Apologizing for the Past: Catholics, History, and “Bloody Mary”

How should Catholics respond to the haunting echoes of Mary Tudor’s reign? Very carefully.

Master John, “Portrait of Mary I” (1544)
Master John, “Portrait of Mary I” (1544) (photo: Public Domain)

On November 17 in 1558, the first and only Catholic Queen Regnant of England died. She was Mary I, the daughter of King Henry VIII and his first wife, Queen Katherine of Aragon. She is better known as “Bloody Mary” because of the almost 300 men and women burned alive at the stake after being found guilty of heresy during her reign. These men and women included bishops and ministers of the Church of England, many Protestant laity, and some who denied basic Christian doctrines, such as the divinity of Jesus or of the Holy Spirit. Those men and women, particularly celebrated by John Foxe in his “Book of Martyrs”, have haunted Catholicism in England and in the modern world for centuries.

How should Catholics respond to these haunting echoes of the past? Very carefully and precisely.

We cannot deny the suffering of the past or that injustice may have been committed in some of these cases. We should realize that our ideals of religious freedom and tolerance did not exist in sixteenth century Europe. Neither Catholics nor Protestants believed that religious heresy could be permitted in their countries. Heresy was an offense serious enough for the Church to investigate and confirm and the State to punish with death.

If generations of English men and women hated Mary I, it was because Protestants suffered during her reign. They did not mind that Catholics suffered under Elizabeth I and her successors because to them Catholics were dangerous and did not deserve toleration—even John Locke thought that was true, equating Catholics with atheists.

Foxe’s Martyrs and Many More

Not so long ago—remember the nineteenth century attacks on the practice of Catholicism in Bismarck’s Kulturkampf and in other European nations (not to mention the Know Nothings in the United States)—western governments decided that it did not matter to them what religion their citizens or subjects practiced, if any, as long as they obeyed the laws and contributed to the common good. That makes Mary I’s legal actions against heretics unthinkable today: we all recoil from the notion, let alone the execution of such ideas.

While the Enlightenment descried these executions on the basis of religious faith, the French Revolution and other uprisings, like the Republicans in Spain and Mexico and the Communists in Russia, executed Catholic and Orthodox priests, religious, and laity, creating different sets of martyrs.

The Blessed Carmelites of Compiègne and the Blessed Ursulines of Valenciennes  represent the French martyrs; the teenaged martyr St. José Sánchez del Río (recently canonized by Pope Francis) and the group canonized by Pope John Paul II in 2000 (St. Christopher Magallanes and Companions) celebrated on May 21 represent the Mexican Cristeros martyrs; the 522 martyrs Pope Francis beatified in October of 2013 the Spanish Civil War martyrs; St. Elizabeth the New Martyr (Holy Martyr Yelizaveta Fyodorovna) and the New Martyr John Kochurov represent the Orthodox who suffered during the Russian Revolution.

In his recent book Bearing False Witness: Debunking Centuries of Anti-Catholic History (Templeton Press, 2016), Rodney Stark recounts the horrific martyrdoms of many of Orthodox bishops and monks, who were tortured to death as cruelly and unusually as the Protestant and Catholic martyrs of England:

“The documents [from the Soviet Union’s archives] bear witness to the most savage atrocities against priests, monks, and nuns: they were crucified on the central doors of iconostases, thrown into cauldrons of boiling tar, scalped, strangled with priestly stoles, given Communion with melted lead, and drowned in holes in the ice.” (p. 201)

Sounds positively medieval, doesn’t it? The point is that atrocities in the name of the Revolution are as horrible as those committed by the State and should be condemned just as strongly. And if the Protestant martyrs of Mary I’s reign are heroes, so are the Catholic martyrs of Elizabeth I’s reign—and those through the twentieth century to today.

Revision and Context

As the revisionist view of the English Reformation has developed since the late 1970’s, the reign of Mary I has also been under review. Eamon Duffy’s aptly titled Fires of Faith: Catholic England Under Mary Tudor (Yale University Press: 2009) provided a controversial overview of the efforts of Mary’s cousin, the Cardinal Archbishop of Canterbury, Reginald Pole, to revive and reform the Catholic Church in England.  Duffy also examines the heresy campaigns unflinchingly and argues that the purpose of a history is to understand, not to judge the past and impose our standards upon it.

A spate of biographies attempted to provide a more human view of Mary, considering her pain when she and her mother were sent away from Court, when she was forced to accept her own illegitimacy and the sinfulness of her parents’ “non-marriage” as demanded by her own father, and how she struggled to practice her faith and attend Mass during her half-brother Edward VI’s reign.

Even as these biographies humanize her, emphasizing for example her love and longing for children, her generosity and concern for her people, they cannot erase the specter of almost 300 men and women burned alive at the stake. And neither can I.

While Eamon Duffy pointed out that the heresy trials and executions were successful, in a way, because many Protestants simply left England for exile on the Continent, it’s hard to accept that explanation. It seems dangerous to develop an evolving sense of morality, justifying execution for religious belief in the past because nearly everyone else in Europe was doing it at the time. Perhaps the most we can say is that we can’t condemn Mary I for her government’s actions; only God may judge her guilt.

As I study and write about the history of the Catholic Church, I often think that it is one of the great graces of being a Catholic. There is much to be proud of in Church history: the great saints; the intellectual, scientific, and educational achievements; the magnificent art and architecture. As Pope Benedict XVI is often quoted: “Art and the saints are the greatest apologetics for our faith.” And while there are actions and events that we regret and repent of, we are consoled by the fact that Jesus still leads His Church when her members sin; He offers forgiveness and He even brings good out of our errors.