Society of Antiquaries, London

Mary Tudor during her first year as queen; painting by Hans Eworth, 1554. According to Eamon Duffy in Fires of Faith, she is wearing ‘a Tao cross on a choker of pearls at her neck, and hanging from her girdle is a gilt-enamel reliquary with emblems of the Four Evangelists. Relics were denounced and destroyed by Mary’s father and her brother: to display this restored reliquary in an official portrait was an overt declaration of the queen’s religious agenda.’

The middle third or so of the sixteenth century, the period from Henry VIII’s break with Rome to the early part of Elizabeth I’s reign, brought a new kind of instability to England. There had been baronial revolts before, and peasant revolts before, and contests over the royal succession before, but nothing to match the sequence of insurrections of that era, and nothing to equal the range of political, social, and ideological grievances that provoked them.

The Reformation, which convulsed European politics for a century, would have severely threatened England’s unity even if the Tudor monarchy had introduced it with steadiness and consistency. Instead there were abrupt and extreme changes of course, which turned on conflicts of faiths within the ruling family. Henry renounced the papacy but retained Catholic theology. Protestant doctrine was imposed under his son, the boy Edward VI, who succeeded him in 1547. Between 1553 and 1558, under Edward’s successor, his half-sister Mary, England was reclaimed for papal supremacy and Catholic teaching. In 1559 Edward’s and Mary’s half-sister Queen Elizabeth reversed those steps.

In hereditary monarchies the births, marriages, and deaths of princes are the basic determinant of political life, and uncertainties over the royal succession its basic curse. The Tudors quarreled among themselves over the future occupancy of the throne. Inevitably adherents of the rival faiths polarized around the competing candidates. Instability extended from the court to the regions, where the Reformation not merely altered the practice of religion but also challenged the entire network of social habits and communal relations with which the Church was bound. There was another royal threat to the regions, or at least to the barons who led them. The Tudors were resolved to break the independence of the magnates, to weaken their military and feudal following, and to bring the outlying provinces under central control.

The uprisings began and ended with two great revolts in the north of England, the “Pilgrimage of Grace” of 1536 and the revolt of the “Northern Earls” in 1569. Both movements were defenses of the Catholic faith, but they also stood for the feudal way of life and for regional loyalties. Religious and provincial allegiances merged again in the “Prayer Book rebellion” in the southwest of England in 1549, the year that also produced the insurrection led by Robert Ket in East Anglia. Five years later the Catholic reaction under Queen Mary provoked the Protestant uprising in Kent led by Thomas Wyatt.

Perilous as all those insurgencies seemed to the regimes that they assailed, and uncertain as their outcomes appeared at the time, they all failed. The common causes of their failure have become something of a scholarly industry. The rebels, who were too easily divided and too uncertain in their aims and focus, mostly stood for social arrangements that had united priests and people, or that had held urban or farming communities together, but that were under fatal challenge. The sense of doom is deepened by the aftermath of the uprisings. Though there were conspiracies after 1569, their scope and frequency declined as Protestantism entrenched itself and as the barons and regions were tamed.

Yet there was one mid-Tudor uprising that succeeded. It tends to get omitted from lists of the rebellions, because of a trick of the historical light. Uprisings get called rebellions only when they fail. When they succeed, we subconsciously confer legitimacy on them and illegitimacy on the rulers they topple. Thus we do not think of Henry VII, who initiated the Tudor dynasty by overthrowing Richard III at Bosworth in 1485, as a rebel, as we would do if he had lost the battle. By the same token we do not apply the term “rebellion” to the uprising by Mary Tudor in 1553 that is the subject of Eric Ives’s Lady Jane Grey: A Tudor Mystery, and that disproves the rule of the impotence of sixteenth-century insurrections.

