Saturday, February 09, 2013


Book Cover

One of the most telling of popular myths regarding history is that history shows that force, coercion etc., do not work. Sadly this is simply not the case all too frequently violence does in fact work and work quite well in ”solving” problems. And this idea is allied with the notion that somehow success “proves” that the idea etc., was right.

Now this doesn’t mean that coercion, violence etc., is proof of the rightness of a cause or belief. It is not. In fact all it proves is that the wielder of dictatorial power, coercion etc., has such power it does not in any way prove that so and so was right.

An outstanding example of the power of coercion to enforce change is the English Reformation and clearest indication of the importance of force is the attempted Counter Reformation  during the reign of Mary I of England (r. 1553-1558).

That may seem paradoxical given that the so-called Marian persecution of Protestants is usually given as an outstanding example of the failure of force, coercion etc. However that is clearly outlined in the book being reviewed here by Eamon Duffy, Fires of Faith.1 The book continues Prof Duffy’s efforts to outline the trajectory of the English Reformation and the transition from traditional medieval religion to the new Protestant covenant.

In his previous books Prof. Duffy made it very clear that traditional religion had strong and almost certainly by far majority support among the population of England and that the English Reformation was carried out by the government with the enthusiastic participation of only a few zealots.2

The whole process was deeply disruptive and alarming to vast sections of the population and helped to spark revolts, anarchy and treason. The books also reinforce the argument that a powerful motive in sparking the whole process and certainly an aspect that melded religious reform reasons with self-interest and greed was the chance of expropriating church land and goods.3

Of course there were genuine religious Protestant believers who were motivated by zeal if not fanaticism and a desire to “purify” and “reform” religion.4 However although such people provided the driving zeal of the Reformation in England they by no means were its origin.

England had in fact been remarkably immune to the appeal of Protestantism in the early part of the reign of Henry VIII. It was after all Henry VIII who was given the title by the pope of “Defender of the Faith”, a title which British Monarchs have to this day.5

It was Henry VIII’s ‘Great Matter” that led to the schism. It was his desire to divorce his wife Catharine of Aragon and marry his mistress Ann Boleyn that led to the schism. For reasons of high politics the Pope refused to grant an annulment of the marriage. This led Henry VIII inexorably towards schism. By rejecting the Pope and making himself head of the Church in England; Henry could get the annulment he wanted.6
Meanwhile Henry VIII could see the vast wealth of the Church in England falling into his hands. No doubt Henry talked himself into believing that he was doing it all to “reform” the Church, all to make it easier to turn into an instrument of his will and a source of royal wealth.7

The process by which both Henry and his successor Edward VI disposed and reformed the church was accompanied by massive violence, coercion and in fact what can only be described as terror. All this violence and abrupt radical religious change severely disturbed existing society and created a profound sense of unease and in fact severe dissatisfaction.8

In fact outside of very narrow elite sections of society, i.e., the zealots for “reform” the changes had little popular support. The destruction of the old religion, with its relics, pilgrimages and local sacred calendar of saints days and with the church involved in local economic and charitable activities was disrupted and largely destroyed, leaving social chaos in its wake.9

The result was that when Mary I became Queen the response was one of virtually universal outpouring of joy at the restoration of the old religion.10

Of course there were Protestants and their sympathizers and all those who had benefited by the dispossession of the wealth of the Church who were varying degrees of apathetic or fearful of the return of Catholicism. But overall they were a small minority.

Prof Duffy in his book Fires of Faith maintains that far from being backward looking the Church of the Marian restoration looked towards the Catholic Church of the Counter-Reformation.

In fact Prof. Duffy argues that the Church was very successful in beginning the process of restoring Catholic religion despite truly formidable difficulties.11

Thus in the book Prof. Duffy shifts the focus from Queen Mary to Cardinal Pole, made Archbishop of Canterbury by Mary I, as the central focus in the effort to restore Catholicism in England. Cardinal Pole is characterized as a pragmatic, zealous, and incorruptible man who wished to reform Catholicism in England not just restore the old faith has it was before Henry VIII began the whole process.12

From publishing missals to spreading around propaganda to commissions sent out into the countryside. The Church under Pole labored mightily to restore the Faith. In the brief, little over 5 years, period of Mary I’s rule they achieved great almost incredible success. The implication is that had Mary I ruled much longer the restored church might have proved immovable.13

Indicative of the willingness of the restored Church to compromise was that only some of the confiscated church lands and property were restored. This was done to avoid alienating the nobles and gentry that had acquired church land.

Prof. Duffy then discusses the burning. The truly horrible burning alive of c. 300 “heretics” during the reign of Mary I. Prof. Duffy does not equivocate, he outlines clearly that both Mary I and Cardinal Pole approved of and encouraged this form of terror.14

Prof. Duffy states that all the stuff about the terror and burnings generating a sense of unease or opposition to the efforts to restore the old religion are generally from after the reign of Mary I and that at the time they had general popular approval. He further argues that the burnings were in fact working and Protestantism was being wiped out in England. In fact the reason why the persecutions and burning were declining towards the end of the reign was not because of a slacking of effort but because there were fewer and fewer “heretics” to destroy.15 That is debatable.

