We look back with the benefit of almost 500 years of hindsight and wonder how Mary failed to realize that her plans to return England to Catholicism after her father's break from Rome twenty years earlier were doomed. The fact that Protestantism flourished after Mary's death indicates to us that Mary should have seen the signs that it was coming or that she should have taken a dose of modern tolerance and embraced her subjects' differences, but to promote either of these ideas is to fail to fully understand the mindset of a 16th century monarch.
As Eamon Duffy states in his Fires of Faith: Catholic England under Mary Tudor, "No sixteenth-century European state willingly accepted or could easily imagine the peaceful coexistence of differing religious confessions." Even Mary's sister, Elizabeth, who would later claim "no desire to make windows into men's souls" was scarcely less active in her persecution of Catholics. In Mary's time, the idea that faith was separate from law or that varying beliefs could thrive within one geographic area was not the progressive thought we believe it to be but something between heresy and treason.
Mary did not go into her reign believing counter-reformation would fail but that she was obligated to give it her best shot. Quite the contrary. When the common people helped secure her crown, which they knew meant a return to the Catholic mass, Mary was certain that most of her subjects shared her ambitions. Not only did she have vast popular support, but she had her cousin, Cardinal Reginald Pole. He had almost been elected to the papacy in 1550, and with his support England's smooth transition to the 'true faith' seemed assured.
During Mary's first Parliament, the marriage of Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon was deemed valid, erasing Mary's illegitimacy if not the scars left from that difficult period of her life. Her brother Edward's religious reforms were also overturned, allowing Mary to reasonably believe the changes she planned to make would occur quickly and easily.
Pole published sermons to be used throughout Mary's kingdom in an effort to reach those too young to remember the old faith that they might embrace it. However, they soon realized that reformed teaching was being perpetrated at some of the highest levels in the church. Heresy is a charge that does not make sense to the modern mind but was more serious than we can imagine in the 16th century. To secure the salvation of her subjects, Mary believed that it was necessary to outlaw Protestant books and teaching. When some reformers resisted, the burnings began.
The 284 people burned for heresy during the reign of Queen Mary is what she is chiefly remembered for. The most notable, historical figures such as Latimer, Ridley, and Cranmer, did go to the stake with Mary's consent, but many of the other, more controversial convictions occurred under the supervision of local law enforcement who sometimes allowed charges of heresy to be used more to settle scores than root out false teaching. Burning heretics was meant to give them a foretaste of hell in the hope that they would recant and be saved for eternity. Better to suffer a finite time on Earth than forever in hell. However, Mary and her counter-reformers were surprised to find that a shocking number of convicted Protestants held firm to their beliefs, becoming witnesses to their faith rather than examples of recantation.
In the meantime, Mary made what was possibly her most serious mistake. Instead of choosing an eligible Englishman, such as Edward Courtenay or even Reginald Pole, as a husband, Mary fell in love with Prince Philip of Spain. Fear that this would make England a vassal of Spain or the Holy Roman Empire, which Philip's father ruled, caused rebellions and distrust of Mary's queenship much more than her return to Catholicism had. When the two fused into one surge of disillusionment with Mary's reign, the objectives that had seemed within reach fell away from England's first queen regnant.
During her five year reign, Mary suffered two false pregnancies, likely caused by uterine cancer. The marriage that she fought so hard for proved loveless and childless. Finally, her devotion to her people and her faith failed to be enough to see England restored to Rome and what she considered the 'true faith.' She died knowing that Elizabeth, the sister she did not trust but had little choice but to name as her heir, would reverse all of her efforts. Little did she know how stridently that sister would also work to blacken her name in order that the name of Elizabeth I would shine more gloriously.
The auspicious beginning of Mary's reign and the outpouring of love from her subjects would have helped heal the wounds left from a difficult life at the hands of her father and given her hope for the future. However, Mary could not see as clearly as we see today that successful counter-reformation in England was not what God had in mind for her after all.
Fires of Faith: Catholic England under Mary Tudor by Eamon Duffy
The First Queen of England by Linda Porter
**This article originally appeared on the blog for EHFA.**
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