The story of the Marian persecution. And of a Queen’s need to have her Prince at her side to help with the alarms and excursions of protestant rebels.
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Last time we heard something of Mary’s unhappy life – her failed pregnancy, and the departure of her beloved Philip to the continent where he began to play around and also demand a coronation as the price of his return. We heard about resistance in Parliament to some parts of Mary’s campaign to bring England back to Rome, but also heard how Pole was looking for much more than a return to the past – he was looking to revitalise Catholicism in England.
But while Pole and his clerical assembly were discussing how to do that, the carrot if you like, the acceptable face of Marian Catholicism, the other face, the stick, was being deployed with increasing ferocity. So, just to break the 4th wall for a moment – or is it the 5th wall? How many walls are there in fact? Anyway whatever, to break a wall, let me just say that I think I am going to partially step outside the chronology for a moment, and let’s take the discussion about the religion all the way through to the end, otherwise it will be, you know, hanging over us rather, so let’s just get it sorted.
So, back behind the wall then if you like. In the first 6 months of 1556, 66 protestants were burned, and in the year as a whole, 88 went to their deaths. In January 1556, the Council decreed that the Queen’s pardon should no longer be offered at the stake, because of the contempt with which the offer was uniformly received by the victims. And it became increasingly clear that the burnings were a double edged sword. The tactic in 1555 and early 1556 was very much about shock and awe as well as about punishment; executions were often held in the condemned’s own parish, so that their neighbours could see the consequence of their actions. But of course that tended to heighten the support they then received as well, because these were people well known locally, and so support for evangelicalism began to come together with local loyalty and resistance to outsiders, which was unfortunate as far as Pole and Mary were concerned. Often this showed itself by shouts of support, but sometimes the support was more active. So let me take you to Laxfield in Suffolk in September 1556, and the execution of John Noyes. Fire was needed to start the blaze of course, and so the sherriff sent his men to find hot coals to start the blaze from the neighbouring houses. The locals got there first, and at house after house the fires were dowsed before the sheriff’s men could get there, until in the end officers were able to break down the door of the only house remaining where smoke was seen billowing from the chimney, and so get their hot coals.
Now it’s important to put this persecution into context; early modern Europe could be a brutal place, for those who stepped outside the law. From the 1540’s England was in the grip of a massive increase in population, and at the same time a period of economic dislocation – failed harvests in particular plagued Mary’s reign. All of this lead to an increase in vagrancy, and mobility in Tudor England was not the norm; the vast majority of the people were supposed to stay on their parish, if they fell on hard times it was their own parish, church, family and neighbours that should support them. Vagrancy threatened the very basis of their society. But there were too many poor now; it could be 40% of the inhabitants of a parish, and many of those could not find work locally, and simply had to move. All of this created an unusual and most untypical fear of the poor, and a fear of social upheaval and breakdown. From being a group almost touched by Christ’s own poverty, the poor, or at least the vagrant poor became something to be feared, a many headed monster that could overwhelm society at any moment. The physical threat from the poor was almost certainly more perceived than real; such violence as there was overwhelmingly occurred against property rather than people, most was about survival. But none the less, society was racked by a fear of the hydra-headed monster of an uncontrollable wave of poor. Any general statements about the number of people executed is to be treated with enormous caution, such as the bogus Henry VIII figure against which I have railed; but what is clear enough, is that the number of indictments for crime raise through Mary, Elizabeth and James Reign – this is a difficult time for society, and population growth, as for so much in history, is at the heart of it. The other point for now is that in Tudor society people were used to the gallows, and their sensibilities about executions were very different to ours.
