Fires of Faith, By Eamon Duffy

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In July 1558, Thomas Benbridge was condemned to be burnt because he had denied the value of the sacraments. His pyre was badly built. The fire burnt away a piece of his beard, and then it licked around his legs. In agony, he cried out that he recanted. In the proximity of the pyre he signed a hasty recantion. It did no good. The Privy Council insisted that he be executed as soon as possible, though after he had been fully restored to the faith so that he would not burn in hell for all eternity.

Benbridge was just one of around 280 men and women who died in the same way between 1555 and the end of Mary's reign in 1558. Indignation is easy to achieve, but it doesn't make for good history. In his new book on "Catholic England under Mary Tudor", Eamon Duffy shows that the burnings were discriminatingly imposed, efficiently carried out and eloquently defended.

Duffy's hero is not Mary herself, but her cousin Reginald Pole, horrified by the burning of unrepentant heretics because they not only had the fire to endure, but would burn in hell for all eternity. Hoping not for a row of stakes but conversions, Pole focused on preaching. Duffy shows that his campaign was successful; there were many reconversions, and the number of burnings in 1558 declined not because the regime was losing confidence but because the leading Protestants had been removed. Most people were not Protestant, and even those that were changed their minds under the mixed onslaught of preaching and compulsion.

Duffy mines some neglected sources, but the problem he faces is that our sole source for most of the events is John Foxe's Acts and Monuments. Foxe is as reliable as a history of the war in Afghanistan commissioned by the Taliban. Writing to show that the Roman church was the Antichrist, he saw injustice and cruelty as its natural methods of self-expression. Duffy tries to pick fact out from faction. Were the Protestant burnings, for instance, really surrounded by lamenting, distraught crowds? (No.) Was Foxe right to say the only ones pleased were old people? (No.) With no sources to set against Foxe, however, it's difficult to arrive at a judgement. That said, Duffy makes a convincing and strongly argued case for a reexamination of the burnings. The Marian regime, he shows, wasn't mindlessly violent, disliking the idea of burning what Pole called "silly women" who didn't even know what sacraments were; they wanted to remove the leaders who deceived such women. Ensuring that the right people were targeted was itself a tall order, creating a regime very willing to pry.

Bishops interviewed those who looked away from the Host at the consecration, or did not creep to the cross on Good Friday. The regime hoped was that such dissidents could easily be persuaded to conform. Given every chance to recant, many humble people were let off with a caution, or showed contrition by holding a rosary in church.

Only the stubborn or eminent were treated with unrelenting harshness. Some Marian clergy intervened to moderate the harsher policies of others. The Privy Council felt that the spectacle of 22 heretics all burning together would be incendiary, and these men and women were given very loosely phrased recantations indeed. But some of the regime's foes sought martyrdom: six of those thus freed had been burned within a year. You had to want to be a martyr to end up in the fire.

Burning former Archbishop Cranmer, however, brutally disregarded these rules of engagement. Cranmer had issued six recantations of his heresy, each more abject than the one before, but still stood condemned. As the sermon was preached before his pyre, he was supposed to issue yet another. Instead, he recanted his recantations, announcing that the Pope was the Antichrist and that he intended to put his hand into the flames to punish himself for recantation. This was a cruel mistake, prompted by Mary's wish to destroy the man who had made the life of her mother, Catherine of Aragon, miserable.

Both sides were soon fighting an ugly battle for hearts and minds. Mary's regime decided to put Thomas More forward as ideal martyr. More was perfect: persecuted by the previous regime, he was a learned man who had remained true to the faith and been executed for his beliefs. A Life of More was duly written by John Harpsfield, but Harpsfield had been careful not to lay any stress on More's own career as interrogator of heretics. His eagerness to avoid the whole subject showed some unease with his own activities.

More had presciently said that while now "we are treading heretics under our feet, like ants", a day would come when "we gladly would wish... to let them have their churches quietly to themselves, so we might have ours". The quotation shows that such things could be thought. Nothing like enough people were thinking this way. The dreadful cycle continued; Henry beheaded More, Mary burned Cranmer.

Historians once thought Elizabeth tried to break this cycle of death, but Duffy points out that she was only lenient to Catholics, never tolerant. Catholics were allowed to live providing they attended a church service they thought blasphemous.

For practising their own faith, they could go to the gallows at Tyburn, where the Elizabethan regime would subject them to slow strangulation followed by the removal of genitals and entrails, followed by dismemberment. Creepily, the passionate Protestants of the 1590s ended up replicating the behaviour they had found so repellent. They persecuted people who had done nothing worse than importing or reading forbidden books; they set spies everywhere. Walsingham and his chief interrogator Topcliffe used torture lavishly; Topcliffe had a rack in his front room, for ease of access.

We might see all this as hate, but it was a mix of love and fear: love of God, and fear of difference and of hellfire. Hundreds of grisly, lonely, horribly painful deaths... It would be a pity if any similar prejudice now prevented people from learning from Duffy's important book. The Marian burnings are a crucial piece in the puzzle of how intelligent men and women were driven by their own ideas to torture and kill each other. Now more than ever, we need to understand how it came to this, how kindness and good intent made it seem sensible to preach over the screams of tortured believers. In this scrupulous and searching book, Duffy takes us to the heart of their darkness.

Diane Purkiss's 'The English Civil War: a people's history' is published by HarperPerennial

Mary Tudor: A Catholic Queen

Mary Tudor, the only child of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, was expelled from Court after the King married Anne Boleyn and downgraded her to 'Lady Mary'. She unwillingly became lady in waiting to her half sister, Elizabeth I. In July 1553 she began her reign over England, until her death in November 1558, and is best remembered for restoring Roman Catholicism to the country, during which she had almost 300 religious dissenters burned at the stake, earning herself the sobriquet of Bloody Mary.