From The Times Literary Supplement July 22, 2009

Not a real queen? What do historians have against England's earliest Queen regnant - a decisive and clear-headed ruler?

Peter Marshall

Three of these books share the title Mary Tudor (the fourth uses the designation in its subtitle). This is more than a little odd. Mary is the only English monarch routinely known by her family name rather than her regnal number. It's as if she wasn't really a proper queen at all, her rule an interruption to the proper numerical progress of monarchical history. The reign was of course an interruption to a particular view of historical progress: that which identified the establishment of Protestantism as the keystone of English national identity and subsequent imperial greatness. In the still remarkably fresh satirical words of 1066 And All That, the Catholic Mary simply failed to understand that "England is bound to be C of E".

England is no longer a Protestant nation, but the cultural templates of the past stubbornly resist resetting. Feminist historians have almost uniformly declined the invitation to laud the achievements of England's earliest Queen regnant (in fact, much modern scholarship, as Judith M. Richards notes in exasperation, seems almost to proceed from the assumption that Elizabeth I was the nation's first female ruler). Meanwhile, the judgement of the Enlightenment, in the person of David Hume, that Mary was "a weak bigoted woman, under the government of priests" has proved remarkably tenacious. It continues to characterize representations of the queen in popular culture, from Kathy Burke's skilful cameo as a gibbering simpleton in Shekhar Kapur's 1998 film Elizabeth, to Mary's role in a recent Discovery Channel series on "the most evil women in history". It is revealing that three of these authors begin their books with anecdotes about the negative or sceptical reactions of friends and colleagues on being told they were writing about "Mary Tudor".

Yet if the revisionist reassessment of Mary has been long in coming, it is now finally here, with several markedly upbeat analyses of the Queen and her achievements, like proverbially delayed buses, turning up at once. All of these books (their publishers' conservative titles notwithstanding) invite readers to rethink the customary stereotypes. Of the three biographies, Richards's (aimed at a student audience) is the most conventionally scholarly, though enlivened by dry wit and some decidedly quirky sub-headings ("The Apparent Tranquility of the Unmarried Princess"). Richards's principal concern is with Mary's precocious historical role as England's first woman monarch, and her often successful attempts to function as a "female king" in a deeply patriarchal society. Against the odds, Mary normalized the idea of female monarchy, while retaining its sacral aspects, and in a number of areas where Elizabeth has tended to get all the credit - such as the politically skilful adaptation of gender roles, and the projection of "magnificence" - Mary scores high marks. If female monarchy was a novelty, the notion of the king-consort, after the wedding in July 1554 to Philip of Spain, was for contemporaries an even stranger beast. Richards is particularly good at exploring the politics and symbolism of this unprecedented constitutional arrangement (after the marriage Mary ate off gold plates, while Philip's were silver), though at the same time she is inclined to play down the tragic aspects of Mary's emotionally asymmetrical relationship with her usually absentee Spanish husband.

For Anna Whitelock, however, the key to understanding the life and reign is "the contrast between Mary as Queen and the personal tragedy of Mary as a woman". Whitelock is an academic trying her hand at popular biography. The attempt is only partially successful. Dividing the book into a succession of very short chapters (sixty-six in total) introduces a slightly breathless quality to the writing, and in places risks reducing the narrative to a series of decontextualized vignettes. There are a few venial slips: Katherine Woodville (rather than Margaret Pole) was mother of the ill-fated Edward Stafford, third Duke of Buckingham; the priests executed with Elizabeth Barton, the Nun of Kent, in 1534 were Benedictine and Franciscan, not Carthusians; Cuthbert Tunstall is prematurely promoted to the bishopric of Durham, and Thomas Wriothesley to the earldom of Southampton. The description of Rowland Taylor - pluralist ecclesiastical office-holder and leading light of the Edwardine regime - as a "country parson" means that the significance of his execution is understated. Yet Whitelock's provocative assessment of the scale of Mary's achievements - a trail-blazing queen regnant who seized the throne through decisive action, who held it firm against determined rebels, who contracted a spectacular marriage, and sponsored thoughtful rather than merely reactionary religious policies - is persuasive on a historical as well as rhetorical level.

A sense of Mary as an individual emerges most strongly from Linda Porter's beautifully written and consistently engrossing study: her love of fine clothes and jewels, her near-addiction to gambling at dice and cards (which at one point in Henry's reign consumed a third of her income), her warmth and generosity to friends. Porter provides careful and non-sensationalist discussion of Mary's likely medical ailments, and of her possible attitudes to sex. At the same time there are effective pen-portraits of the supporting characters: Jane Seymour is "a clever little mouse"; Henry VIII, "a strangely fragile man with an infinite capacity to feel sorry for himself". Porter writes unashamedly in the genre of popular history, and in places paints with a broad brush, but her book is notably insightful on politics, and bears the marks of thorough research (she is, for example, more systematically source-critical than Whitelock over the value of evidence drawn from the Protestant martyrologist John Foxe's Acts and Monuments).