Nonetheless, the Royal Council began to understand that the tactic of local executions had its downside; it might well induce terror, but it might well also engender revulsion. And so tactics began to change, and executions began to be held en masse in regional centres instead, choosing places where the Bishop felt more secure, and where the victims were taken away from their own parish and supporters. Local Gentry were urged to gather together and all walk into the place of execution to show their support for the action, preachers exhorted the crowd that these executions were deserved and just. At Lewes in June 1556, 6 people were burned together at the same time; a year later 10 were burned. And over all in Lewes 17 were burned. The result, along with the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, is an annual bonfire event in Lewes that goes on to this day and is absolute chaos with 10s of thousands pouring into a relatively small town, with different groups and processions and burning effigies, and all, and I assume a deal of alcohol to boot, I mean why wouldn’t there be. Large events like these, then, and similar occasions particularly in Smithfield and Canterbury but also events like the 3 women burning in Guernsey in July 1556, left long, long memories and legacies of hatred.
By the end of the campaign in 1558, the ‘strategists of the campaign’, as Eamon Duffy described them, such as John Story suggested that even this idea of taking the victims away to a regional centre, where events could be stage managed and controlled better, was exciting too much support, and a third way was agreed where condemned heretics should be sent for execution “into odde corners into the countrey”. At the end of June 1558, Bishop Bonner wrote to Cardinal Pole suggesting that six Islington conventiclers should be quietly burned elsewhere, bearing in mind the unhelpful scenes the last Islington burning had drawn. They were duly transported and executed at Brentford.
This suggests a couple of things; that the authorities were worried about the backlash; but it also suggests no let-up in determination to press the campaign to its conclusion, wherever that conclusion might be. It’s been said that the campaign of terror was rather unsophisticated in its use of printing, and that is true to a degree, but there were writers around; Catholic writer Miles Huggarde mocked the condemned evangelicals and their supporters, laughing at them as credulous and superstitious, rooting around ‘like pigs in a sty’ to collect the ashes and bones of the burned. The language of both sides throughout the reformation and it aftermath makes modern political arguments on Twitter look like a vicar’s tea party.
The determination to win this war also led many of its prosecutors into deeply morally ambiguous situations, since some of them had once been part of the Edwardian church. So, let me take you to Gloucester in May 1556, where the prosecutor was John Williams. Williams was interrogating Thomas Drowry, described as the “blind boy of Gloucester”. Williams, demanded to know who had taught the boy his terrible heresies, and Thomas was a bit confused by this. Because it was Williams himself who had taught him his terrible heresies. Thomas was able to cite in detail a cathedral sermon which Williams had delivered. Williams was understandably embarrassed, and suggested
“Then do as I haue done, and thou shalt lyue as I do, and escape burning”
Thomas however was made of purer stuff than this and refused to recant, so Williams condemned him, over the horror of the diocesan registrar, who protested
“Fie for shame man, will you read the sentence against hym, and condemne your selfe?”
Thomas was burned.
The driving force for the campaign was undoubtedly Mary. But although Foxe was inclined to minimise his role, Pole also did very little to tone it down or prevent it. But the Royal Council were every bit as keen to prosecute the campaign. Quite apart from enforcing the law of the land and government policy the campaign could be used in other ways. There are examples of Richard Rich for example, using the campaign to conveniently settle a few scores. The Council could be relentless; in one instance a man called Thomas Benbridge was reprieved from burning because of a hideously botched job where the fire would not burn and the poor man was partially burned more than once. The Council however, would not hear of such mercy, were furious and told them to finish the job. And so Benbridge having been reprieved was burned again; once again, in a botched job and died in agony.
At times, excesses of fanaticism stray into the ridiculous. Before he arrived in England, Pole had seriously considered exhuming all known heretics, and burning their remains; but had sensibly decided against such a macabre horror. Indeed 40 years later one of Mary’s royal councillors in exile in Spain told the story that Mary, urged on by Pole, commanded him and other courtiers secretly to exhume the body of her father. Good lord. In fact there were examples where bodies were publicly exhumed and burned; in January 1557 at Cambridge University the bodies of Martin Bucer and Paul Fagius were dug up and taken to the marketplace. A large crowd gathered to watch as their coffins were chained to a stake and burned, together with a pile of their books.