On the death of Edward VI in that year, Henry VIII’s great-niece the Protestant Jane Grey was proclaimed his successor. She had probably just turned sixteen. She did not live to be crowned. Her reign, which was barely longer than the “nine days’ wonder” that it has become in the popular imagination, collapsed after Mary raised an army in East Anglia, where Robert Ket had risen four years earlier. Jane was beheaded as a traitor, and Mary ruled securely until her own death from cancer five years later at the age of forty-two. In most of the history books Mary is the rightful queen, Jane a usurper whose name is omitted from the rulers of England.


At first glance that seems fair enough. In hereditary monarchies, after all, the succession normally follows lines of direct family descent. Daughters are direct descendants, as great-nieces are not. Yet Jane’s claim had a good case behind it. Eric Ives, emeritus professor at the University of Birmingham in England and a veteran of Tudor studies, adroitly makes it. Henry’s first two wives, Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn, had died in 1536, Catherine from natural causes, Anne on the scaffold. By parliamentary legislation of the same year the King had their respective daughters, Mary and the future Elizabeth I, declared illegitimate.

That left Jane Grey’s mother Frances, the daughter of Henry’s sister Mary, as the successor (for there was a general agreement to exclude the Scottish line that descended from the marriage of Henry’s older sister Margaret). Although the Greys lost their claim when the future Edward VI was born in 1537, they would resume it if Edward died childless, as in the event he did. Yet the rules of the royal succession were full of uncertainty. Henry compounded the problem by further legislation of 1544 that cast doubt on his earlier arrangements. Edward, during his teenage reign, drafted a confusing series of instructions to determine the succession on his own death. Intended to extract his dynasty from the hole his father’s arrangements had dug, they deepened it.

There was in any case a murky legal issue. Could kings nominate their heirs? Or was the succession governed by the principles of common law that governed the descent of property? If the latter, then the illegitimate Mary and Elizabeth remained barred. On Edward’s death the succession issue was a hopeless mess. The illegitimacy of Henry’s daughters nonetheless seemed a clinching consideration, or anyway was used as one. Jane’s assumption of the crown commanded support not only from the lawyers. It had the survivors of Edward VI’s council unanimously behind it, even though most of them reneged when Jane’s hold on the throne weakened. “Right,” explains Ives, “was on the side of Jane Grey. Mary Tudor was the rebel.” If so, Mary’s accession, no less than that of her grandfather in 1485, was a usurpation dignified by its success.

How the wheel of historiographical fashion has turned. A generation or two ago, Ives’s subject would have seemed trivial. Of what interest, it was then asked, were squabbles for power among princes and princesses, those petty occurrences on the surface of history, mere tweaks of Clio’s rudder, beneath which great currents of social or economic development flowed? There were two other objections. First, most preindustrial politics were royal or aristocratic politics. Had they not excluded the great mass of humanity, to which history had never given its due? Secondly, the writing of political history involves the study of events and thus the construction of narratives of them. Historians, an expanding profession seeking professional respectability, did not want to be thought of as mere storytellers. They found more dignity in the scientific methods of analysis that characterized the study of social and economic history, where events counted for less, and where determinist or neodeterminist perspectives prevailed. At Princeton the leading figure of the new methodology, Lawrence Stone, set out to marginalize political history.

He lived to regret it. The study of political events has reasserted itself. Determinism has yielded to a renewed insistence on contingency and on the consequences of human decision-making. The art of narrative, having been mistrusted as seductive or mindless decoration, has won a degree of professional acceptance. The charge of elitism has also lost something of its force, for historians now detect hitherto unsuspected degrees of political consciousness and participation among the underprivileged. In consequence, political and social history can be partners rather than rivals. Ives’s skillful and enjoyable narrative stretches beyond the court into the regions, where the willingness or unwillingness of tenants or small freeholders to follow landlords into battle could help determine the occupant of the throne.

