Touchstone Magazine Home
From the March/April, 2010 issue of Touchstone


England Swings by William J. Tighe

England Swings

Fires of Faith: Catholic England Under Mary Tudor
by Eamon Duffy
Yale University Press, 2009
(249 pages, $28.50, hardcover)

reviewed by William J. Tighe

Eamon Duffy is Professor of the History of Christianity at Cambridge University and a Fellow of Magdalene College. He became famous as a media personality in 1992, when his newly published book, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, c. 1400 to c. 1580, unexpectedly became something of a bestseller in England.

That book was divided into two parts. The first sought to present and explain major aspects of late-medieval English Catholicism, while defending it from the common criticism—in origin stemming from Reformation Protestants and later liberals—that it was “sub-Christian” and “superstitious” in important ways. The second part sought to demonstrate that English Catholicism died hard, as large numbers of Englishmen, perhaps the great majority of them down to the 1580s, resented and often resisted its suppression and attempted supersession by an iconoclastic Reformed Protestantism during the reigns of Edward VI (1547–1553) and Elizabeth I (1558–1603), and, by contrast, supported and rejoiced in its restoration in the reign of Mary I (1553–1558).

Dismissive Attitude

For decades, the predominant approach to Mary Tudor’s reign has been to dismiss it as, in the words of one historian, “the sterile reign,” even though—as the same historian who produced that phrase himself recognized—it saw a great deal of administrative reorganization and consolidation in various government departments. (The historian got around this by attributing these measures to the surviving “disciples” of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s “evil genius.”)

This attitude has been particularly persistent concerning the Marian restoration of Catholicism, both among those dwindling number of historians who think that Protestantism had largely triumphed, at least among the elite, by 1553, and among those who believe that while a Catholic restoration could have succeeded had Mary reigned longer than she did, the actual policies pursued by the queen and her archbishop of Canterbury, Reginald, Cardinal Pole (1500–1558), were “unimaginative” and “backward-looking.” The latter see these policies as a sort of last hurrah of medieval Catholicism, which, on the one hand, ignored or deliberately spurned the first signs of what became the Catholic Counter-Reformation—as when Cardinal Pole supposedly refused the offer of St. Ignatius Loyola to send Jesuits to England to assist in the work of restoration—and, on the other, alienated the population at large by the prosecution and execution of heretics.

The Most Trusted Counselor

Duffy contests every one of these criticisms. He devotes a whole chapter to demonstrating Cardinal Pole’s active involvement in all aspects of the Marian restoration. Pole pushed successfully against Mary’s initial impulse to accord qualified praise to her father for upholding aspects of Catholicism. Rather, he insisted that it was Henry VIII who had cast himself into hell and led the realm into schism “for the sake of a whore” (Anne Boleyn).

Pole was said to be a “broken man” by the time he came to England in 1554 because the Council of Trent had rejected his “quasi-Lutheran” views on justification, but Duffy demonstrates that he accepted this rejection with equanimity because of his high views of church authority in determining doctrinal truth. Pole placed a high emphasis on the importance of sermons, and was himself an indefatigable preacher, and, in sharp contrast to the pre-Reformation discouraging of Bible-reading and banning of English Bible translations by the Church in England, Pole held it laudable and to be encouraged, so long as it was understood that its purpose was devotional edification and not individual doctrinal inquiry—for doctrine, he believed, was delivered by Tradition from the Church, and not through individual inquiry using the Scriptures as source material.

As to his refusing the Jesuit offer of assistance, Duffy shows that what St. Ignatius offered was to educate two or three English students at Jesuit institutions in Rome, but that what Pole had in mind and intention was a more ambitious alternative: to transform the disused and decrepit “English hostel” on the Via Monserrato in Rome, originally founded to house English pilgrims, into a seminary for training the “best and brightest” English students there.

And Duffy shows that, far from being a man of aloof and solitary other-worldliness, who shrank from the policy of punishing unrepentant heretics, Pole had a steely determination that once all avenues of argument and persuasion had been tried and exhausted, they should suffer the appropriate penalty, as he thought, for their rebellion against Catholic Truth and the evil example that they gave to others. In all of these matters he was, as he related on his deathbed on the last day of his life, “of great conformity of spirit” with Queen Mary, who regarded him as her most trusted counselor.

Persecution & Conviction

After a chapter devoted to the regime’s use of the printing presses to disseminate religious polemics and homiletic and catechetical material, Duffy devotes nearly five chapters to the policy of repression: how it worked, what its purpose was, and its overall effect in furthering (as opposed to discrediting) the restoration of Catholicism. He emphasizes, in particular, how those who operated it strove to separate those obstinate in error from the merely ignorant, often releasing those whom they deemed to fall into the latter category after a token submission which might, due to its very vagueness, unintentionally be given a “Protestant reading” by those willing to make it—as it often was. Many released in this fashion were emboldened to intensify their attacks on Catholic beliefs and practices, bringing them back before their judges, and so to the stake.

During Mary’s reign, 284 individuals were executed for heresy, 56 of them women. Duffy examines the attempts to argue them out of their beliefs, and the frequency with which the judges passed the death sentence in distress or even tears—due more, he thinks, to their belief that these women especially and many “simple folk” were casting themselves into hell by their obstinacy, than to anything resembling “modern humanitarian sentiment.”

As the author of a book that originated in a series of lectures, Duffy acknowledges that his treatment is not comprehensive or complete: He treated the restoration of the material and liturgical fabric of the Marian church in his earlier Stripping of the Altars, and admits that he has ignored the attempted restoration of monastic and religious life during Mary’s reign, and given minimal attention to the “highly successful” reconstitution of the universities, Oxford and Cambridge, as “powerhouses of Catholicism.” In his final chapter, he discusses the “legacy” of the Marian restoration of Catholicism and how he views Marian England as having been a “laboratory” for the continental Catholic Counter-Reformation.

The book reads smoothly and is illustrated with striking plates and figures. Unlike The Stripping of the Altars, which had a strong “elegiac” undercurrent, Fires of Faith is often grim, as it deals to a great extent with the clash between the persecutors and the persecuted (some of whom had previously persecuted their later persecutors), each of whom was convinced, by and large, that those on the other side were deceivers on the road to hell, and acted in accordance with that conviction.

William J. Tighe is Associate Professor of History at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and a faculty advisor to the Catholic Campus Ministry. He is a Member of St. Josaphat Ukrainian Catholic Church in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. He is a contributing editor for Touchstone.

“England Swings” first appeared in the March/April 2010 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.

Letters Welcome: One of the reasons Touchstone exists is to encourage conversation among Christians, so we welcome letters responding to articles or raising matters of interest to our readers. However, because the space is limited, please keep your letters under 400 words. All letters may be edited for space and clarity when necessary.

This page and all site content © 2015 by The Fellowship of St. James. All rights reserved. Please send comments, suggestions, and bad link reports to