In 1556 and 57 there were propaganda disasters for Mary and Pole. One of those of course was our thomas Cranmer, which is one occasion where it is fair enough to present Mary as vindictive and vengeful; and by so doing she snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. But there were also propaganda victories and one of these was the affair of John Cheke. Although Cheke was not quite Cranmer, he was a major figure; a fine scholar and one of the leading thinkers of the reformation, and tutor to King Edward. He had fled to the continent, but in May 1556 Mary’s agents captured him near Antwerp along with another, and according to John Ponet
‘clapped in to a carte, their legges, armes and bodies tied with halters to the body of the carte, and so caried to the sea side’
Once in London, he was put into the Tower, and Freckenham and Pole himself worked to bring him to back to the Roman Catholic faith. Cheke was ill, heavily in debt, and these final conversations and persuasions, along with the threat of burning, broke him, and he agreed to recant. He would also end his life a year later with his debts cleared and with a tidy sum from the government, so you have to think that money also played its part. Either way, he agreed. In July he wrote to Mary, promising to obey her law and to practise Catholicism; but he also begged to be spared the humiliation of a public recantation. For Mary of course this would be entirely beside the point; the value of Cheke’s submission was to break not just his will, but the will of protestants generally. And so he was forced to make a very public and very humiliating recantation before the assembled court in October.
There has been a long debate over the centuries about who won this battle. The intellectual struggle divides predictably along confessional lines, with Catholic historians such as Eamon Duffy contending that by the end of 1558, the Catholic reformation and the persecutions were working; that had Mary just bitten the bullet and killed Elizabeth and arranged a catholic succession, there would have been more difficulties and upset to come, sure, but in his words ‘the English history books might well have been full of the praises of the golden days of good Queen Mary’.
To try and answer the question, we should know a bit more about the protestant response. Just as there had been in the time of Henry, proscribed texts and propaganda came into England from the continent, and this time around there were more homegrown protestants living abroad to carry on the fight, namely, the Marian exiles. Authors like John Ponet as already mentioned, and Christopher Goodman wrote with the message that protestants had the right to resist a monarch they considered to have become a tyrant. There were other authors too such as, famously John Knox and his ‘First blast of the trumpet against the monstrous regiment of women’ aimed at the Catholic monarchs Mary Queen of Scots and Mary Tudor, a title which has not aged well, and which became distinctly inconvenient when protestant Queen Elizabeth hit the throne; the message was the same though, that the English had the right to resist. Meanwhile texts were smuggled out of prison and circulated and copied. And secret local printers produced pamphlets and tracts; and as it happens one of these was again from the outwardly compliant William Cecil. Cecil owned land in the little Lincolnshire village of Barholm, and there he set up a printer called John Day, who had been very active in Edward’s reign. Day opened the bidding with a book targeted at Stephen Gardiner on the very day of Mary’s coronation, followed by seven other titles. He was caught and closed down in October 1554, but resurfaced again in 1556.
There is very little sign at all that the authorities really got a handle on this and managed to enforce censorship, despite multiple book burnings; nor that it was reducing in 1558. For example, a royal proclamation was issued in June 1558 complaining of the wave of books ‘filled both with heresy, sedition and treason’ which continued to be smuggled in from abroad. Any person found possessing one could immediately be executed as a rebel, ‘according to the order of martial law’.
Peter Marshal, whose book ‘Heretics and Believers’ I have recommended before and will no doubt do so again, also makes the point that there was almost a sense of relief amongst evangelicals, extraordinary as that may sound. This was a territory they were used to, that they had been through under Henry; resistance to oppression, this was clean air, much simpler than the complex, compromised air of government, where they’d all had to argue about whether the reformation under Cranmer had gone far enough. And many of those theological differences which would be a problem in England for the next, ooh, 400 years or so, melted away; the leaders at home and abroad of the Protestant communities were pretty successful in maintaining unity around the Book of Common Prayer, and Cranmer’s reformation. As I have already covered, they were also very effective in linking anti Spanish feeling with Protestantism and so that link was first forged that would last through the 16th century.
