Bloody Mary's Martyrs: The Story of England's Terror

Bloody Mary's Martyrs: The Story of England's Terror

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by Jasper Ridley

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This is the chronicle of a monarch's religious intolerance, a nation's fear, and the unimaginable courage of the Protestants who died for their faith—more than three hundred victims in less than three years. Award-winning historical biographer Jasper Ridley explores the dark years of Mary Tudor's reign using an absorbing narrative and meticulously researched


This is the chronicle of a monarch's religious intolerance, a nation's fear, and the unimaginable courage of the Protestants who died for their faith—more than three hundred victims in less than three years. Award-winning historical biographer Jasper Ridley explores the dark years of Mary Tudor's reign using an absorbing narrative and meticulously researched history to relate a tragic, brutal, and often inspiring tale. Eight pages of black-and-white photographs are included. "Ridley tells the story of England's Terror with verve."—Sunday Times (London)

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Kirkus Reviews
Another on the religious persecutions promulgated by the much-unloved Tudor monarch, this time presented in a lively if highly partisan style reminiscent of John Foxe's Book of Martyrs. England during the 16th century was not a good place for anyone with strong convictions. The Reformation began there in 1533 when Parliament decreed that Henry VIII and his successors, rather than the Pope, were to be considered supreme head of the Church in England-thereby guaranteeing that all religious disputes were henceforth to be treated as affairs of state and judged according to the sovereign's good pleasure. The problem was that the sovereigns couldn't agree among themselves. Henry VIII suppressed the monasteries (and confiscated their vast resources) but made very few changes in the daily practice of religion. The boy-king Edward VI was a fierce Protestant, Mary I a devout Catholic, and Elizabeth I a pragmatist who wanted to straddle the fence. With each new coronation, the entire populace had to re-conform itself to a new religious dispensation, and those who refused were considered traitors to the crown and dealt with accordingly. Although, in reality, Mary's reign was no bloodier than her younger sister Elizabeth's, it accomplished its atrocities in a far shorter span of time, sending some 300 Protestants to the stake in just five years. Ridley (Mussolini, 1998, etc.) gives a good narrative account of many of these victims, who came from every class of English society and usually met their fates with a courage that is hard for modern readers to credit. The gruesome details of death by burning (usually involving a progressive loss of limbs and extremities) are provided with relish, and thebackground history (e.g., Mary's disastrous attempt to forge an alliance with Spain by marrying Philip II) is offered as a rough but helpful sketch. The work as a whole, however, is not helped by the author's apparent acceptance of some of the hoariest myths (e.g., the wholesale corruption of the religious orders, the selling of indulgences) of Whig history. Nicely told, but lacking depth and highly slanted.

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Chapter One

The Persecuting Church

IN ENGLAND IN THE REIGN of Queen Mary Tudor, for forty-fiveterrible months between 4 February 1555 and 10 November1558, 283 Protestant martyrs — 227 men and 56 women — wereburned alive. They have been remembered as martyrs for 400years, and should be remembered today, though public recollectionof them is beginning to fade. The Queen who wasresponsible for their suffering and death has gone down inhistory as `Bloody Mary', and her Roman Catholic co-religionistsstill suffer, at least in some respects, because of what she did tothe martyrs. It is impossible for a King or Queen of England tobe a Roman Catholic or to marry a Roman Catholic; andBloody Mary is indirectly responsible for the hatred of `Papists'felt by the Protestants in Northern Ireland today. It was chieflybecause the English and Irish Protestants remembered hermartyrs that 130 years later, in 1688, they refused to accept aRoman Catholic king and to grant religious toleration to RomanCatholics. This led to the siege of Londonderry, the Battleof the Boyne, and the events of 1690 which are rememberedwith such disastrous results in Northern Ireland today.

    The burning of Queen Mary's martyrs was the culmination ofmore than a century of religious conflict and persecution. TheRoman Catholic Church which dominated Europe in the MiddleAges, like most organised religions, was an intolerant andpersecuting Church. By the thirteenth century it had firmlyestablished the law that heretics should be burned alive. Membersof heretical sects who challenged the authority of the Church, liketheAlbigenses in the south of France and other sects of Cathars,were burned in such large numbers between the eleventh andthirteenth centuries that the sects were almost completely exterminated.Although various theories have been put forward asto why burning was adopted as the punishment for heresy, noneof them can be substantiated. Burning alive was one of severalcruel forms of capital punishment which was used by the Romansin ancient times and afterwards by the Christian states of medievalEurope. Men and women were burned alive for poisoning, arsonand witchcraft as well as for heresy. Men who committed sodomyor bestiality were burned alive — in cases of bestiality, so was theanimal — and women who committed high treason or murderedtheir husbands were also burned alive.

