Friday, 31 July 2009

Can historians now agree on the successes of Mary’s reign?

Peter Marshall has written an interesting article on the latest works on Mary’s reign (including Eamon Duffy’s engrossing study on the Marian Church):

The article ends on an optimistic note, and one I wish to share. But is Marshall correct when stating that scholars of this period can now be sure that had Mary not died in November 1558, her reign would not have been the disaster which has long been alleged?

Judith Richards, Eamon Duffy, Linda Porter and Anna Whitelock are not the first historians to advance favorable views of Mary or of aspects of her reign. They are not the first to challenge the assumption that her reign was one of complete sterility or the common longstanding belief that the Marian Church was bound to fail. Richards and Duffy in particular have constructed sound arguments that have contributed immeasurably to the perception of Marian regime as competent, but will their works be widely credited? Will historians of this period listen to these new ideas?

I am bit of a cynical person so my instant conclusion was that the new arguments, whilst encouraging, will not be as quickly and as widely credited as Marshall asserts. When Duffy’s book, Fires of Faith: Catholic England under Mary Tudor had just been released, a review by David Starkey emerged in The Sunday Times. The review was somewhat hostile, accusing Duffy of lacking much sympathy for the persecuted Protestants of Mary’s reign. A positive review was found in The Telegraph, but the reaction of the paper’s readers hardly reflected the praise. One reader, clearly perturbed by Duffy’s (and the reviewer’s) tone, stated:

So adding a 'renaissance' storey to a mediaeval tomb acquits Bloody Mary of being a backward-looking religious tyrant does it? Anyone, but anyone, who advocates the burning alive of someone else whose opinion differs from theirs, far from being an emblem of 'modernity', is in fact a throw-back to the barbarian hordes."

Furthermore even scholars of Mary’s reign are not in agreement over the argument that a lack of time was Mary’s failure, not her policies. The prime example is that of David Loades, who has worked on Mary’s reign for decades. In his latest work on Mary’s life, Loades concludes that her reign ‘was a failure in terms or her own aims and proprieties’ (Loades, Mary Tudor: The Tragical history of the first queen of England, p. 212). He admits that she could not help being childless, could not avoid the poor harvests and certainly could not prevent dying only after five years on the throne. But he still focuses on the incompetency of certain policies and overall asserts that problems would have persisted had Mary lived longer than she did.

As someone planning to examine Mary's reign for my MA dissertation, I am naturally exciting about the new works and hope they will have a wide impact on scholarship not only of Mary’s reign but of sixteenth-century English religious, political and social history as a whole. But I think it will take some time for these views to be widely endorsed by certain academics and unfortunately much longer for the public as a whole to start adopting these ideas. The legend of ‘Bloody Mary’ will not go away easily.


David Starkey’s review of Eamon Duffy, Fires of Faith: Catholic England Under Mary Tudor:

Christopher Howse’s article on Mary’s reputation and Duffy’s latest work, in the Telegraph:


  1. I actually had never thought of What if Mary lived longer? At first glance and The Bloody Mary reputation, I had assumed she was pretty disastrous.
    I shall have to ponder this when I read Loades' book.

  2. Thanks for the comment!

    It is an interesting ‘what if?’ Loades explores it in the end chapter of ‘Mary Tudor: A Life’ and comes down decidedly on the idea that problems would have still persisted had Mary lived past 1558. He raises the interesting point that the problem of the succession would have continued, if not worsened, particularly as it seems unlikely that Mary would have been able to produce a child (a Catholic heir).

    Recent works, particularly by Judith Richards and Eamon Duffy have undermined this argument by empathising the vitality of the Marian Church and the successes of certain Marian policies. Duffy has recently stated that ‘it was the death of the Queen, not any sense of failure, loss of direction or waning of determination, that called a halt to the Marian burnings’ (Fires of Faith, p. 187). The implication that the persecution of the Protestants was not widely despised by the populace and that the regime even gathered support for their actions is an intriguing argument.

  3. Thank you for this posting and the one after about the new study on different perspectives of her reign. Elena Maria Vidal has hosted a great discussion on her blog, Tea at Trianon, after I sent her a review of Eamon Duffy's Fires of Faith. I agree with you that his argument about the effectiveness and the reaction to the persecution of heretics is very intriguing, but I was even more interested in his discussion of the Counter-Reformation ethos of the revival of Catholicism under the direction of Reginald Pole. His final chapter on the influence of Pole's efforts on the Council of Trent and on English Catholicism under Elizabeth I was really very convincing to me.