However, it’s also worth noting that the distribution of the executions was very uneven – very sparse indeed in the north and Midlands, nothing at all in Wales. Now this could reflect the willingness of the authorities there to prosecute, but it is very likely also that the distribution of burnings reflected the places where Protestantism had won most support – London and the South East. And conversely, that outside that, the roots of Protestantism were much less securely founded. Tie that together with the slow but consistent progress of the rebuilding of the fabric of Catholicism, and you are left with the sure knowledge that at very least the resistance to Catholicism was very far from universal, and welcomed by many.
Finally, there are the numbers of the prosecution. There’s no let-up in the ferocity of the repression in 1555 to 1557; the numbers for those three years are 76, 88 and 79, though there are a few variations about the split. Then in 1558 in 11 months there are 41. So, why the drop off? To Eamon Duffy, it is because, in his words again, ‘the half-convinced and the cowardly were running for cover’. The war was being won. To set against that are the arguments that 1558 is a massively disrupted year, both politically where the drivers of the campaign in the Royal Council where distracted by war and Mary’s death; and because there was a massive influenza epidemic in that year which has a big effect on England’s population and indeed everyone. We might note also that as I’ve just covered, there are no signs that Mary’s government thought they were in imminent sight of victory in 1558, and indeed in November of 1558 there were 10 executions, far and away more than the same month in the previous three years. Who knows, who can tell, but we could return to the question at the end of Mary’s reign.
But you have a framework hopefully, a background to the trouble and strife that formed the back drop to the political events of the reign. To which political events we should now return.
PUT THE SPACE HERE
Mary remained unhappy at Philip’s absence, unsurprisingly and keen for him to return; as far as Philip was concerned, he must be taken more seriously in England and promised a coronation – and if not well then, he had more important things to do in the Low Countries and in his Empire, thank you for asking. Mary wrote to her mentor Charles V asking him to intercede, and Charles did just that. But Charles was moving steadily into King Lear territory. In January 1556 he handed control of Spain over to Phillip, and since most of the practical HRE work was already being done by his successor there, his brother Ferdinand, it seems increasingly that Charles’s letters were being largely filed under B1N. Not only was Philip focussed on his impressive portfolio of territories, impressive and probably time consuming, but he had the Imperial war with France to deal with, which was seriously not going well. Given England’s refusal to give him the influence he wanted or join him in his war, his policy towards the country of which he was king was not noticeably friendly or helpful; he unhelpfully banned English merchants from trading with Spain’s south American colonies, and prohibited English attempts to trade on the African coast. Thank you, king. None of this helped the mood in London, and in fact the corporation’s attitude towards Mary and her husband might be described as sullen; Protestantism was strong among London traders, and they had a point when they moaned that Mary was more concerned with supporting her husband than her subjects. They complained to Mary that whenever there was a dispute between English and Flemish merchants, the king of England sided with the Flemish and their complaint they got nowhere, slowly.
In this atmosphere a chap called Henry Dudley was doing that thing that birds and conspirators do – he was hatching. Dudley was a distant relative of the Duke of Northumberland and 9 days Queen Dudleys. In that face off, he’d been sent by Northumberland to persuade the French king to intervene on Queen Jane’s side, so we know what side he’s on; and the arrival of Philip had not lightened his mood. So he did a little more sidling with the French king, and suggested that one way of weakening his Imperial opponent Philip would be to remove both he and the Queen from the English throne, and this seemed on balance a good thing to Henry II of France, and money was to be forthcoming for Dudley’s plan. Great, thought Dudley, let’s go find some supporters. The conspiracy spread; a pryle of various branches of the Throckmorton family, if that’s the correct collective noun for people called Throckmorton – John, John and Nicholas; a Courtenay, William by name, and amongst some others Antony Kingston, the locker of parliamentary doors as we heard 2 weeks ago. One of them was a thorough going Lady Elizabeth enthusiast and adventurer called Christopher Ashton.
…I tell you true that the Lady Elizabeth is a jolly liberal dame, and nothing so unthankful as her sister is;
These gents were lined up to raise their various countries when the time came. By country, I of course mean in 16th century parlance, that is their local shire. Dudley meanwhile secretly worked his contacts in England and lined up a safe harbour, Lowestoft in Suffolk, broadly lower right, for an invasion force.