As said above Prof. Duffy does not exaggerate the horror of the burnings neither does he obfuscate that they were unusually intense for the times. However he does tend to come close to saying that because such violent coercion works it is “justified”. And he tends to ignore evidence that indicates that that the public was disturbed by the burnings and that the burnings were at least with some sections of the public, mostly non Protestant, a public relations disaster.16

Finally although Prof. Duffy claims that the Marian restoration was in many respects successful and argues that from the fact that the great majority of the Marian bishops refused to go along with Elizabeth’s new Protestant settlement. This argument is belied by the ease with which the Elizabethan settlement was established; resistance was surprisingly minimal. Elizabeth had little problem reestablishing the royal supremacy over the Church and reinstituting much of the Protestant Reformation. Of course Elizabeth had to use coercion and parish visits etc., to enforce it but despite what Prof.  Duffy claims the Marian Restoration failed to create a Church that would or could strongly resist a renewed Protestant Restoration.17

Prof. Duffy seems to argue that if only Mary I had lived longer perhaps the restored Church would have struck deep roots and survived. That is unlikely. Elizabeth I’s entire claim to the throne would have been in serious jeopardy if she had accepted the Marian restoration given that her father Henry’ VIII’s marriage to her mother Ann Boleyn was not recognized by the Catholic Church. So if Elizabeth came to the throne a Protestant restoration was inevitable. The only security for the Marian restoration would have been if Mary I had had a child who survived her and that was not to be.18

Prof. Duffy says:

And certainly, had Pole been still alive and in office as Archbishop when Elizabeth succeeded, he would indeed have presented his protestant cousin with a formidable obstacle to any reversal of the catholic restoration. It was the wholly unexpected double demise of cardinal as well as Queen, and not gradual loss of direction or waning of determination, that halted the Marian project, and the Marian burnings, in their tracks.19

What the books does illustrate in conjunction with Prof. Duffy’s other books is that it is myth that coercion never works in terms of suppressing an idea. What Prof. Duffy’s books indicate is that the Protestant Reformation in England was a revolution from above carried out by the state in the face of mass popular opposition, by means of coercion and yes violence the revolution succeeded and destroyed the old religion and replaced it with the new one.

The Marian restoration failed because Mary I did not live long enough and have a child to succeed her. If that had happened the violence and coercion of the restoration effort combined with popular support for the restoration would have made England Catholic again. When Elizabeth became Queen she quite inevitably restored Protestantism. And again in much of her reign there was a lack of support for Protestantism but in the face of zealots with massive support from the state via coercion Protestantism was imposed and became popular.20

Ideas can indeed sometimes be crushed by force and terror and we would be foolish to think otherwise.

1. Duffy, Eamon, Fires of Faith, Yale University Press, New Haven CONN., 2009.

2. See Duffy, Eamon, The Stripping of the Altars, Yale University Press, New Haven CONN., 1992, and The Voices of Morebath, Yale University Press, New Haven CONN., 2001.

3. Cobbett, William, History of the Protestant Reformation in England and Ireland, Ex-Classic Edition, 2009, (Original Pub. 1825, London), pp. 26-37, 50-61, Duffy, 1992, 2001, Elton, G. R., The Reformation in England, in Elton, G.R., Editor, The Cambridge Modern History, v. 2,  The Reformation, Second Edition, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1990, pp. 262-287.

4. MacCulloch, Diarmaid, The Reformation, Penguin Books, London, 2004, Part I, Chapter 4, Kings and Reformers 1530-1540. (I have an electronic copy of this book, So I am not giving page numbers.)

5. Durant, Will, The Reformation, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1957, pp. 535-579.

6. Scarisbrick, J.J., Henry VIII, University of California Press, Berkeley CA, 1968, pp. 135-162, 198-240.  

7. Cobbett, pp. 50-61, 62-73, Scarisbrick, pp. 241-304.

8. Cobbett, pp. 26-86, Duffy, 1992, 2001. Durant, 535-601.

9. Duffy, 1992 and 2001, pp. 84-110.

10. See for example Duffy, 2001, pp. 152-170, MacCulloch, Part I, Chapter 6, A Catholic Recovery: England 1553-1558.

11. Duffy, 2009, pp. 188-190.

12. IBID, pp. 29-56.

13. IBID, pp. 188-207.

14. IBID, pp. 171-187.

15. IBID, p. 187.

16. See  Footnote 14 for Duffy’s contention that it had little negative effect on public opinion. A view contradicted by some of the foreign Ambassadors to Queen Mary’s court.

17. Footnote 13, Duffy, 1992, 2001, pp. 170-190, MacCulloch, Part 2, Chapter 8, Elizabethan England: A Reformed Church?, Somerset, Anne, Elizabeth I, Fontana, London, 1992, pp. 72-88.

18. Somerset, p.73.

19. Duffy, 2009, p. 187.

20. Somerset, pp. 72-88, 385-387. Duffy, 1992, 2001, pp. 170-190, MacCulloch, Part 2, Chapter 8, Elizabethan England: A Reformed Church?.

Pierre Cloutier

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