Bloody Mary’s revenge

Bloody Mary — or Mary I, her more official title — was Henry VIII’s oldest daughter by his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. Raised by staunchly Catholic parents, she too was staunchly Catholic. By the time she was about 16, however, Henry VIII was troubled by Catherine’s inability to bear a son (because the dynastic consequences were huge) and was madly in lust with Anne Boleyn.

As you all know, when the Pope, who was utterly dependent on Charles V of Spain, Queen Catherine’s nephew, refused to grant Henry either a divorce or an annulment, Henry found his own way out of the situation, which was to declare himself head of the British church. In effect, if he couldn’t divorce the Queen, he’d divorce Rome. Being of a bullying nature, he worked hard and brutally to force Mary to give up her allegiance to Rome, but she refused to do so — and suffered mightily for that refusal, including being barred from seeing her beloved mother as the latter lay dying.

Things got even worse for Mary after her father’s death, when Edward VI ascended the throne. Unlike Henry, who remained Catholic to his death, despite rejecting Roman supremacy, Edward VI was a hardcore Protestant, as were those who ruled in his stead (since he was a minor when he ascended the throne). Edward and his ministers worked hard during his short reign to remove all “Papish” influences from England, and to “Reform” the English church entirely. When it became apparent that Edward would not live past his 16th year, Edward and his ministers conspired to elevate Lady Jane Grey to the throne, despite the fact that Henry VIII’s will had given Mary the succession after Edward.

Poor Lady Jane reigned for only nine days before the people of England — or, rather, the people of Southern England, especially in and around London — who had no liking for being manipulated, surged behind Mary and placed her on the throne. (Incidentally, after Mary became queen, she tried being lenient to Jane Grey. When it became apparent, however, that Jane Grey was a rallying point for those who wished to see a Protestant England, Mary very reluctantly sent Jane to the block.)

Mary’s reign started with real hope. People liked her, they admired her tremendous loyalty to the old faith and to her mother, and they appreciated her resemblance to her father. The problem was that this same loyalty had created in Mary a kind of rigidity that she could not leave behind when forced to rule a more diverse England than that into which she was born. She immediately set about restoring Catholicism and reaffirming England’s allegiance to Rome, but she coupled that with a couple of things the English found intolerable: she married Phillip of Spain, and appeared to be giving him (and, therefore, Spain) more power than the xenophobic British people could stand and, when certain British people expressed a preference for Protestantism over Catholicism, she felt it was her bounden duty to burn them.

It’s rather interesting that the British took so much umbrage to the burnings. This was, after all, an exceptionally violent age. Bear baiting, and dog and cock fights, which invariably ended with all the animal combatants dead or horribly wounded, were considered good entertainment for the whole family. More crimes than we can imagine were punishable by death — hanging for the commoners, beheading for the rich and powerful. Torture was common.

Death was also omnipresent from natural causes. Plague still reoccurred on a regular basis; the sweating sickness, a killer disease unique to England showed up regularly; and people died from everything from an infected toenail, to childbirth fever, to measles, to you name it. Child morality hovered around 50%, as it would until well into the Victorian Age. Death — violent, horrible, suffering death — was omnipresent.

Yet for all death’s familiarity, ordinary Englishmen drew the line at burnings. Burnings were Spanish and Papist. They were foreign and utterly un-English. Mary’s burnings also had no class distinction and the common people, rather than being pleased by this macabre democratic approach to heresy, were appalled. Feelings hardened and even those people who had a laissez faire approach to religion, in that they would go whichever way the monarch went, suddenly decided that Catholicism was foreign and mean and ugly.

By the time the well-intentioned, fundamentally kind, but dogmatic and religiously fanatic Mary died, the British people were grateful to see the last of her. They were also grateful when the flexible, pragmatic Elizabeth came to the throne. She was happy with a middle way religion and freely professed that she had no desire to peer into her subject’s souls. It was very early in her reign, therefore, that the British settled into the great compromise, which was a religion that was an amalgam of Protestant and Catholic doctrine and ritual.

And so the Anglican church that we know was born under Elizabeth. Mary knew this would happen — she was resigned to it at her death — but it was a terrible heartache for her. Her tragic and pathetic life was defined by her hope that England would be restored to the true faith, and she viewed that as a gift she was bestowing on her people. She never could understand why they wanted to reject that gift, and why they viewed the burnings as an insult rather than a remedy aimed at the unpleasant, but necessary task, of purifying England to save the English.

It’s an interesting history, certainly, but why should we care today? We should care today because, for the first time since Bloody Mary died, her religion has truly been restored to British soil, and I’m not just talking about Tony Blair’s conversion. Instead, despite the fact that Britain’s Muslims are probably having more babies than any other religious groups, it is the immigrants from Eastern Europe and Southern Africa who are currently have the greatest effect on the country’s faith — they’re turning it Catholic:

Roman Catholics have overtaken Anglicans as the country’s dominant religious group. More people attend Mass every Sunday than worship with the Church of England, figures seen by The Sunday Telegraph show.