Into this came the rather unfortunate Treaty of Vaucelles; a peace treaty between Empire and France. I say unfortunate from Dudley’s perspective, although the treaty of Vaucelles was also unfortunate in that it was to prove a weak, sickly sort of child. But it did nix French funding, though in the sneaky way of international diplomacy the French didn’t actively prevent Dudley from trying to raise an invasion from France. In fact, Ambassador Noailles was involved; advising the rebels, and at one point trying to keep the Princess Elizabeth’s name out of it to the last moment, probably alarmed at the freedom with which folks like Ashton referenced her:
restrain Madame Elizabeth from stirring at all in the affair of which you have written to me, for that would be to ruin everything…”
But now, although all his co-conspirators were lined up and ready to go, Dudley needed money. He happened to know that there was £50,000 sitting in the exchequer in coin, and he knew that because he had a mate there called William Hunnis. William Hunnis knew that the chap in charge of the money, Ncholas Brigham. He was very friendly with him in fact; though the reason for all this friendliness was that Mrs Margaret Brigham and William Hunnis were, um, romantically involved. Hunnis knew that Nicholas was incorruptible, but it seems that Margaret was more corruptible, and was able to make an impression of her husband’s key to the strongroom where all that lovely lolly was held. The copy of the key was made, plans were constructed, and before you could say ‘Freeeedoooom’ there they were, in the strongroom. Sadly this turned out to be the basis for a carry on film, because they then found they could not then open the chests of coin, which speaks of genuinely lamentable planning. Now the game was up; another conspirator spilled the beans to Pole. Mary put the investigation into the hands of her nearest and dearest, the people she felt able to trust – her household from the good old days at Framlingham, Messrs Rochester and Jermingham. 20 people were subsequently arrested, and once more Elizabeth’s life and liberty was at threat; Cat Ashley and some other women of her household were arrested, and an armed guard placed on her household. A search of Cat’s chambers found a cache of illicit books and pamphlets attacking Catholicism and mocking the Queen and king.
And yet instead of being hauled in to face interrogation again, no action was taken against Elizabeth, and the reason seems to be that Phillip advised Mary against it. Because for Phillip, you see, killing Elizabeth was not a good option; if Mary died, and Elizabeth had been executed, then the heir to the throne of England was Mary, Queen of Scots. And Mary QoS was married to one Francis, who just happened to be Francis the Dauphin of France. So, without Elizabeth in the way, Mary’s death would be a double Imperial whammy – France the great enemy would gain England and Scotland. You can hardly blame him I suppose, but you might note Philip’s priority here. English xenophobia was once more demonstrating that just because you are paranoid doesn’t mean they are not out to get you. Anyway, so once more Elizabeth survived another scare. However, she was once more under supervision – Sir Thomas Pope, a privy councillor and staunch Catholic was put in charge of her household. In response, Elizabeth kept churning out letters of loyalty, and she must have wished word processors had been invented so she could just cut and paste. But she would find out that Philip may have reprieved her, but that didn’t mean he wanted her to be free to do as she pleased.
Her conspirators however did not escape so easily. 10 were eventually executed, leaving bits of them distributed around the kingdom pour discourager les autres and Antony ‘doorlocker’ Kingston died on his way to London for an interview which was unlikely to go well for him. Christopher Ashton fled and took up life as a pirate, until run down by Mary’s Navy. On the wages of sin theme though, William Hunnis and Margaret Brigham seems to come out of the whole thing smelling of roses; Nicholas Brigham died in 1558 and William and Margaret were then hitched. Which seems to rather confirm the ‘don’t get caught’ theoretical model rather than the ‘wages of sin is death’ since the wages of sin here appears to be not death but marriage.
Still, the conspiracy could hardly have been worse timed for Mary. The continuing pain of the heresy campaign, the disastrous affair of Cranmer’s burning in March, Phillip’s dogged absence, and now this. Noailles was banished, but reported back that the Queen
Raged against her subjects. She is utterly confounded by the faithlessness of those whom she most trusted
As he left by the back door.