    In the fourteenth century a new heresy appeared, inspired bythe English priest and theologian John Wycliffe from Hipswellnear Richmond in Yorkshire, who became a favourite of John ofGaunt, Duke of Lancaster, the fourth son of King Edward III.Wycliffe translated the Bible into English, and his translation,like those of the Protestant reformers 150 years later, led him andhis followers, who were known as Lollards, to develop doctrineswhich challenged the most fundamental dogmas of the CatholicChurch and the authority of the priesthood. His ideas wereadopted by the Czech theologian, Jan Hus, who was denouncedas a heretic and burned at Constance in Germany in 1415. Hus'sfollowers in Bohemia launched a formidable insurrection led bya brilliant military leader, Jan Zizka. For fifteen years they ruledBohemia and defied the armies of the Holy Roman Emperoruntil the conflict was ended by a compromise peace.

    In England, three Acts of Parliament were passed in 1382,1401 and 1414, giving statutory authority for burning hereticswho had previously been burned under the English commonlaw. The Act for the Burning of Heretics of 1401 enacted thatwhen a person had been condemned as a heretic by theecclesiastical courts, the King was to issue a warrant orderingthe civil power — the sheriffs, and justices of the peace (JPs) — toburn the heretic alive. In the reigns of Henry IV and Henry Vand the early years of Henry VI (between 1401 and 1440),sixteen heretics were burned in England and many more wereimprisoned.

    When a person was accused of heresy, he was dealt with bythe procedure which was followed in the case of Mary Tudor'smartyrs. He was arrested and brought before the court of thebishop of his diocese. Here he was tried either by the bishophimself or by the bishop's Ordinary, a judicial officer who was aqualified lawyer trained in the canon law of the Church. Theaccused heretic was given every encouragement to recant hisheresy and was put under great psychological pressure to do so. Ifhe refused to recant he was sentenced to be burned and washanded over to the sheriff of the county, the JPs and theirofficers, who carried out the sentence in public at the appointedtime; but if he recanted he was sentenced to a lesser punishment — imprisonmentfor some months or years in a prison ormonastery — and forced to wear a badge showing that he wasa heretic. He was also forced to take part in the ceremony knownas `carrying his faggot'. The heretic was taken to the place ofexecution carrying a faggot of wood on his shoulder, and whenthe fire was lit he threw his faggot into the fire, so that only thefaggot, and not the heretic, was burned. If he was an eminentand educated man, he was also required to preach a sermonconfessing his error, repudiating his heresy and begging for theforgiveness of the Church.

    After undergoing the sentence prescribed by the bishop, therepentant heretic was eventually forgiven and taken back intothe Church and religious and public life; but if he afterwardsagain advocated heretical opinions, he was then a relapsedheretic and was not spared a second time. A relapsed hereticwho was convicted of heresy by the ecclesiastical court wassentenced to be burned, and the sentence was carried out by thesheriff and JPs even if the heretic again recanted.

    The persecution of Lollards continued throughout the fifteenthcentury. In the reign of King Henry VII, twelve heretics — tenmen and two women — were burned between 1485 and1509. The first to suffer was Joan Boughton, a very old widowwhose daughter had married a knight. She was burned atSmithfield on 28 April 1494.

    The Protestant movement intensified after Martin Luther inGermany in 1517 denounced the system by which the Popegranted dispensations to commit sins — sometimes to commitany sin in future — in return for gifts of money to pay for thecost of rebuilding St Peter's Basilica in Rome. Although thegreat majority of the English people were still loyal Catholics,sympathisers with Luther were to be found chiefly amongthose classes which always form the advance-guard of a newradical movement — the lower classes in the towns, especiallythe youth, and the intellectuals. Many theology graduates andstudents at Cambridge University were sympathetic toLuther's ideas. They met at the White Horse Inn in Cambridge,and began to be called `Lutherans' instead of Lollards,though another name applied to them by their opponents was`Protestants'. These Cambridge intellectuals and the artisansand youth of the towns of south-east England supplied mostof the martyrs who thirty years later were burned in Mary'sreign.

