Blowing up Reformation myths

Saints, Sacrilege and Sedition: religion and conflict in the Tudor Reformations

 By Eamon Duffy (Bloomsbury)

- Review by Christopher Howse

What happened when Mary Tudor died and Elizabeth came to the throne? Well, at Much Wenlock in Shropshire, the news arrived with the sheriff, who had ridden down from London, just as the parishioners were gathered for Mass on St Catherine’s Day, 25 November 1558.

Thomas Butler, the vicar, came down into the nave and declared in a loud voice: “Friends, ye shall pray for the prosperous estate of our most noble Queen Elizabeth, by the Grace of God Queen of England, France and Ireland, defender of the faith.”

They all sang the Te Deum, the priest read the Collect for the accession of a queen from the Missal according to the use of Sarum, and after Mass there was a bonfire at the church gate, with bread, cheese and beer given out for the poor folk.

As Eamon Duffy remarks, the priest “may well have recalled another November bonfire in the same spot in 1547, when the bones of St Milburge were burned on a pyre made up of local pilgrimage images”. The same vicar had noted those events in the parish register at the time without comment, except for writing, in Latin: “This was done on the instructions and injunctions of the Commissioner or visitor in the Royal visitation.”

It had been 11 years earlier, not long, only as distant as 2001 is from us today. And everyone knew Elizabeth was a Protestant, and that the very rituals with which the parish had celebrated her accession would very likely be swept away.

Later on the day that Queen Mary died, Reginald, Cardinal Pole, died too, in his palace at Lambeth, on which he had spent so much to bring it into line with neoclassical taste. It was he who had found a voice for papalism by developing a providentialist theory of Reformation history.

The deaths of Thomas More, John Fisher and the London Carthusians, as the first modern martyrs for unity of the Church under the Pope, reflected a divine endorsement of papal primacy, he argued. God had written a testament of care for the English people in the martyrs’ blood.

John Fisher was the only cardinal ever to die a martyr’s death, but Pole would have made the second if he had waited around in England for Henry VIII to get hold of him...

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