In her misery, Mary turned ever more to Cardinal Pole. Now that Thomas Cranmer had been finally destroyed, Pole could now become ABC. But Mary was too anxious to be parted from him, and would not allow him to go to Canterbury to be consecrated, thereby leaving her side; so Reginald was consecrated at Greenwich. And in Pole you can see that there was the greatest meeting of minds and comfort for Mary, the two joined in their passion for their mission. On Maunday Thursday 3rd April 1556, Pole accompanied Mary on a thoroughly traditional royal religious ceremony, where Mary washed the feet of poor women; then on Good Friday she carried out the ceremony of touching for the king’s evil, using the ancient royal power to cure scrofula. Pole and his entourage were delighted at their Queen; Pole’s secretary wrote
I dare assert that there was never a Queen in Christendom of greater goodness than this one.
The occasion is important in lending further colour to Mary’s great piety, but also because by this ceremony Mary placed another mighty stone in the temple of the equality of English Queenship; here was a ceremony traditionally part of kingship, and Mary had made it quite clear that if a king could do it, so could a queen, a queen was every bit as mighty as a king. Touching for Scrofula has something of a magical quality to it, and touch of God’s very own grace – now that mystuical quality firmly belonged to Queens as well as kings. Again, it is a positive part of Mary’s legacy, and one from which Elizabeth will benefit.
The ceremony must have given Mary some much needed re-assurance and a harbour from the rough seas but despite this, the Venetian Ambassador confirmed that trouble weighed Mary down
For many months, the Queen has passed from one sorrow to another, your Serenity can imagine what life she leads, comforting herself as usual with the presence of Cardinal Pole, to whose assiduous toil and diligence, having entrusted the whole government of the kingdom, she is intent on enduring her trouble and patiently as she can
All these worries had an impact on Mary
The Queen’s face has lost flesh greatly since I was last with her, the extreme need she has of the consort’s presence harassing her…she having also within the last few days lost her sleep
As the year progressed, Mary’s despair and frustration grew. Her Ambassador asked for confirmation from Philip of when he would return; and received vague, noncommittal replies. The Ambassador even risked pointing out that there was still plenty of chance for heirs if Philip could return and do his, you know, his duty, if he could lie back and think of England that sort of thing. Eventually, Mary sent the most powerful force on the royal Council, William Paget to plead with her husband, as sign of just how important this was – but Philip simply ignored him. In July in her letters to Charles became a mixture of entreaty, reproach and despair:
It would be pleasanter for me to thank your majesty for sending me back my king my lord and good husband, than to despatch an emissary to Flanders…However, as your majesty has been pleased to break your promise in this connection, a promise you made to me regarding the return of the king, my husband, I must perforce be satisfied although to my unspeakable regret.
Given the strength of Mary’s gratitude for Charles for his support through her life, this is an extraordinary letter. In fact, Mary was being less that fair to Charles, who was himself now effectively powerless. Mary seems to have herself felt that she could not cope with the pressures of queenship on her own, and must have Philip back to help, or all would be lost. Here again are her own words, written once more to Charles
Unless he comes to remedy matters, not I only but also wiser persons than I, fear that great danger will ensue for lack of a firm hand, and indeed we see it before our eyes
It is a little difficult to see exactly what it was that Mary and others advising her were seeing; as far as the administrative record is concerned, the Royal Council and her work with them seems to have been working just fine. Dudley’s conspiracy had been a shock, but had been contained easily enough; there was no parliament in 1556 to cause toil and trouble. The appointment of Pole’s arch enemy as Paul IV was worrying, but actually both Pole and Paul and Paul and Pole had been tooth-achingly polite to each other. But despite this Mary’s state of mind was increasingly desperate. She was seen to scratch at the pictures of her husband in frustration. She was worried of insurrection and betrayal, and so constantly in the presence of armed men, and only 5 trusted ladies in waiting were allowed into her private apartments.