    Oxford, unlike Cambridge, was a more orthodox Catholicuniversity; but at least one Oxford man, William Tyndale, was adevoted Protestant. He graduated in theology at Magdalen Hallin Oxford, and became a priest. Soon afterwards he went abroadto join the Protestants in Germany. In Cologne he translated theNew Testament into English from the Latin Vulgate Bible, andthough no printer in Cologne dared to print it, he succeeded inhaving it secretly printed by Protestant supporters in the city ofWorms in 1526. Tyndale then arranged for these Bibles to besmuggled into England. They were often hidden in bales ofstraw which the Protestants pretended were being sent tofarmers in England. Most English people could not read orwrite, but some of them could, and those who were literate readTyndale's English Bible aloud to their friends at secret Protestantmeetings.

    The English Catholic Establishment considered that an Englishtranslation of the Bible was a great threat to their authority.Before the Bible was translated priests read the Bible in Latin,told the people what the Bible said, and also taught themdoctrines which are not to be found in the Bible, but had beendeveloped in the writings of the early Christian theologians ofthe third, fourth and fifth centuries AD — St Augustine, Origenand St John Chrysostom — or had been orally handed down fromthe earliest times after the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. If thepeople could read the Bible in their native language, they couldfind out what the Bible really said, not what the Church toldthem that it said, and they could quote the authority of the Bibleagainst the authority of the Church. Tyndale declared that bytranslating the Bible he hoped to make every ploughboy asknowledgeable in Scripture as the most learned clerk. This wasexactly what most learned clerks did not wish to see.

    The people who read Tyndale's Bible could discover thatalthough Christ had appointed St Peter to be head of his Church,there was nothing in the Bible which said that the Bishops ofRome were St Peter's successors and that Peter's authority overthe Church had passed to the Popes. Indeed, there was nothingin the Bible that said that Peter had ever been to Rome. As theBible stated that God had ordered the people not to worshipgraven images, the images and pictures of the saints, and thestations of the cross, should not be placed in churches and alongthe highways.

    The Protestants challenged at every point the special positionof the priesthood. They taught that men would be saved and goto Heaven by their faith, by believing the true Christian doctrine,not by good works. The Catholic Church would notaccept this, for `good works' had come to mean giving lands andmoney to monasteries on condition that monks and priestsprayed for the souls of their benefactors. In the Catholic Massthe priest alone drank the wine, and he put a piece of wafer intothe mouths of the congregation. The Protestants believed thatthe congregation as well as the priest should drink the wine, andthat the bread should not be placed in their mouths by the priest,but that they and the priest should eat it and drink the winesitting together around a communion table.

    Since the days of Pope Gregory VII in the eleventh centurythe Catholic Church had enforced the role that priests shouldnot marry but should remain apart from the people as a specialcelibate caste. As men were unfortunately sinners, the CatholicChurch did not object very much if priests lived quite openlywith a concubine. The Protestants, finding a text in the Biblethat a bishop should be the husband of one wife, believed that allpriests should be allowed to marry, but that living with aconcubine was a sin.

    The Protestants' most serious challenge to the authority of theclergy was their view of the effect of the consecration of thebread and wine by the priest during Mass. The theologians of theCatholic Church, who had been educated in the philosophy ofAristotle and his theory that the `accidents' of an object — itsappearance, feel, taste and smell — were different from its treeinner reality, taught that although the consecrated bread andwine had the accidents of bread and wine, they were really theBody and Blood of Christ, because Christ had said at the LastSupper, `This is my Body'. All the Protestant sects denied thisCatholic doctrine of the Real Presence of Christ in the Sacrament,though they differed amongst themselves as to whether hispresence there was a Sacramental Presence, a Spiritual Presenceor a Figurative Presence, or whether there was no presence at all,and the consecrated bread was only a `vile cake', as the extremeProtestant sects called it. They all agreed that anyone who held alower view of the nature of the Presence than they did was aheretic.

    The Catholic Church called those who denied the RealPresence `sacramentaries', and considered them to be the worstkind of heretics. Nearly all the martyrs of Mary Tudor's reignwere `sacramentaries', and were burned to death for denying theReal Presence, whatever other heresies they might also havecommitted.