Ives tells a story of narrow margins. At its center is not Jane, who was reluctantly persuaded to take the throne, and whose hold on power, as Ives relates it, came close to surviving, but her father-in-law John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, who did the persuading. He had dominated the government of Edward. His career reinforces the point that emerges from the study of sixteenth-century rebellions: in historical interpretation nothing fails like failure. Posterity has seen the duke as the leader of a ruthlessly self-seeking faction. To Ives he was “one of the most able, principled, and successful” of the political grandees of the Tudor period. It is true that he was hated under Edward, but that was because he was determined to undo the damage to public order and fiscal stability wrought by his feckless predecessor the Duke of Somerset, a policy that required stern and unpopular measures.


The overthrow of Northumberland did offer him an alternative route to posthumous regard. He could have been hailed, alongside so many victims of Mary’s regime, as a Protestant martyr. Instead he renounced his faith on the scaffold, and so earned the detestation of the martyrologists. His abjuration was denounced by Jane herself, who soon followed him to the block. Her Protestantism was as ardent as Mary’s Catholicism. In that early stage of the Protestant faith, before its doctrines rigidified, its teaching was intimately bound to the revival of letters of the Renaissance. Jane, a precocious student who was taught by avant-garde scholars, and who in Ives’s words preferred “books to people,” was prepared for adulthood with an intellectual seriousness that we find, too, in the education of those other Protestant princes, Edward and Elizabeth. She seems to have studied biblical texts in Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Chaldaic, and Aramaic.

Northumberland by contrast was a starkly practical figure. He had a courageous and accomplished military record behind him. Upon Jane’s accession he led an army to East Anglia to confront Mary’s challenge. There he surrendered without a fight. Why? Ives explains the weaknesses of his position. While his colleagues dithered, Mary’s determined entourage was prepared for battle. Accidents of military and naval disposition brought Mary artillery and other military resources that the duke lacked. She commanded a breadth and depth of support in East Anglia that owed something to her Catholicism but perhaps at least as much to the social and economic influence of her household there.

What made battle pointless, however, was not the strength of Mary’s forces but the desertions in Northumberland’s rear. The problems of Tudor rebellions began when the insurgents left the regions that backed them and moved toward London. The only rebels to reach the capital were those led by Thomas Wyatt in 1554, when the city, bravely rallied by Mary, refused to admit him. In 1553 she did not need to advance on London, for its inhabitants had deserted Jane before the duke surrendered. The political establishment had abandoned her too.

It looks as if Northumberland, having bullied his colleagues into accepting the proclamation of Jane as queen, lost control of them when he left London. It also looks as if the support for his daughter-in-law, whatever her legal claims, was skin-deep. Ives, who has transformed his subject, nonetheless leaves us with a puzzle. Rule by Jane would have been a continuation of the radical religious policy that had been vigorously and bravely enforced under Edward. Jane, who was the same age as Edward, would have provided another instrument of domination by the Protestant grandees. Yet their power or morale or nerve disintegrated with startling rapidity in the face of the uprising of Mary Tudor.

Eamon Duffy, professor of the history of Christianity at Cambridge University, might find the explanation in the enduring hold of English Catholicism. “Certainly,” he asserts in Fires of Faith, “the country at large” was “predominantly catholic in sympathy” on Mary’s accession. The Edwardian reforms, it seems, had left the bedrock of ancient faith intact, and may even have hardened it by the hostility they provoked. In Duffy’s account, Catholicism was stronger still on Mary’s death. The successes of her regime, he argues, have been denied or obscured by England’s historiographical tradition, which has blended Protestantism with ideals both of nationhood and of liberty. In the understanding of the reign that has been passed down the centuries, England’s independence and its strategic interests were sacrificed to Mary’s marriage to the Catholic Philip II of Spain, that scourge of European Protestantism and champion of the Inquisition. The alliance led to the disastrous war that lost Calais to the French, and so cost England the Continental base that was judged vital to its strategic interests.

Above all, however, it is Mary’s forcible repression of Protestantism that has made her reign the ugly duckling of English history. During it 284 men and women were burned for adhering to the reformed faith. Even in that century of confessional strife and religious warfare, those “fires of faith” were, Duffy acknowledges, “the most intense” proscription of religious belief “anywhere in sixteenth-century Europe.” Thanks to what he neatly calls the “partisan artistry” of the contemporary Protestant hagiographer John Foxe, later ages can almost feel the heat of the flames, hear the crackle of firewood, smell the flesh of the victims, hear their screams.

