Thomas J. Shelley

It has been said, not altogether facetiously, that historians are either plagiarists or revisionists. Some are content to repeat and rehash the standard interpretation of an era, while others dare to challenge the prevailing academic orthodoxy and offer a fresh new approach. Eamon Duffy unequivocally belongs in the latter category.

Professor of the History of Christianity at Cambridge University, Duffy established his scholarly credentials almost two decades ago with The Stripping of the Altars, a meticulously documented work in which he blew huge holes in the thesis that the Protestant Reformation in England was a grass-roots movement with widespread popular support. On the contrary, Duffy argued that it was imposed from above on a reluctant population. While Duffy’s magisterial work has spawned its own revisionist critics, it remains today the starting point of any serious discussion of the English Reformation.

The religion of England was changed four times in the quarter century between Henry VIII’s break with Rome in 1534 and the Elizabethan religious settlement of 1559. Duffy’s latest book focuses on the brief reign of Mary Tudor (1553-58), Henry’s Catholic daughter, who attempted to restore Catholicism after the equally brief reign of her half-brother Edward VI (1547-53), who opened the flood gates to Protestantism upon the death of Henry. Like The Stripping of the Altars, Fires of Faith is lavishly illustrated and includes six maps with the locations of the Marian executions.

Mary Tudor is a formidable test case for any revisionist historian. She is remembered as Bloody Mary, who sent over 280 Protestants to the stake. Duffy notes, “It was the most intense religious persecution of its kind anywhere in sixteenth-century Europe.” Thanks to John Foxe’s widely read Acts and Monuments of the Marian martyrs, Bloody Mary became part of English folklore, solidifying popular suspicion of an intrinsic connection between Catholicism and tyranny, cruelty and religious oppression. Not only partisan Protestant historians, but also many Catholic historians have written off the reign of Mary Tudor as an abject failure on the grounds that she was content to resort to force rather than attempt a genuine Catholic religious revival.

Professor Duffy demurs. For him the central figure in the Marian restoration of Catholicism was not the Queen, but her cousin, Cardinal Reginald Pole, the papal legate and the last Catholic archbishop of Canterbury. Although Pole has remained “the invisible man of the Marian restoration” for most historians, Duffy credits him with an impressive list of initiatives—such as the encouragement of preaching, the publication of Catholic devotional and polemical works, plans for the establishment of four seminaries and, of course, the heresy show trials and public executions intended to be the “theatre of justice.” Ironically, Foxe largely absolved Pole for the executions in which Duffy shows he was deeply implicated.

Pole’s greatest success was his renewal of the episcopate and cathedral clergy, deliberately recruiting candidates with both scholarly and pastoral credentials who were staunch supporters of the Roman primacy. The best measure of his success was the large number who resisted the Elizabethan religious changes, unlike those who participated in the ignominious collapse of the clergy under Henry. In four years Pole achieved results with the upper clergy that took decades to accomplish in France and Spain. “In that perspective,” says Duffy, “Marian England was the hare to the rest of Europe’s tortoise.”

Duffy rejects the assertion that the Marian restoration was the last gasp of medieval Catholicism rather than the beginning of the counter-reformation in England. Pole himself was an important figure in the formation of the counter-reformation in Italy and came within one vote of being elected pope at the conclave of 1550. His death on Nov. 17, 1558, several hours after the death of the childless Mary, spelled the end of the most promising effort to restore Catholicism in 16th-century England. However, many of Pole’s closest collaborators fled abroad to play significant roles in the implementation of the Catholic Reformation in Europe. Posthumously Pole himself had a major impact, through his synodal decrees in England, in shaping the Council of Trent’s legislation on the residence of bishops and the establishment of seminaries. Duffy goes so far as to say that “the Marian church ‘invented’ the counter-reformation.”

Both Mary and Elizabeth employed a combination of religious persuasion and political repression to secure the success of their respective religious establishments. Their methods ex-cite revulsion today, but they were brutally effective. Elizabeth had the inestimable advantage that time was on her side. She occupied the English throne for 45 years, compared with Mary’s five. History usually favors the winners, not the losers. Thus we have Bloody Mary and Good Queen Bess. Eamon Duffy offers cogent reasons to believe that it might have turned out differently.

Msgr. Thomas J. Shelley, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, is professor of church history at Fordham University in New York City.