elizabeth converted she would have lost her crown.

      I think Elizabeth did what was best for England there.

      I think I've misunderstood you. I think you just find Mary more interesting than Elizabeth. Sorry for putting words in your mouth.

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    3. I agree that Elizabeth was right to reject any idea of marrying Philip. He was bad for Mary and would have been no better for Elizabeth.

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  11. Samantha this is a good post.

    I do believe part of what Mary did was to avenge her mothet though, even if she wasn't aware of it. Catherine really got a raw deal. And she did believe burning would save them.

    We have lost a lot in the modern world to not have concerns for our souls and look at the fruit of it.

    Also, people see Elizabeth as tolerant but she burnt people too.

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  12. Why did Mary lie to her people that she was pregnant?

    All Mary did was burn people to avenge
    Catherine, who taught her to hate protestants . So Catherine of aragon should also be held accountable for the burnings as they were done in her memory. that is a fact

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    1. I do not think Mary was lying, at least not at first. She believed - hoped at least - that she was pregnant, and she was in an awkward position (not to mention heartbroken) once she realized she was not. I couldn't disagree more that the burnings of heretics was simply to take revenge. That view fails to consider how seriously religion was taken in the 16th century.

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    2. Didn’t Mary believe burning people would bring her mother back to life and restore her position?

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    3. No. There is no reason to believe anything of the sort.

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  13. We often are so harsh on earlier eras. CS Lewis called it "chronological snobbery."

    I would never advocate a return to burning people alive. But we have lost a lot by dismissing the wisdom of those who came before us.

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