Review: Fires of Faith, by Eamon Duffy

Fires of Faith: Catholic England Under Mary Tudor by Eamon Duffy

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Eamon Duffy’s Fires of Faith takes a look at a very narrow range of topics in the reign of Queen Mary. These include the effectiveness of the regime’s propaganda campaign against Protestantism; the role of Cardinal Pole in overseeing the restoration of Catholicism in England, and in particular his and the government’s attitudes toward preaching; and finally, and most controversially for some, the question of the effectiveness of the burnings carried out by the regime of Protestants. To all these questions, Duffy wishes to continue the work he started in Stripping of the Altars, and revise the conventional opinions among historians. In this case, he claims that the propaganda efforts of the Marian regime were much more vigorous and effective than has been generally realized. He cites the work of Nicholas Harpsfield, the archdeacon of Canterbury, as an outstanding polemic produced by the Marian writers. Likewise, he claims that Cardinal Pole and the Marian regime did not neglect preaching in regards to the restoration of Catholicism, and that the regime did take pains to try and convert the most intransigent Protestants before resorting to force. Finally, he argues that the burning of Protestants, while morally repellent, was not the desperate act of an exhausted, unimaginative and failing regime, but was brutally effective at taking the spirit out of the nascent Protestant movement in England, and might have succeeded, had Mary Tudor lived long enough.

Duffy is a fine historian, a very careful and apt reader of historical evidence, which he displays above all in his readings of John Foxe’s accounts of Protestant martyrs. He makes as good a case as one can reasonably expect for the Marian regime, and the moral horror of the burnings notwithstanding, his book should convince fair minded readers that the Marian regime was not doomed to failure because of its alleged incompetence, or exhaustion. Now, it is well known that Professor Duffy is a Catholic, and his motivation for writing a book like this obviously is related to his faith. But if one wants to get a sense of why Mary and his councillors decided to do what they did, or at least their justification for doing so, this is the book to start with. It is not, however, going to give you a detailed explanation as to why people’s in early modern England were willing to do something as horrific as burn another human being to death. This is perhaps the one criticism I can make of the book. Duffy merely says that it is anachronistic to project modern morality onto peoples of the 16th century. Most people were fine with such punishments, save for a few exceptions. Only the targets and the definition of heresy were at issue between Protestants and Catholics. Both sides agree heresy was deserving of such treatment. And it is certainly debatable whether burning someone to death for heresy is much worse than hanging drawing and quartering some one for treason (which Queen Elizabeth did a great deal in her reign). All of this may be true, but I wish Professor Duffy had gone a bit further toward explaining the mentality behind this, which he does in some ways, but not as extensively as I think he should. In any case, one should try and read the book with an open mind, if you wish to learn more about the ultimately doomed efforts of the Marian regime to restore Catholicism in England.

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