Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Part 2: Can Mary I's reputation be salvaged?

As promised here is the next section of my work on Mary I's reputation. This section considers the origins of Mary's reputation and its descent from Tudor queen to bloody tyrant.

Origins of Mary I's reputation: 

Protestant scholar and clergyman, John Foxe.
Line engraving by George Glover c.1641
The origins of Mary’s reputation can be traced back to the Elizabethan era and the publication of John Foxe’s ‘Book of Martyrs’, which was completed in 1559. The Book of Martyrs was originally written by Foxe as a historical work of martyrology that documented the sufferings of Protestant martyrs and set out to detail the historical legitimacy of the Protestant Church[1], which Catholics derided for its youth and lack of distinct origins. Foxe places emphasis on the martyrdoms of Mary’s reign - the Marian martyrdoms - with three of the twelve volumes covering the burnings of 1554-58. These have served as key tools in the formation of Mary’s bloody reputation because they detail the gruesome deaths of the martyrs and the brutality of the Marian government; leading to Mary being portrayed as the figurehead of a period of extreme cruelty. A particularly horrific and emotive account of the Marian burnings is the case of Perotine Massey on Guernsey. Massey was charged with “forsaking the mass and ordinances of the same, against the will of...the Queen”[2] and condemned as a heretic to be burnt. However during her execution there was a further twist as Massey gave birth at the stake. The child was pulled to safety by an onlooker, but the officiating bailiff in an extreme act of cruelty ordered that the child be thrown back into the flames to perish with its mother. Even for the sixteenth century where religious persecution and execution was commonplace this was an unprecedented act of brutality so it served to shock people and associate severe cruelty with Mary and her government. Therefore the meticulous documentation of the martyrdoms associated Mary with cruelty, and contributed to the formation of her bloody reputation because she was seen to have permitted and encouraged the horrific persecutions of her reign.

Statue of John Knox outside New College,
Edinburgh University's School of Divinity
Interestingly throughout the work Foxe does not depict Mary herself as bloody, rather he bemoans “the horrible and bloudye tyme of Queene Marye”[3]. He argued that Mary’s Catholicism left her vulnerable to manipulation by her clergy who were “pests...who pervert[ed] the minds of princes, and encourage[d] cruelty for their own purposes”[4]; so Foxe holds her advisors responsible. While Foxe absolved Mary other Protestant writers did not. John Knox in ‘The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women’, a misogynist work that argued that female rule goes against God, was particularly critical. He furthered the traditional argument that women were incapable of ruling because God made them inferior to men so if given power they would become cruel, sexually predatory tyrants. He used Mary as an example throughout, claiming that the burnings were caused by “the inordinate appetites of that cruel monster Mary (unworthy, by reason of her bloody tyranny, of the name of a woman)”[5]. This is one of the earliest references to Mary as bloody and Knox is clearly suggesting that Mary initiated the burnings due to her personal vindictiveness, which links to his argument that power unleashes cruelty in women. To an extent this work represents the commonplace sixteenth century view of women as weak and inferior to men so it seems likely that others would have agreed with Knox; although Knox’s views are particularly extreme. Therefore to an extent attitudes towards women meant that Mary was blamed for the persecutions documented in The Book of Martyrs, despite Foxe’s absolution of her.

Unlike The Book of Martyrs, which was supported by the Privy Council who declared in 1569 that every parish should have a copy, The First Blast was less popular due to the death of Mary and accession of Protestant Elizabeth shortly after its publication in 1558. The Elizabethan regime banned it, and its author[6], from England due to it denigrating female rulers and therefore being an insult to the queen. On the other hand The Book of Martyrs was supported by the government because it condemned the previous Catholic regime and emphasised the legitimacy of Protestantism, which Mary’s successor was beginning to re-establish. It was often used as a tool by the Elizabethan regime, and later regimes, as a way of stirring up anti-Catholicism and therefore animosity towards Mary. Its use for this purpose was further refined after the publication of Timothy Bright’s abridgement in 1589, which transformed the work into a piece of Protestant nationalist propaganda with a preface entitled ‘The Special Note of England’ that celebrated the English Reformation[7]. This abridgement was published shortly after the defeat of the Spanish Armada so it tapped into the growing feeling of English nationalism. Similarly new editions of the original work were published after religious conflicts to emphasise the dangers of Catholicism, such as the eighth edition of The Book of Martyrs published in 1641after the Irish Rebellion where Irish Catholics had violently rebelled against the Protestant English administration. Therefore successive Protestant governments used The Book of Martyrs to emphasise their legitimacy and the dangers of Catholicism, leading to the Marian martyrdoms being kept in the public consciousness and the continued vilification of Mary. 

Bloody Mary? Image used in the
London Dungeon's adverts for their
2010 'Bloody Mary' exhibit
The Book of Martyrs’ success is also connected to the fact that to a large extent it is historically accurate. Despite Foxe writing it in exile many of his sources were from eyewitnesses and the families of martyrs in England so the tales of martyrdoms are often detailed as well as accurate. In the face of this powerful work Catholic writers, such as Nicholas Harpsfield, tried to defend Mary’s reputation by highlighting errors in the work in an attempt to undermine Foxe’s credibility. However these attempts were relatively unsuccessful as Foxe went on to include the corrections in later editions, preserving its accuracy. This undeniable degree of accuracy in Foxe’s work has led to it being an invaluable source for historians and writers from the sixteenth century to the present day. In the seventeenth century it was used as the basis for popular plays, such as Thomas Dekker’s ‘The Whore of Babylon’ which was written shortly after the Gunpowder Plot in 1605 and was strongly anti-Catholic[8] and Thomas Heywood’s ‘If you know not me’, published in 1604, which presented Mary as dogmatic and uncaring.[9] Theatre was a powerful medium in an age of mass illiteracy so these plays served to colour people’s opinion of Mary as a bloody, Catholic tyrant. The tide of seventeenth century Protestant works against Mary then laid the foundations for later historians to further develop her bloody reputation, with David Hume in the eighteenth century listing her traits as “Obstinacy, bigotry, cruelty, malignity, revenge [and] tyranny”.[10] This demonstrates how within two hundred years of her death Mary’s reputation as a cruel tyrant had formed and become accepted by academics and individuals, and how ultimately this reputation stemmed from The Book of Martyrs and the religious/political climate following her death in 1558.

[1] ‘Foxe’s Book of Martyrs’ In Our Time BBC Radio 4 (18th November 2010)
[2] Letter from the Bailiff’s Lieutenant and Curates of St Peter’s Port to the Dean and Curates of Guernsey in Vol 12 of The Book of Martyrs 1576
[3] Foxe, John The Book of Martyrs 1563 p 889
[4] Letter from Foxe to the House of Lords in 1554 in John Strype Memorials of...Thomas Cranmer p 937
[5] Knox, John The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, edited by Edward Arber p 67
[6] Knox, John The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women
[7] Devereux, Janice ‘The Internet Connection: Claiming John Foxe as their Own. Foxe’s Book of Martyrs on the World Wide Web’ p 272 in John Foxe at Home and Abroad ed. David Loades
[8] Krantz, Susan E Thomas Dekker’s Political Commentary in The Whore of Babylon on JSTOR
[9] Heywood, Thomas ‘If you know not me you know nobody’ in The Dramatic Works of Thomas Heywood
[10] Hume, David The History of the Revolution of 1688 Vol.3 p 19

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