John's Reviews > Fires of Faith: Catholic England Under Mary Tudor

Fires of Faith by Eamon Duffy
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's review
Nov 29, 2009

did not like it
Read in November, 2009

I read Duffy's excellent book: The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400-1580 and found it a feast of Reformation History that heretofore was untold and somewhat obscure. This book, Fires of Faith, is more of a Roman Catholic apologetic for intolerance and incompetence wreaked by Mary Tudor's regime, precisely that aspect of her reign that is quite indefensible. Duffy tries to highlight positive attributes of the regime, but is unconvincing at every turn. The grotesque burnings are defended as part of the times and we are asked to consider this as part of a zero sum game between 16th Century Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. Maybe so, but this still leaves naked the sheer inanity of the regime; Duffy admits as much in acknowledging that the burnings and circus-like show trials were counter-productive. I should say so. Although alluded to, Mary's morose psychological need for settling scores by acting in a self-destructive manner is never discussed at length. This is important given the evidence of her severely depressed and delusional state. Likewise Duffy ignores the larger historical context, including Mary's extremely unpopular marriage to Philip II (who surreptitiously left the squalid scene posthaste for Spain, never intending to return), the loss of Calais, and Mary's (ironic) tearful and significant fights with Pope Paul IV over his anti-Habsburg policies.

At the end of the book, I felt an amazing sense of relief that Elizabeth I came on the scene and established the Via Media. Her dislike of Mary's religious policies was well known by the public and it was expected that a change would occur when she became Queen. They were correct. Upon her accession, heresy laws were instantaneously repealed and the the burnings ceased, immediately. During Mary's reign one could be reported to the authorities for not fingering Rosary beads. Her intolerance is not to be measured by our standards, I grant you that. However, it should be noted that the great English Church composer, Thomas Tallis, was a Catholic and a Gentleman of Elizabeth's Chapel Royal, until his death. In 1575 Queen Elizabeth granted Tallis and William Byrd (Tallis's pupil and also a Catholic) a monopoly in England on printing music. Yes, Elizabeth I established an ambiguous religious settlement but as long as one did not express the wish to overthrow her (alas, Pope Paul IV made it a sin for Catholics to obey her - Regnans in Excelsis, the papal bull deposing Elizabeth, 1570), you could practice your Catholicism after paying a fine. After reading Duffy's book, the prospect of finding a comparable example of such intelligent and open thinking during Mary's reign is grimly ludicrous.
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