This means that the established Church has lost its place as the nation’s most popular Christian denomination after more than four centuries of unrivalled influence following the Reformation.

Girls from the Salisbury Cathedral Choire School rehearsing
Girls from the Salisbury Cathedral Choir School rehearsing. While church-going declines, cathedrals fare better

Last night, leading figures gave warning that the Church of England could become a minority faith and that the findings should act as a wake-up call.

The statistics show that attendance at Anglican Sunday services has dropped by 20 per cent since 2000. A survey of 37,000 churches, to be published in the new year, shows the number of people going to Sunday Mass in England last year averaged 861,000, compared with 852,000 Anglicans ­worshipping.

The rise of Catholicism has been bolstered by an influx of immigrants from eastern Europe and Africa, who have packed the pews of Catholic parishes that had previously been dwindling.

Read the rest of the story about the changing face of Britain’s Christianity here and here.

If Mary is in the Heaven in which she so devoutly believed, she’s quite happy right now.


19 Responses

  1. “History repeats itself , first as tragedy secondly as farce”.Hmmmmmmm . . . Catholic Mary makes history in England burning protestants to death at the stake . . . . . such a tragedy . . . . Five hundred years later humans continue to burn,behead,bomb ,go to war because of some confusion over a messiah . . . . such absurdity . But hey I digressed . . back to Mary and the resurgence of Catholicism in England . . . “THE PAST DOES NOT REPEAT ITSELF,BUT IT RHYMES “(ya gotta love Mark Twain quotes but dislike that Marx guy above . . even though some of his ideas were okay . . you know the part about absurdness)
    ps If you want laugh about history repeating itself as a tragedy and then a farce . . go see Walk Hard ; The Dewey Cox Story. I’m calling it right now John C Reilly the best character actor in America. Still ROFLAO !

  2. Your links say it all, Book. The real story is not whether Catholicism or Anglicanism are dominant, as the dominant religion is secularism. Practicing Catholics and Anglicans constitute less-than 3% of Britain’s population. I think the main reason is that people, over time, recognize a pig-in-the-poke for what it is. Both churches have become rigid hierarchies led by functionaries. The current “Anglican” Druid-in-Chief in Canterbury is a British government appointee, not a religious authority.

    Unfortunately, in Britain, the decline of practicing Christianity has gone hand-in-hand with their descent into a “Clockwork Orange” and surging radical Islam

    As a practicing Episcopalian, I have observed the same happening to our own Anglican church here in the U.S. The hierarchy has been corrupted by too many functionaries drawn to the “faith” because, in general, it pays rather well and provides a platform for promoting their (usually) Leftwing, secularist social views.

    As the Rev. Andrew Pengilly asked the huckster preacher Elmer Gantry, “Mr. Gantry, why don’t you believe in God?”. As someone else(not G.K. Chesterton) said, when people cease to believe in God, it isn’t that they will then believe in nothing but that they will believe in anything.

    In the U.S., however, we remain a fundamentally religious people and we have far more choices when it comes to how and where we prefer to worship.

    Frankly, both the Catholic (esp. in Europe) and Anglican churches have done more than their fair share to drive people away from the Faith. The flip side has been the surging membership of the less-hierarchical “Christian” denominations. They provide a ray of sunshine in an otherwise darkening landscape.

  3. I loved the history lesson, but you were charitable with Elizabeth, whose “middle way” of religion nevertheless involved loyalty oaths and sending Catholics underground, in spite of her alleged reluctance to peer into her subject’s souls.

  4. I’ll regard this as a cultural shift in England when “John Paul” supplants “Mohammed” as the most popular name for newborns.


  6. “tHE DOMINANT RELGION IS SECULARISM” The author of this quote is correct if he means and I’m sure he does that secularism is a religion in the sense ONLY “‘that religious considerations should be excluded from civil affairs or public education . . . belief in freedom of religion,and freedom from the government imposition upon the people ,within a state that is neutral on matters of belief,and gives no state privileges or subsidies to religion”.

  7. Uh, no, Swampy. What you describe is secularism as a political principle involving separation of church and state in the public domain (render onto Caesar…). Virtually all Christians and Jews that I know subscribe to this system of government that you describe.

    What I am referring to is a Secular Humanism – a “religion” that comes with its own assumptions, anathemas, dogmas, doctrines, values and related belief systems concerning the state of humankind.

    In fact, I like to tell my atheist friends that I admire their own strength of faith, for their faith in the nonexistence of God requires a greater leap of faith than believing in His existence (I do not refer here to agnostics, by the way, whom I consider “seekers”). Certainly, their “faith” is greater than mine.