Readers of these three biographies, unlike those of previous studies, are likely to retain two collective impressions. One is of Mary as a decisive and clear-headed ruler, and a skilled political and diplomatic operator. By the time of her accession, she was no ingenue, but a graduate of the hard school of Tudor court politics. The other is of Mary's basic likeability: in terms of character, she comes across as by far the most personally attractive of all the Tudor monarchs (admittedly, not difficult). That she did not grow into the neurotic, hysterical Queen of popular tradition is in itself remarkable, in view of horrendous experiences during parts of her youth. As a twenty-year-old, Mary was forced to disavow her parents' marriage and to recognize her father in the role of quasi-pope, the King having sent a posse of aristocratic thugs to bully her into submission to his will. The nobles told her that if she were their daughter, they would beat her to death, or bash her head against a wall until they made it "as soft as a boiled apple". Who could fail to empathize with the victim of such appalling treatment?

And yet there is a problem, a fiery road-block to the rehabilitation of "Bloody Mary". What of those 300-odd Protestant dissenters, who died, horribly, at the stake for holding resolutely to opinions of which the Queen disapproved? Whitelock and Porter deal fleetingly with the burnings; Richards more robustly insists that we not view them through modern eyes, while struggling to establish the extent of Mary's personal responsibility for the policy. Eamon Duffy's Fires of Faith makes clear in its title that the issue cannot be ignored, and that the campaign of religious persecution is central to his assessment of the religious policies of the regime. This is in some ways the paying of an old debt. Duffy's The Stripping of the Altars (1992) contained a brilliant rereading of Marian Catholicism, stressing its creativity and far-sightedness, but there Duffy consciously chose not to deal with the burnings, and as a result, his picture of the regime's policies and priorities was inevitably partial. The invitation to deliver the Birkbeck Lectures at Cambridge in 2007-08 provided an opportunity to redress the imbalance, or rather to seek to remove what Duffy regards as the last remaining obstacle to a comprehensively positive reassessment of the aims and achievements of the Marian restoration.

His thesis, baldly stated, is that the policy of religious persecution, conventionally regarded as disorganized and deeply counter-productive, was in fact not only inevitable, but also competently directed and largely successful. Over the course of its three-and-a-half years, the campaign against heresy intensified, the authorities seizing the initiative and holding their nerve, as Protestants were increasingly burnt in larger batches and in fewer places. The fact that by 1557 a high proportion of the victims were repeat offenders suggests that the regime had isolated a core of recidivists, and the tailing-off of the burnings in 1558 may be a sign that there were fewer zealots around to execute, as much as of the economic and political disruptions of that year.

In spectacularly overturning the accepted narrative, Duffy supplies a masterclass in against-the-grain readings of the historical record, as his principal source is Foxe, whose Acts and Monuments is now available online in all its versions. Against his own intentions, Foxe can be made to show that popular support for the martyrs was often limited, and that the Marian authorities frequently went to remarkable lengths to try to save prisoners from the flames, albeit by demanding a (sometimes minimal) recantation of their beliefs.

Some critics will accuse Duffy of acting as apologist for a campaign of violent repression, but this would scarcely be fair: "confronted by the sanctified savageries of the Tudor age, it would be a hard heart that withheld pity from the victims or felt no indignation against the perpetrators". Nonetheless, he argues that we should respect the uncomfortable alterity of the past (where religious leaders on all sides saw death as the appropriate punishment for heresy), and try to put aside modern humanitiarian sensibilities in the cause of sober historical understanding. Yet this does not prevent Duffy from pursuing his brief with verve and gusto, or from taking evident delight in the exposure of platitudes and the debunking of myths. "Pure invention" is his judgement on the famous last words attributed by Foxe to Bishop Latimer, addressing his companion at the stake: "Be of good comfort Master Ridley, and play the man: we shall this day light such a candle by God's grace in England as (I trust) shall never be put out". Occasionally, the rhetorical pudding feels over-egged: there were certainly more (often genuine) reconversions of Protestants to Catholicism at the start of the reign than previous scholars were aware of, or wanted to admit, though whether this really qualifies as a "tidal wave" is questionable.

