The Re-Catholicisation of England

The Re-Catholicisation of England

Mary could only re-catholicise England through statute law.

In the first Parliament of October 1553 the First Statute of Repeal was passed. This repealed most of the religious legislation passed during Edward VI's rule.

By 1554 the tone of her counter reformation had changed. The second Statute of Repeal was passed, this undid most of the Henrician religious reforms. Although Mary did not dare to touch the church lands that had been sold in the 1530s and 1540s.

A new Treason's Act was introduced which gave Cardinal Pole and Mary the power to persecute 'heretics' on a large scale.

Cardinal Pole was the Queen's cousin. He had spent the past twenty or so years in exile in Rome. He nearly became Pope, narrowly missing the election by one vote.

Mary called him back from Rome in late 1554. He came from Rome with absolution for the whole realm. Upon his return to England he told parliament of his intentions: "My commission is not to pull down but to build: to reconcile, not to censure; to invite but without compulsion."

He presided over the Legatine Synod in London in 1555-56, which dealt with matters such as:

  1. Obedience to Rome.
  2. The restoration of respect for Papal canon and Papal law.
  3. The revival of Catholic ceremonies.
  4. The non-residence of bishops.
  5. Preaching.

It was decided that all bishops should be resident in their sees, and there was an emphasis on the role of preaching. Not all of the services were reverted to Latin; the vernacular was kept in some cases.

The mistake that he and Mary made was that it was going to be easy to 'reconcile' the people to the Catholic church. It wasn't.

In all 300 'heretics' were burnt between February 1555 and the end of Mary's reign in 1558. Most of the victims came from the South East of England, especially Essex (52) and Kent (59). There were only 3 burnings in Wales and only 1 in the north. The accused were burnt as this was the traditional heretics execution, the flames represented purification.

Latimer and Ridley were burnt in Oxford on 26th October 1555. Cranmer was burnt on 21st March 1556. (Pole had become Archbishop of Canterbury.)

Simon Renard, Philip's ambassador wrote to him in 1555, "The people of this town of London are murmuring about the cruel enforcement of the recent acts of parliament on heresy." He informed Philip of how the people who watched the burnings wept openly, collecting the ashes and bones of the victims. (The Privy Council tried to limit the number of people who attended the burnings.)

Many of these victims have enjoyed the reputation as 'martyrs' since John Foxe's publication of Acts and Monuments in the reign of Elizabeth. The impact of the burnings may have been exaggerated in the past. One account states that the smell of burning flesh was no stranger to the streets of London. In fact, the burnings in London took place, on the whole, in Smithfields, and there were 46 in total. Nevertheless, 300 human lives were lost (men, women and teenagers) in less than 3 years.

England was not 'Protestant' on the 6th July 1553 and Catholic on the 7th. It could never be that simple.

It is difficult to measure the extent of the Henrician and Edwardian reforms, and the extent to which England was 'Protestant' on the eve of Edward's death. There is evidence, which Jennifer Loach uses, that demonstrates a considerable amount of support for the new Queen, and an anticipation of the Catholic reforms to follow: In Chester-le-Street there was a spontaneous restoration of the Latin Mass, in Melton Mowbray the altar stones were 'back in place before mass was said for the dead king', and hidden images of the Virgin Mary and other saints re-emerged quickly (even in the so-called Protestant areas of the South East).

The same issue is raised at the end of her reign: was England firmly on its way to Catholicism once more in 1558? Possibly not. It's more likely that people anticipated change again under the new Queen. There are wills which have enlightening clauses, like that of a York parishioner, who when bequeathing a vestement to his local church, he included the proviso that 'if the use of vestements do cease in churches' then it should go back to his family. In another instance, a man from Kent who donated money in his will added that the money should go to the poor if the law was changed again. (Both examples come from Jennifer Loach's article, Mary Tudor and the Re-Catholicisation of England, History Today 1994, which you can buy online at the website of History Today.) People were uncertain of the future.

The burnings were probably unpopular, but after Wyatt's rebellion, there were no other serious threats to Mary's reign. And it is important to remember that the heretics had to be tried by local jurors before they were prosecuted, so there must have been some local support for the policies.

Towne best sums up the situation: "If England was far from being a Protestant state in 1553, it was also far from being universally Catholic in 1558."