The Reformation in England remains a source of stimulating controversy for modern British historians. Was it a good thing or a bad thing? Were the English people delighted to be rid of medieval superstition, dump the Pope and privatise the estates of lazy, corrupt monks — the Whig view of history? Or was Protestantism a bleak Germanic creed imposed upon Merrie Englanders by the ruthless agents of the Tudor state — the view of revisionist historians such as Professor Jack Scarisbrick (The Reformation and the English People) and Professor Eamon Duffy (The Stripping of the Altars and The Voices of Morebath)?
The trump card played by Protestant historians in this historical debate has hitherto been the burning of almost 300 heretics during the brief reign of "Bloody'" Mary. The "Marian martyrdoms loom large in English national mythology," writes Duffy in his cogent and scholarly new book. "Even in our self-consciously secular times, 16th-century stereotypes, consolidated in the triumph of Protestantism under Queen Elizabeth, persist in popular culture." He cites Shekhar Kapur's film Elizabeth to make his point.
This facile condemnation of the burning of heretics, Duffy considers, is the product of "moral hindsight" and is therefore anachronistic and not history at all. Nor is it the only misperception about the short reign of Queen Mary. Duffy disputes the critical assessment made by most historians of "the general competence, drive and direction of the regime". At the heart of the conundrum is the queen's cousin, Reginald Cardinal Pole, who returned from decades in exile in Italy as Papal Legate to re-establish the Catholic Church in England. Pole had Plantagenet blood and so was a cousin of Queen Mary: his mother, abritrarily executed by Henry VIII, had been a friend of Mary's mother, Catherine of Aragon, and for a time Mary's governess.
Pole had been mooted as a possible husband for Mary (he was not ordained a priest until he became Archbishop of Canterbury in 1556). Was there an amitié amoureuse between Queen and Cardinal? Duffy eschews such psychological speculation: this is a work of serious history based on exhaustive research among primary sources. What is relevant is that Pole, before returning to England, had been a powerful figure in Rome and an architect of the Counter-Reformation. He had come within a single vote of being chosen as Pope, and had given a "magnificent opening address at the Council of Trent in 1546", courageously telling the assembled bishops that their sins and shortcomings were the cause of the present crisis in the Church.
Queen Mary's reign got off to a flying start. The attempt by the Duke of Northumberland to place the Protestant Lady Jane Gray on the throne instead of Mary was defeated: so too a rising in Kent led by Sir Thomas Wyatt. Convinced Protestants remained a vociferous minority but the long beards of their ministers were about as popular as the beards of Islamic mullahs in England today. Mary's triumph over Wyatt and Northumberland was taken as a sign that God was on her side, and "led scores of evangelicals to abandon their reformed opinion, seeing in her triumph the direct hand of God".