Sixteenth-century England presents a historical paradox: the cultured seat of Shakespeare and Spenser was also the site of unparalleled religious persecution by the Catholic Church. The evolving nature of this persecution of Protestants during the reign of Queen Mary was the focus of the Reginald Cardinal Pole Lecture at Rose Hill on Nov. 1 by visiting scholar Thomas S. Freeman, Ph.D., research officer, British Academy John Foxe Project.
Freeman noted that the total number of religious executions in Marian England was comparable to that in other European countries, but rather more savage. “The intensity of Marian-era executions, by any standard, was remarkable,” said Freeman.
He also pointed out that such widespread persecution could not have taken place without complicity and cooperation from the highest to lowest levels of government, beginning with the Queen, and her Privy Council and commissions. Freeman said, however, that officials more commonly sought recantations than capital punishment. He also said that the bishops’ sentences of excommunication were de facto death sentences when the prisoners were transferred to the secular authority.
The methodology of killing took a couple of turns, including large spectacles where as many as 13 Protestants who had refused to recant were burned en masse, their screams “sounding like a pack of hounds,” according to a contemporary account.
Freeman said that horrific as the executions may have been, they were effective, and had Queen Mary not died at age 42, her attempt to restore the Catholic Church in England may very well have succeeded.
In a contemporary sermon, Cardinal Pole said, “we’re turning the corner, and we’re going to be successful.” The executions, however, ushered in a backlash of strong anti-Catholicism that exists, in some ways, to the present day.
The Pole lectures, sponsored by the Department of History and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, examine a controversial figure in Catholic history: the last Catholic Archbishop of Canterbury. “Cardinal Pole was an extremely important politician,” said Susan Wabuda, Ph.D., professor of history at Fordham. “Many policies he pursued in England were taken up by the Council of Trent and applied more widely by the Catholic Church.”
By Brian Kluepfel