The Traditional View


The first historian to write about the burnings of Mary's reign was the Protestant martyrologist John Foxe.

     Foxe was a clergyman at Salisbury Cathedral during the reign of Elizabeth, and he was VERY biased.   History is written by the victors, and Foxe was writing at a time when Protestantism had firmly established itself in England.   In his Book of Martyrs, therefore, Foxe was wanting:

  • to prove that he people of England had fully embraced Protestantism during Edward's reign;

  • to show how evil the Catholics (particularly Mary) were and turn people away from Catholicism;

  • to show how brave and true Protestants were and attract people to Protestantism;

  • to show how much better things were under Elizabeth.

Foxe was quite open about why he wrote his book:


Source A

to this intent and effect, that all readers and rulers may not only see how the Lord did work against Mary, but also by her may be advertised and learned what a dangerous thing it is for men and women in authority, upon blind zeal and opinion, to stir up persecution in Christ's Church, to the shedding of Christian blood..

John Foxe, The Book of Martyrs (1563)



During the following centuries, England remained a proudly Protestant country, so Foxe's view continued to prevail.   Mary, it was said, had made a mistake - her burnings only turned the people against Catholicism, and they came to hate 'Bloody Mary' and her Catholic religion.   This is what many school textbooks say even today.


The following passage was written by a children's historian called H.E. Marshall.   Marshall write her book during the Second World War, when the people of Britain were again fighting for their freedom, and she speaks about the Marian martyrs a bit like Winston Churchill spoke about the Battle of Britain:


Source B

Now began the most terrible time of Mary's reign, for it required more than a few words from King, Queen, and Pope to make England again truly Roman Catholic.  The Protestants would not give up their religion.  Mary was determined that they should.  Those who refused were imprisoned and put to death in the most cruel way.  They were burned alive.

     It would make you too sad to tell stories of this terrible time.  In three years nearly three hundred people were put to death by Mary's cruel orders.  Yet she did no good but rather harm to her cause.  For many who were at first on her side turned away with horror from her dreadful cruelties.

     These men and women who suffered death so cheerfully for their religion fought for British freedom as much as any of the brave men of whom you have heard.  And it was much harder to die as they did, than to fall in battle fighting for their country with sword and spear.  So when you hear such names as Ridley, Latimer, and Cranmer, honour them as heroes, and think gratefully of the many, many others, whose names we shall never know, but who suffered as bravely.

HE Marshall, Our Island Story (c.1940)



The Revisionist View


Recently, however, historians have questioned this Protestant view of Mary.   This what John Guy thinks:


Source C

We should beware of the bias of John Foxe and other Protestant writers writing in Elizabeth's reign.   It is true that Mary burned a minimum of 287 persons.   But the leading protestant martyrs, Ridley, Latimer and Cranmer, were as much the victims of straightforward political revenge.   Secondly, we should appreciate that many of the Marian 'martyrs' would have been burned by Henry VIII.   by 16th century standards, there was nothing exceptional about Mary's reign of terror.   Even the scale of Mary's persecution may have been exaggerated, for the figures come from the biased Foxe, who reported the same examples twice wherever possible.

John Guy in The Oxford Popular History of Britain (1984)


and Professor Andrew Pettegree believes that Mary actually succeeded, and that Protestantism was NOT as firmly established as historians once thought:


Source D

On Edward's death in 1553, the changes were reversed easily by his Catholic half-sister, Mary (1553-1558). Only Mary's devotion to the papacy (which threatened the continued possession of former monastic property in the hands of those who had purchased it from the crown), and her determination to marry her cousin, Philip of Spain, provoked a half-hearted reaction. English Protestantism was reduced once again to a persecuted remnant; many of its ablest figures taking refuge abroad, to avoid martyrdom - the fate of those whom remained behind..

Andrew Pettegree, The English Reformation (2002)




The historian Diarmaid MacCulloch believes that:


Source E

On paper the government had made Protestantism the sole legal religion.   But in parish churches most priests were Catholic and opposed to many of the changes.  Much evidence suggests that Protestantism had little impact on the hearts and minds of ordinary people.  There were many reports that people wouldn't listen to the new sermons and money gifts to the church fell.  The impact of Edward VI's Reformation was superficial and that it took Elizabeth decades to convert the Catholic masses to something even vaguely Protestant.

Diarmaid MacCollogh, The Myth of the English Reformation (2002)