  8. Patrick, you’re right that England was not a safe haven for Catholics during Elizabeth’s time, and that her “freedom of religion” doctrine does not stand up to modern scrutiny. Compared to her predecessors, however, as well as to her peers ruling surrounding European nations, she was the cover-girl for religious moderation. She also had the problem that Mary Queen of Scots was using her Catholicism as a rallying point for dethroning Elizabeth. Eventually, much of the anti-Catholic animus that one saw at the end of Elizabeth’s reign had its roots in political considerations, not doctrinal ones.

  9. Book, did you know that Roman once conquered the southern part of the British Isles? They tried going up into the highlands, the Scottish highlands, and were cut to ribbons really. So they said forget this, and built Hadrian’s defensive wall to keep out the barbs from the North.

    A couple of centuries later, England once again started a war with the Scots.

    This is simply to make the point that the British Isles seem to have a perpetual duality between two different factions. Whether it was the Irish vs the mainland Brits. The Scottish highlanders vs the Southern Britons, or foreign invaders after the fall of Rome when Romanized enclaves tried to fight off barbarians and other folks across the channel.

    There was some talk that Arthur was a Roman auxiliary that used Roman roads to unite and protect what was left of the Roman enclave in Briton after Rome withdrew their legions.


  10. Contrary to popular thinking, the so-called European religious wars during the 16th and 17th Centuries were mostly about political and royal power rather than about religious doctrine.

  11. Elizabeth was the one with the “pursuivants,” whose job it was to hunt down and capture priests throughout England. (Thus all the great old houses with priest’s holes, hidden chapels, etc.) She was hardly a neutral.

    One of the fascinating attributes of the history of the time is how few people ever got to hear about it! For example, probably 85% of the English people (her nominal subjects) never heard of Jane Gray. Outside the scheming of the Warwicks and the Dudleys and their adherents, probably a good slice of the nobiity didn’t know who she was, either. It took very few people to make “history” in those days, which I find both interesting and amusing.

    So many events we regard as important swirled into being, ran their course, and everybody was executed and buried before anyone more than twenty miles outside London even got to hear of them – forget having an opinion!

    The Anglican church suffers the great disadvantage of standing for nothing. One of the things a church is expected to do is take a position, and pretty much stay there. Some adjustment and acceptance of current reality is fine, but you can’t get away with throwing the baby entirely out with the bath-water. There have to be some fundamentals. I wouldn’t bet the current Archbishop of Canterbury even believes in God, which makes him kind of odd as a candidate for sainthood – or as someone to administer a church.

    That church has backed down from, forgotten about, and given away far too many of the basics to have a long-term healthy outlook – as a church. They do this in the interests of getting along and being inclusive, but then that runs squarely into Groucho Marx’s dictum: “I wouldn’t be a member of any club that would have me.”

    But that’s what they’re becoming: a social club, with an aging and dwindling membership. And even at that, the aging and dwindling membership attend from habit; mnost of even them don’t believe what they’re hearing any more.

  12. Danny. You can call me Swami,Swamster,Swampacreage, The Swampmobile ,The Swamparator BUT DON”T YOU GO A CALLING ME SWAMPY . . . but I digress . . sorry ,back to the point .There is no such thing as atheists but there are God free people. But what is wrong with THOSE people when they have over 800 Gods to choose from . It must be nice to have it solved , I’m still working on it !!! Hey I bet ole Henry V111 must be moonwalking and doing back flips in his grave when he heard that one of his better daughters (Liz baby) brought back protestanism to England.

  13. […] Catholic parents, she too was staunchly Catholic. By the time she was about 16, however, … credit : […]

  14. OK, Swampacreage…no offense meant!

  15. And a Merry Christmas to each and every one!

  16. But what is wrong with THOSE people when they have over 800 Gods to choose from . It must be nice to have it solved , I’m still working on it !!!

    You mean those that believe in the Pantheon of the UN and Gore the Gaia Savior?

  17. With the Archbishop of Canterbury being such a atheistic blowhard and a secularist, it shouldn’t surprise anybody that the Church of England is growing feeble. Yet, this is the place that created American religious fervor. While Americans grabbed it and have hung on for centuries, the Brits have pretty much abandoned their Faith completely save for gowing through the motions. I call that sort of Christian a “Christmas Christian”.

  18. Visit Wal-Mart Cathedral to fulfill all your religious and spiritual needs. We offer a selection of 800 Gods to choose from.

    Quality deities, everyday low prices.

  19. benning – I call that sort of Christian a “Christmas Christian”.

    Many of those and “Easter Christians” out there.

    I think in the Bible somewhere it calls that sort of christian, “luke warm”. IIRC, it goes on to say the “luke warm” will be rejected by god. (paraphrasing)

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