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henry viii and familyOne of the biggest mistakes that a student of history can make is to confuse the so-called English “Reformation” with its namesake on the continent. Whereas the Protestant Reformation in Europe was animated by the genuine theological differences that separated those who followed Luther or Calvin from those who accepted the apostolic and ecclesial authority of Catholicism, the so-called “Reformation” in England was animated solely by the political ambitions and lustful appetites of the king.

Henry VIII was not a protestant but a tyrant. In declaring himself the head of the church in England, he was making religion a servile subject of the secular power. He was demanding that the things of God be rendered unto Caesar. Parallels with the secularism of our own time and its war on religious liberty are palpable.

Considering the parallels between Tudor England and the secular fundamentalism of our own age, it is worth considering the English Resistance to the Tudor Terror in the hope that it will inspire similar holiness and heroism today.

Those who defied the secular powers in England by refusing to kowtow before the state-imposed religion were known as recusants. These noble souls paid huge fines and often suffered imprisonment or exile for refusing to conform to the state religion. There were many others who suffered martyrdom, laying down their lives for their friends and forgiving their enemies from the scaffold, preferring the hangman’s noose or the executioner’s axe to the slavery of secularism.

The heroic London Carthusians were among the first victims of the Tudor Terror. Some were starved to death on Henry VIII’s orders, others were hanged, disemboweled while still alive, and then quartered, suffering the grueling and gruesome fate that would befall many other martyrs throughout the remainder of the bloody reign of the Tudors. Other early martyrs of Henry’s cynical and sacrilegious “Reformation” were Saints Thomas More and John Fisher, both of whom were beheaded on the orders of the king.

If things were bad under Henry, they would arguably be worse during the reign of Bloody Bess, the daughter of Henry’s adulterous relationship with the ill-fated Anne Boleyn. It was during Elizabeth’s blood-stained reign that the Jesuit Mission to England demonstrated the courage, zeal and evangelizing spirit of the Catholic Counter-Reformation. Perhaps the two most famous Jesuit Martyrs were Edmund Campion and Robert Southwell, martyred in 1581 and 1595 respectively, both of whom have an intriguing connection with William Shakespeare which is beyond the scope of our present discussion.

Although it is not possible to pay due tribute and homage to the hundreds of martyrs who laid down their lives for God and neighbor during the Tudor Terror, it would surely be a sin of omission to fail to mention St. Margaret Clitherow and St. Anne Line, two holy women who were martyred for their faith during Elizabeth’s reign.

St. Margaret Clitherow, known as the Pearl of York, was martyred in 1586 for the “crime” of hiding priests from the authorities. The method of execution was being crushed to death, a barbarous sentence that was carried out in spite of the fact that she was believed to be pregnant. With providential symbolism, the date of her death was March 25, the historical date of Our Lord’s Incarnation (the Annunciation) and also that of His Crucifixion.

St. Anne Line, a convert to the Faith who, like Campion and Southwell, was probably an acquaintance of Shakespeare, was martyred on February 26, 1601, in the last years of Elizabeth’s reign. She had been arrested when priest-hunters raided her apartments during the celebration of a clandestine Mass. Although the Jesuit priest who had been celebrating the Mass had managed to remove his vestments in the nick of time and escape arrest by mingling into the congregation, St. Anne Line was arrested for hiding priests and went to the gallows to suffer the martyrdom for which she had prayed.

These martyred saints are but a handful of the many holy souls who chose death and the glory of martyrdom over submission to a secularist tyranny which had sought to destroy religious liberty.

The Tudor Terror lasted from Henry VIII’s declaration of himself as head of the Church in 1534 until the death of Elizabeth I in 1603. Sadly the Terror would continue under the Stuarts, the last Catholics being executed in the 1680s, and would linger in less deadly forms of persecution until Catholic Emancipation in 1829. Then, after three centuries of heroic and defiant resistance, the remnant of recusants were joined by a new wave of converts and a new wave of Irish immigrants, heralding the beginning of the Catholic Revival. It was not the first time in the glorious and bloody history of the Church that her scourging and “death” had led to a glorious resurrection. It was not the first time and doubtless it will not be the last.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with gracious permission from St. Austin Review (September/October 2014). 

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15 replies to this post
  1. It seems to me that to be fair to both sides you should look carefully at the statistics involved. Dwight Longnecker blogged last year about Bloody Queen Bess and the statistics used on that site, when commenters affirmed his thesis about how bloody Elizabeth was, compared to “Bloody Mary,” the RC (and I am RC myself). The only stats his defenders could come up with were a few hundred executions (which number varied in the low hundreds) and only one figure was mentioned for Elizabeth, which figure was somewhere in the 2000 plus range. All stats involved all executions in their kingdom, including murderers and rapists along with martyrs. A simple calculation of average executions per year ACROSS YEARS REIGNED (9 years for Queen Mary, 40.5 years for Elizabeth I) indicated that Mary was bloodier that Liz.
    This result indicates that more work and research needs to be done before your assertion can stand.
    Once you have figured out executions of Protestant vs. Catholic martyrs across each reign you can run the averages and have a roughly honest figure with which to stain the reputation of either queen. And also in fairness, I would add that Elizabeth did have an invasion by a Catholic king and potential revolt by Roman Catholics to worry about ,which was no problem for Mary at all, except to worry about Protestant revolutionaries. Popes of the era and even later can be properly called bIoody. See Julius the second (by reputation a better soldier than a pontiff) or whatever Pope it was who obliterated the little city of Castro in Lazio, tearing down its Roman Catholic churches and all other buildings in reply to a Roman Catholic duke’s supposed murder of a papal envoy. I searched it out when I was staying in Farnese in Lazio and asked the simple question, “Why is there an Ischia di Castro nearby and other–blank di Castros nearby but no Castro?” You will see pieces of it, mostly marble columns built into buildings in Farnese and other small towns nearby. I found and wandered among its unexcavated (in prep for excavation,but work on hold for lack of funds) ruins just a long walk from Farnese. Face it, It was a bloody era, and what is the point of scratching at old scabs?

