Saturday, 14 September 2013

The Marian Persecutions

"The Marian Persecutions" were the series of religious persecutions that took place after Mary I had become Queen of England. The persecutions began in January 1555 when Mary I had turned England's religion back to Catholicism - both the Council and the Parliament sanctioned the persecutions though some of their members went into exile. Still the the infamous laws of heresy and papal authority were issued and they were to cause many people the most painful death imaginable.

However, the persecutions were not popular with the Spanish Charles V despite the general believe that it was Mary's Spanish marriage that had brought about the religious intolerance; Charles V had experienced himself how unpopular persecutions were (I wonder why) and perhaps he was worried that it would jeopardize Mary's throne. But as it happened Mary's husband, Philip of Spain, did not share this hesitation. There were three groups besides the Queen herself that worked the great machinery of the counter-revolution (according to a Spanish account):

  • The Papal group - headed by Reginald Pole - whose loyalty was firmly placed with the Holy Father in Rome
  • English Romanists who were angry about how Henry VIII had treated the Catholics during the Reformation and therefore harboured a special grudge against the reformers
  • King Consort Philip and the Spaniards who had accompanied him to England. They needed to strike down as much as the reformist power as possible to strengthen Philip's personal authority 

Since that the persecutions did not take off before after Mary and Philip's marriage it would seem that it was the Spanish entourage of the King Consort who had sparked the beginning of the persecutions. Though the English Romanists were the most eager to persecute Protestants they could not do so without the consent of their monarch and her husband.

Stephen Gardiner was the main architect behind the string of religious fear that was about to hit England again. Like Mary, he had remained an ardent Catholic through the Reformation and definitely had an interest in turning the country back to what he saw as "the one and true faith".
One of the great "villains" in the Marian Persecutions were Edmund Bonner, Bishop of London. He had been reinstalled into his office at Mary's ascending to the throne. The reason for why he has stood out among all those who either sanctioned or carried out the persecutions is the disturbingly high number of people who were sent to the stake by him. One third of all the victims of the Marian Persecutions (that is about 100 people!) were burned within Edmund Bonner's diocese which meant that he had had to at least know about the arrests and at worst had eagerly taken part of them. In Foxe's "Acts and Monuments" he damns "Bloody Bonner" - not "Bloody Mary" - and tells of one interrogation performed by Bonner himself against a man named Tomkins. Tomkins refused to recant anything which in the end brought Bonner to the point of rage where he grapped Tomkins' hand and held it over a candle till the skin began to blister. The Spanish Ambassador also mentions this story so there is probably truth to the matter.

Mary herself also had her reasons for wanting to restore Catholicism to England though they might be of a more personal nature. It is not difficult to believe that Mary connected Catholicism with her mother and the happy period before the Reformation - perhaps she sought to regain some of that happiness. Some has said that the persecutions were not the work of Mary 1 herself but that of the people surrounding her and perhaps that is the case. It is also possible that Mary's believe that a wife should be obedient towards her husband in everything can have caused her to support him. Personally, I think that Mary was not just a strong woman but also a very determined and intelligent one who ardently believed that her people would be saved by returning to Catholicism but that she chose the completely wrong way to go about this - and that this decision was influenced by those around her. In December of 1554 (before the Spanish marriage that is) she stated this to her Council:
None may be burnt without some of the Council's presence and good sermons at the same.
According to British Express the Marian Persecutions differ from every other series of persecutions in England's history because it had no political background. Instead it was all about religious beliefs and not really an attempt to strengthen Mary's position as Queen. Also, the Marian Persecutions are by far the ones that feature the horrible death of being burned alive at the stake - it had never happened as frequently nor would again than during this time which just added to the terror. It should also be remembered that though Mary I is generally stated to have had about 300 (288 to be exact) people killed during her reign this is "just" during the persecutions - this number does NOT count the ones executed after the Wyatt Rebellion for example which counted for another 200. The fact that all these executions took place within two years (the persecutions ended in 1557) is most likely one of the main reasons for why this period is remembered as being so bloody.

Fifty of these 288 were burned at Smithfield in London. Whenever these executions took place the air is reported to have been so thick with the smell of burning flesh that most people could not go outside. A series of these executions were scheduled to take place on 17 November 1558 but they were interrupted in the very last moment by a messenger carrying the message: the Queen is dead. So, these Protestants saved their lives due to the fact that English law requires all death penalties signed by the monarch itself but that the execution is cancelled if the monarch dies before the sentence is carried out.

The executions of the Oxford Martyrs during the persecutions

BBC's list of the martyrs burned by Mary (link)


  1. Executions of this order were nothing particularly unusual in Europe at this time and the overall truth of all this is that both Catholics and Protestants burnt one another depending upon who was the Establishment. John Calvin's Geneva was very intolerant ---- it was the temperament of the times, I suppose. As all these dreadful executions previously tended to centre on lopping the heads off upper class people, lords, ladies, archbishops etc. the ordinary people of England could look at this type of thing without danger to themselves and the great mistake of the Marian Government was not so much that they executed so many, it was that they executed ordinary rank and file English and so Catholicism became identified as something violet and hateful, intensely foreign and Spanish.
    Mary's marriage to Spain's Phillip was intensely unpopular, one reason being that people thought that it would bring the Inquisition to England --- they need not have been too concerned ---- what actually happened was worse!

  2. not sure about that, being burned at the stake is indeed a horrific and torturous execution method but i believe it was at least over pretty quickly once the pain became truly agonizing. The spanish inquisition on the other hand had a special tool to rip breasts off and a "brazen bull" that looks to me like it would make you suffer longer as you are literally cooked alive. Sooooooo not actually sure which is worse... pretty awful either way really.

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