Few episodes pose in such acute form the challenge that awaits all scholars who seek, as Duffy does, to recreate a world with values inimical to our own. How can we describe the burnings without feeling revulsion? And yet who are we to visit condemnation on the ages we study, or to look down on them? The intolerance of the age of Reformation emerged from the same society, and often from within the same minds, as the intellectual and artistic achievements of the Renaissance. The burnings were instigated not for cruelty’s sake (though there were executioners and spectators who may have derived cruel pleasure from them), but in the service of an ideal of religious uniformity that commanded the devotion of highly intelligent and cultivated people, in whom we can recognize warm humanity on other matters. To call their policy “persecution,” as we instinctively do, is to tilt the scales of judgment.

Duffy, one of the historians to stand out even in a generation that has made great strides in the study of sixteenth-century Catholicism, is caught in the dilemma. He knows the damage that the memory of the burnings has done to English Catholicism. Half of him wants to repudiate them. They were a “terrible episode,” “a horrifying moral blot on any regime purporting to be Christian,” “which I have no wish to palliate or excuse.” Yet matters prove less simple. While “any civilised twenty-first-century person will of course agree that burning men and women alive for their fidelity to deeply held beliefs must be both obviously and profoundly” misguided, that judgment is itself historically conditioned. It is a consequence of “moral hindsight, attained this side of the Enlightenment, and, strictly speaking, is hardly a historical judgment at all.” The more amply Duffy develops that perception, the less historical his unwillingness to “palliate or excuse” the burnings seems—and the more it inhibits the historical recovery of Marian Catholicism that is his underlying purpose.

When pre-Enlightenment ages reviled the killings, it was not because they offended against human rights or even, primarily, because they affronted human decency. It was on the ground that the victims were servants of the true, Protestant God, and their killers the agents of a false and idolatrous one. Protestantism was no more tolerant than Catholicism. It was during Mary’s reign that Michael Servetus, the critic of the doctrine of the Trinity, was burned by decree of Calvin’s Geneva. There were nearly as many executions of Catholics under Elizabeth as there were Protestant executions under Mary, though Elizabeth preferred strangulation and disemboweling and dismemberment to the fire.

Admittedly her goal was political rather than theological conformity, whereas Mary had striven for both. But it was the limits, not the extent, of Elizabeth’s proscriptions that dismayed her more zealous Protestant subjects. The parliamentarian Puritans of the following century, who are often saluted as friends of liberty and progress, approved the death penalty for blasphemy. To most of them “toleration” was a dirty word. Its introduction, they warned, would lead millions of souls to hell. Catholics said the same of Protestant beliefs. In any case no monarch would willingly have countenanced diversity of belief, which was generally taken to be incompatible with political unity. The repression of Protestantism under Mary, Duffy points out, was bound to happen in some form.

Did it gain from the form it took? The burnings have been taken as evidence not only of brutality but of stupidity. The regime, it is alleged, fell back on repression because it lacked the imagination or sophistication to promote Catholicism by more constructive or attractive methods. Backward-looking and insular, it was cut off from the great movement of spiritual regeneration promoted by the Counter-Reformation on the Continent. Ineptness in religion thus ran parallel to the incompetent secular policy that lost Calais. Although some criticisms of Mary’s reign have been softened in recent decades, and some sensible or redeeming features of the government’s program identified, Ives is in the mainstream of opinion in calling Mary’s rule “arguably the most inglorious in English history” and in remarking on its “legacy of burnings, domestic division and foreign humiliation.”