There is faith as well as fire in Duffy's account: a key concern is to situate the burnings in the context of a Catholic restoration that was articulate, coherent and authentic. The arguments of judges and interrogators at heresy trials were of a piece with those hammered home in propaganda tracts, journalistic pamphlets, devotional writings and a concerted homiletic campaign: the idea that the Marian authorities were suspicious of preaching is another debunkable myth, as is what Duffy terms A. G. Dickens's "fatuous" claim that the tragedy of the Marian regime was its failure "to discover the Counter-Refomation". Marian Catholicism was in fact at the forefront of new devotional currents. Some of this has already been demonstrated in Duffy's earlier work.

The fresh value of Fires of Faith is two-fold. First, Duffy brings out more clearly than any previous commentator just how much later Catholicism, in England and internationally, owed to the reconstructed, and intellectually and morally stiffened, Church of Mary Tudor. That all but one of Mary's bishops refused the Elizabethan Oath of Supremacy is well known, as is the post-1559 exodus of leading figures from the University of Oxford - and to a lesser extent, Cambridge. But Duffy is able to demonstrate that a clear majority of cathedral dignitaries (people one might expect to be Trollopean timeservers) also refused to serve the new regime, and hints - further research is required on this - that there may have been much more resistance among the parish clergy than has often been supposed. Marian clerics in exile, like Nicholas Sander, went on to play important roles in the final sessions of the Council of Trent, where two of the decrees of the 1555 Westminster Synod - on episcopal residence, and on the establishment of diocesan seminaries - were adopted as normative for the entire Roman Church. The Marian Church, Duffy concludes, not only discovered, but actually "invented" the Counter-Reformation.

Duffy's second major achievement is to put a name and a face to the movement's chief inventor, Cardinal Reginald Pole, papal legate and Archbishop of Canterbury, and yet for long "the invisible man of the Marian restoration". Pole, Duffy contends, has been seriously misunderstood, and consistently underestimated, then and now. He was not always his own best friend: "a charming and eloquent conversationalist among friends, he could appear forbiddingly austere, taciturn, even secretive in public", an assessment which makes him sound a bit like Gordon Brown. Nonetheless, Duffy demonstrates convincingly that Pole's leadership was crucial across several spheres. From the outset, he pushed a papalist agenda, with which the other leaders of the Church gradually fell into line. John Foxe thought Pole "none of the bloody and cruel sort of papist", and he has often been seen as an unwilling or ineffectual persecutor. But Duffy puts him firmly in what has hitherto tended to be an empty historical chair, that of principal director of the Marian burnings. Pole's closest servants and collaborators were notably avid and efficient in the detection and punishment of heresy, and his hand can be seen in the issuing of central directives on how the problem was to be tackled. He invariably wanted heretics to recant, saving their lives (and their immortal souls). But if they would not do so, he did not shrink from the consequences. Most intriguingly, Duffy demonstrates that Pole was the moving force behind a campaign to undermine the Protestant "pseudo-martyrs" by painting a sophisticated and positive picture of genuine Catholic martyrdom. This involved promoting the memory of Thomas More. In a piece of inspired literary detective work, Duffy establishes that Nicholas Harpsfield's Life of Thomas More, generally supposed to be the work of Edwardine exile, must have been composed at the end of 1556, when, as the Cardinal's right-hand man in the South-east, Harpsfield was up to his elbows in the campaign to reimpose Catholicism. He would hardly have taken the time without Pole's explicit encouragement or commission, and Duffy also ascribes William Rastell's 1557 edition of More's English Works, and William Roper's manuscript memoir of his father-in-law, to Pole's direct influence.

History can be reinterpreted, but not rewritten. The Marian regime ultimately failed completely in its aim of remaking England as a Catholic nation, when Mary herself died (of causes none of her biographers can quite agree on) on November 17, 1558. Scholars have suspected for some time that, had she lived longer, failure might not have been inevitable. Now we can be sure it was not. Fires of Faith is a dazzling exercise in historical reappraisal, after which the reign of Mary Tudor will never look quite the same again. We might even start calling it the reign of Mary I.

Judith M. Richards, MARY TUDOR, 264pp. Routledge. 14.99 (US $27.95). 978 0 415 32721 3

Anna Whitelock MARY TUDOR England's first Queen 384pp. Bloomsbury. 20. 978 0 7475 9018 7

Linda Porter MARY TUDOR The first Queen 464pp. Piaktus. Paperback, 9.99. 978 0 7499 0982 6 US: St Martin's Press. $27.95. 978 0 312 36837 1

Eamon Duffy FIRES OF FAITH Catholic England under Mary Tudor 240pp. Yale University Press. 19.99 (US $28.50). 978 0 300 15216 6 d in hardback by Portrait, £20

Peter Marshall is Professor of History at the University of Warwick. His recent books include Mother Leakey and the Bishop: A ghost story, 2007, and Beliefs and the Dead in Reformation England, 2002.

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