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The Reformation in England remains a source of stimulating controversy for modern British historians. Was it a good thing or a bad thing? Were the English people delighted to be rid of medieval superstition, dump the Pope and privatise the estates of lazy, corrupt monks — the Whig view of history? Or was Protestantism a bleak Germanic creed imposed upon Merrie Englanders by the ruthless agents of the Tudor state — the view of revisionist historians such as Professor Jack Scarisbrick (The Reformation and the English People) and Professor Eamon Duffy (The Stripping of the Altars and The Voices of Morebath)?

The trump card played by Protestant historians in this historical debate has hitherto been the burning of almost 300 heretics during the brief reign of "Bloody'" Mary. The "Marian martyrdoms loom large in English national mythology," writes Duffy in his cogent and scholarly new book. "Even in our self-consciously secular times, 16th-century stereotypes, consolidated in the triumph of Protestantism under Queen Elizabeth, persist in popular culture." He cites Shekhar Kapur's film Elizabeth to make his point. 

This facile condemnation of the burning of heretics, Duffy considers, is the product of "moral hindsight" and is therefore anachronistic and not history at all. Nor is it the only misperception about the short reign of Queen Mary. Duffy disputes the critical assessment made by most historians of "the general competence, drive and direction of the regime". At the heart of the conundrum is the queen's cousin, Reginald Cardinal Pole, who returned from decades in exile in Italy as Papal Legate to re-establish the Catholic Church in England. Pole had Plantagenet blood and so was a cousin of Queen Mary: his mother, abritrarily executed by Henry VIII, had been a friend of Mary's mother, Catherine of Aragon, and for a time Mary's governess. 

Pole had been mooted as a possible husband for Mary (he was not ordained a priest until he became Archbishop of Canterbury in 1556). Was there an amitié amoureuse between Queen and Cardinal? Duffy eschews such psychological speculation: this is a work of serious history based on exhaustive research among primary sources. What is relevant is that Pole, before returning to England, had been a powerful figure in Rome and an architect of the Counter-Reformation. He had come within a single vote of being chosen as Pope, and had given a "magnificent opening address at the Council of Trent in 1546", courageously telling the assembled bishops that their sins and shortcomings were the cause of the present crisis in the Church.

Queen Mary's reign got off to a flying start. The attempt by the Duke of Northumberland to place the Protestant Lady Jane Gray on the throne instead of Mary was defeated: so too a rising in Kent led by Sir Thomas Wyatt. Convinced Protestants remained a vociferous minority but the long beards of their ministers were about as popular as the beards of Islamic mullahs in England today. Mary's triumph over Wyatt and Northumberland was taken as a sign that God was on her side, and "led scores of evangelicals to abandon their reformed opinion, seeing in her triumph the direct hand of God".

Pole arrived in England as Papal Legate on 20 November, 1554. The Spanish Ambassador thought that he was slow to take advantage of the favourable turn of events, and "was sleep-walking through his task of restoring Catholicism to England". The evidence for this negative assessment, taken up by many historians, is that Pole declined an offer from Ignatius Loyola to send Jesuits to England and made no attempt to return the land of the dissolved monasteries to the Church. Duffy shows that there were good reasons for both decisions. Pole's policy for the restoration of the Catholic Church in England was to implement "pedestrian institutional reforms" called for by the Council of Trent to improve the quality of the clergy. He therefore founded a seminary — the English College in Rome — to educate priests; and, to improve the calibre of the 20 new bishops, Pole chose "university-trained theologians, with a proven pastoral track record and, in many cases, also a record of loyalty to and suffering for Catholic believers under Henry and Edward". His judgment proved sound: all 14 surviving Catholic bishops refused the Oath of Supremacy under Queen Elizabeth and were dismissed from their sees. "This astonishing conscientious exodus from the cushioned stalls of Barchester to gaol or the wilderness," writes Duffy, "was something new in Tudor England, indeed in Reformation Europe."

When it comes to the burning of heretics, it has been common for historians — even Foxe in his Book of Martyrs — to shift the blame from Pole on to Mary herself. Duffy considers this plausible in the case of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer but not with the policy as such. There can be no serious doubt, he writes, "that Pole did back the campaign of repression..." No 16th century European state "willingly accepted or could easily imagine the peaceful coexistence of different religious confessions". Both Cranmer and his fellow Protestant martyr Latimer urged the burning, under Edward VI, of the Kentish Anabaptist Joan Butcher.

If Pole did have a horror of killing heretics, it was not because of any squeamishness about the death penalty but because he believed that "the unrepentant heretic...went to hell for all eternity". The burning here on earth was an exemplary foretaste of what they were to suffer after their death — a dramatic tableau vivant that, even as it removed the cancerous cells in the body politic, taught and deterred and so saved other souls from damnation. Modern historians, Duffy acknowledges, "find it hard to credit such convictions as grounds for action but they weighed heavily in the 16th century". 

He contrasts Pole's desire for the salvation of his fellow-countrymen and women with the purely political terror of Mary's sister and successor, Elizabeth, who "burned no Catholics, but strangled, disembowelled and dismembered more than 200." Duffy declines to allocate marks for brutality between these different methods of slow killing. 

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