Duffy’s view is radically different. To him Mary’s rule, or at least its religious policy, was one of high achievement and of a higher promise, which her death cut short. In his book as in Ives’s, the contingencies of events had incalculable long-term consequences. Only the accident of Mary’s illness and premature death, implies Duffy, prevented the durable recovery of England’s Catholic faith. If there were limits to the achievements of her short reign, we must remember the huge challenges that she faced, and the huge dangers that, as Wyatt’s Uprising soon reminded her, accompanied them. How could the old Church and faith be reconstructed in so unstable a political world?

The reforms of her father and half-brother may not have won the nation’s hearts and minds to Protestantism, but they had broken the power and wealth and status of the clergy, shattered the Church’s rituals and forms of worship, and damaged the universities, where the clergy were recruited. The dissolution of the monasteries and chantries, and the appropriation of ecclesiastical taxation by the state, had created new economic and fiscal interests in the Reformation. To staff the Church, Mary had to retain bishops and other churchmen who, while Catholic in belief, had acquiesced in Henry’s takeover, and whose support could not be guaranteed when, in her reign, England became the first Protestant state to revert to papal obedience. That daring initiative complemented another, which handed back a body of revenue to the Church.

The Reformation had transferred political power from the clergy to the laity. On its eve, the King’s main adviser had been a churchman, Cardinal Wolsey. Under Mary the Church reasserted its dominance. Her main adviser, Reginald Pole, was likewise a cardinal, though an altogether more spiritual one than Wolsey. Under Mary he was also archbishop of Canterbury. He died on the same day as the queen, and his reputation sank with hers. What a towering figure he might look—more formidable, surely, than the Duke of Northumberland could ever have seemed—if his queen and his policies had outlived him.

He himself had royal blood, and was even, in the eyes of Catholic conspirators of the 1530s, a possible claimant to the throne. A gifted and influential writer, he belonged, with Erasmus and Thomas More, to the generation of humanist intellectuals who had hoped to reform the Church from within, but who were repelled by the Protestant secessions. Exiled by Henry VIII, he was a key figure in the Council of Trent, which launched the Counter-Reformation. Yet his own beliefs absorbed the themes of the Protestant exploration of the theology of Saint Paul. In the 1530s and 1540s he can seem an ecumenical figure, the kind of man through whose leadership the schisms of the Reformation might have been healed.

In the 1550s, when the lines of battle between Protestants and Catholics hardened on the Continent as in England, he resolved on the forcible reimposition of orthodoxy in his native land. Yet there was nothing insular about his thinking or, Duffy argues, about the vision of Catholicism that he inspired in England. Idealism of aim blended with realism of method. Duffy credits him with “a well-conceived and practical reforming agenda,” which he implemented with “notable effectiveness.” Under his leadership the clergy became committed to his program. Their zeal is signaled by their readiness to surrender their posts and livelihoods on Elizabeth’s accession rather than collaborate with the heretical Church supporting her. Their hostility to the Elizabethan regime, much more widespread than the resistance among the Edwardian clergy had been on Mary’s accession, took a number of them to the Continent, where they made their own contributions to the development of the Counter-Reformation.

As always, Duffy writes with verve and power. His every sentence demands a thinking response. Even so, his book is an uncomfortable construction. Placing the fires at its center, he gives himself inadequate scope for the positive aspirations of Marian Catholicism that he believes the memory of the burnings to have obscured. The spiritual goals of Pole and his circle, and their relationship to Counter-Reformation ideals, are more often sketched than explored. The volume has a whiff of the lecture hall, where academic historians can expect their hearers to be equipped with prior knowledge, to savor the controversial marshaling of evidence against prevailing orthodoxies, and to respond to the suggestive rather than the conclusive.

Unlike Ives, Duffy largely eschews narrative and, with it, the recreation of the moods and pressures under which the shapers of events make their choices. In consequence his reflections on the possibilities open to Mary and Pole, and on their responses to them, have a faintly disembodied air. His book prompts an uneasy thought for professional historians: that the most instructive forms of historical writing, at least when their subject matter includes politics, require the art of storytelling, in which the professionals have no advantage.

This Issue

April 29, 2010