    No one was more active in persecuting the Protestants whodistributed the English Bible than Sir Thomas More, a brilliantlawyer, writer and intellectual who was a particularly nastysadomasochistic pervert. He enjoyed being flogged by hisfavourite daughter as much as flogging heretics, beggars andlunatics in his garden. He humiliated his wife by pointing out tohis guests, in her presence, how ugly she was in order to showthat he had not married her because he was lusting for a beautifulwoman. When he was writing as a propagandist for the CatholicChurch, he was a shameless liar. On one occasion he wrote avery favourable review of his own book, pretending that it hadbeen written by a non-existent, eminent, foreign theologian,when in fact he had written it himself.

    When he became Lord Chancellor in 1529 he intensified thepersecution of heretics. He insisted that anyone who read anddistributed Tyndale's English Bible should suffer a `painfuldeath'. One of his great successes was when they caught theProtestant John Frith, who came from Westerham in Kent andhad joined Tyndale in the Netherlands. Frith risked his life bycoming to England to organise the illegal distribution of thetranslated Bible. He had nearly completed his mission and wason his way to board a ship at Milton Shore in Essex when he wasstopped by a constable who suspected that he might have stolengoods hidden in his bag. The constable opened the bag andfound hidden Bibles, and realised that he had caught a moredangerous criminal than a mere petty thief. Frith was arrestedand taken before the Bishop of London's court, and in duecourse was condemned as a heretic and burned at Smithfield.

    Apart from translating the Bible into English, Tyndale's othergreat contribution to sixteenth-century Protestant doctrine washis book The Obedience of a Christian Man, in which he stated thatit was the duty of a Christian always to obey the King. Inmedieval society, the King and the Church were the twodominating authorities. It was therefore to the King that Tyndaleturned to break the power of the Church, and he and hisProtestant followers believed that they should emphasize theduty of the subject to obey the king. Tyndale wrote that, `God inall lands hath put Kings, governors and rulers in his stead to rulethe world through them. Whosoever therefore resisteth themresisteth God', and shall be damned. To resist a royal official wasas wicked as resisting the King himself. Even if the King `be thegreatest tyrant in the world, yet he is unto thee a great benefit ofGod, and a thing wherefore thou oughtest to thank God highly'.The King `may at his lust do right and wrong and shall giveanswer but to God only'.

    Tyndale's appeal to the power of the King against the powerof the Church was practical politics, because the most CatholicKings had often quarrelled with the Pope and made war againsthim. In the eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth centuries Europewas torn by bitter warfare between the Popes and the HolyRoman Emperors, and the King of France had imprisoned thePope in the fourteenth century. It was therefore not surprisingthat King Henry VIII, soon after he had been awarded the title of`Defender of the Faith' by the Pope for his book against Luther,quarrelled with Pope Clement VII when the Pope refused togive him a divorce from his wife Catherine of Aragon. Henrywished to divorce Catherine because he had fallen in love withAnne Boleyn who refused to become his mistress unless heagreed to marry her, and because Catherine had been unable togive birth to a male heir; her only surviving child was herdaughter, Princess Mary, who was to become `Bloody Mary'.History had shown that if a girl, not a boy, inherited the throne,this would lead to civil war.

    Before Catherine had married Henry, she had been married tohis elder brother Arthur, who had died at the age of sixteen,probably without consummating the marriage. Under the canonlaw of the Church a Papal dispensation had been necessary toallow Henry to marry his brother's widow. Henry now askedthe Pope to declare that that dispensation had been invalid, andthat he was therefore not lawfully married to Catherine. Popeshad usually been prepared to oblige powerful Kings in suchmatters, and Clement VII would probably have granted Henrythe divorce if he had not been afraid of the Holy RomanEmperor Charles V, who was Catherine's nephew and supportedher cause. Charles had recently made war against thePope, because the Pope had supported Charles's enemy KingFrancis I of France; and in the course of the war Charles's armyhad captured Rome and had sacked the city, killing and looting,and raping the women.

    The sack of Rome by the troops of the Holy Roman Emperorwas difficult for Catholic propagandists to explain and excuse.Some of them, like Sir Thomas More, wrote that the Emperor'stroops who committed the atrocity were German Lutherans, orSpanish Muslims who had only pretended to convert to Christianity.But there is no evidence for either of these theories. TheEmperor's troops who sacked Rome were not Lutherans orMuslims, but ordinary mercenaries — men who, like other malethugs in other centuries, enjoyed fighting, looting and raping.The Pope was afraid that if he granted Henry his divorce, Charleswould allow his mercenaries to sack Rome again.

    The argument about the divorce ended with Henry repudiatingthe Papal supremacy over the Church, and requiring all hissubjects — which in practice meant the head of every household — toswear an oath that they believed that the King, not the `Bishopof Rome', was the Supreme Head of the Church of England.Those who refused to take the oath were to be hanged, drawn andquartered. Nearly everyone agreed to take the oath, but fourCarthusian monks — the priors of the charterhouses of London, ofBeaulieu in Nottinghamshire and of the Isle of Axholme inLincolnshire, and a monk of Sion at Brentford — refused, and apriest. The five men were duly hanged, drawn and quartered atTyburn on 4 May 1535. In the case of Bishop Fisher and SirThomas More, who were executed a few weeks later, the sentencewas commuted out of mercy to beheading with the axe.

    The sentence of hanging, drawing and quartering meant thatthe criminal was hanged but cut down while still alive, castrated,disembowelled, and the bowels burned before his eyes while hewas still living, before being finally killed by having his head cutoff and his body cut into quarters. If the convicted traitor was awoman, she was burned alive.

    But Henry continued to burn heretics. More's victim, Frith,was burned as a `sacramentary' for denying the Real Presence inthe summer of 1533 at the very time that Henry was divorcingCatherine of Aragon and preparing for the final break withRome and the repudiation of Papal supremacy.

    In persecuting both the supporters of the Papacy and theProtestant heretics, Henry was pursuing a policy which was verypopular with the majority of his subjects. New ideas in politicsand religion are always embraced first by minorities, and themajority of people are reluctant to break with old traditions.Most of the English people adhered to the Catholic doctrines inwhich they had been brought up. They were outraged by theactions of the enthusiastic young men who in their Protestantzeal broke into the churches and destroyed the images of thelocal saint who was traditionally associated with the parish. Theywere disgusted when these Protestants, quoting passages fromthe Bible against worshipping images and idols, removed theconsecrated Host from the altar, trampled on it, and threw it onto a dunghill. Most English people thought that it was right toburn such troublemakers and all other heretics.

    But the English were famous throughout Europe for theirhatred of foreigners, unlike the Scots, who travelled all overEurope and welcomed foreign visitors to Scotland. The Englishhated the Italian Pope and his officials in Rome, and greatlyresented the expense and the delays involved when they appliedfor a divorce or a dispensation or for any other relief in theecclesiastical courts, and the case was held up for several yearswhile an appeal was referred to the Papal court in Rome. Theordinary Englishman was also very ready to believe the storiesthat were always circulating about the corruption and immoralityof the monks and nuns in the abbeys, monasteries andconvents, which in fact were very often true.

    As King Henry was now attacking the Pope, he had thesupport of many of the heretical Protestants, and this raised thepossibility of employing them in his service against the Pope's.He considered recruiting Tyndale as a propagandist for the royalauthority. When he read Tyndale's The Obedience of a ChristianMan he is said to have exclaimed: `This is a book for me and forall Kings to read'. But Henry was too intelligent not to see thedangers of Tyndale's doctrine. For Tyndale made one exceptionto his rule that the subject must always obey the royal authority.If the King ordered the subject to sin, the subject must disobey,though he must not resist the King and the government andmust submit patiently to the punishment inflicted on him for hisdisobedience.

    This exception was seized on by Sir Thomas More in his finaldenunciation of Tyndale in 1533. More wrote that Tyndale'spretence of supporting royal authority was hypocrisy, becauseTyndale seditiously told his followers to disobey the King if they,in their arrogant presumption, decided that the King's order wassinful. More's argument was strengthened when Robert Barnes,a Cambridge theologian who had escaped to the Netherlandsafter he had been accused of heresy and had recanted and carriedhis faggot, wrote that if the King ordered a subject to burn theBible the subject must disobey. More pointed out that the Kinghad given orders that Tyndale's Bible was to be burned; soTyndale and the Protestants had seditiously urged the people todisobey the laws of King Henry VIII.


Excerpted from BLOODY MARY'S MARTYRS by Jasper Ridley. Copyright © 2001 by Jasper Ridley. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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