  2. The power of popular propaganda brought undeserved infamy to “Bloody” Mary when that moniker was far more appropriate to Elizabeth’s blood-stained reign, whose murder count pales Mary’s.

  3. No fan of QE I, but Mary’s death toll dies come in just over hers, at least according to Eamon Duffy. In any case, the numbers were around 150-200 or so for each, far less than the total imagined by Mary’s detractors (one killing being too many, of course). When you add Henry’s atrocities to Elizabeth’s, though, the scales tip decidedly.

    • Thanks for backing my execution stats which were from memory. I am neutral as to both Mary and the first Elizabeth vs martyrs, except for blessing Liz for encouraging and allowing the nascent English drama to grow (ever try to read Gammer Gurton’s Needle or the seminal Tragedy of Gorboduk?). But I do feel that pots should not call the kettle black, and nor should they promote misuse of statistics by some very careless historians. You may not have intended it, by the way, but your implication about Henry and Elizabeth together out-bloodying Mary can easily imply that it took reigns totaling 78.5 years to become bloodier per year than Mary’s 9 year reign. And it might be that Henry all by himself outbloodied Mary, in which case you would still be doing Liz a gross injustice. And without explaining numbers of actual wars of rebellion, versus religious executions and such other boring complications anyone can think of, nobody in this teapot tempest, including me, should ever pretend to have anything like historical truth on his/her side.

  4. The Tudors were always bloody-handed, beginning with Henry VII’s murder of the princes in the Tower and blaming it on Richard III.
    (Yes, I am a ‘revisionist’.)

  5. Cutting through centuries of painting Mary I as bloody, for obvious reasons, The First Queen of England: The Myth of “Bloody Mary” by Linda Porter was an eye opening biography with first rate scholarship.

  6. Were not both “Reformations” fueled by political motivations? While Henry VII coveted Church properties, the Continent’s nobles welcomed an escape from Papal taxes.

  7. While the relative barbarism of “Bloody Mary” and “Bloody Bess” is an interesting topic, this discussion misses my point, which is that the English “Reformation” was essentially secular, unlike the Lutheran and Calvinist Reformations, which were theological. It is, therefore, perilous to conflate the two “Reformations”. Henry VIII was theologically Catholic, not Protestant, and his “reformation” was secular in nature. My point was that Catholics in England were fighting against de facto secularism, thereby inviting parallels with the situation we find ourselves in today.

    • It is quite easy to miss your point when you skip mentioning the Catholic Mary Tudor, known for centuries as Bloody Mary. Why the skip, if you meant all the Tudors? One wonders. But do mention Elizabeth, who may or may not have been the least bloody of the Tudors, and call only her Bloody. Calling her Bloody Bess is quite a recent phenomenon, not generally accepted. Without you mentioning that the insult is iffy, that choice (ignoring Mary) leaves you wide open to accusations of bias. It would have been simple to say something like “even the long-‘sainted’ “good Queen Bess” can be and is seen as Bloody Bess by recent historians” would have clarified your motives.

  8. It occurs to me that modern hate-speech legislation might as well be: “An Act Intituled an Act for the Better Suppression of Homophobia and Such-Like Popery.”

    • I would certainly be interested in knowing the Hohenzollern influence at that time (among others.) Do you have a source you could recommend?

  9. Going back to Joseph’s point-I think most reasonable people would feel that Mary was about stamping out heresy-they were religious executions. Whereas Elizabeth was about protecting the State from a foreign influence. Primarily political executions.
    Joseph said Henry was Catholic minded- but so in many ways was Elizabeth. In her practice at least.
    I think the epithet ‘Bloody’ applies to Elizabeth more than Mary. I have in mind her relationship with Topcliffe. I am sure Mary just left the dirty business to the secular arm. Whereas Elizabeth was very much involved in the hunt and the subsequent execution.
    For example Elizabeth was there for the interrogation of Campion. I am not sure Mary never got herself that involved. I may be wrong on that.

  10. Seems to me that the scholarship on which king or queen tortured and killed the most opposition needs work, and quite frankly, the comments regarding same are pointless. What about the fact that during and after Henry a thousand years of Catholic faith and culture was entirely wiped out, some might say in a Nazi-like purge? And further, a short essay cannot describe the servitude and horror suffered by remaining faithful Catholics, even up to the present time by their cultural and sometimes legal exclusion from the politics and leadership of the country, schools and businesses, etc. Anyone want to defend what the Protestant Reformation in England did to the Irish for centuries, Blacks in the slave trade, and the Englsih in their quest for Empire?

    From the Threepenny Opera: “The troops live under
    The cannon’s thunder
    From Sind to Cooch Behar
    Moving from place to place
    When they come face to face
    With a different breed of fellow
    Whose skins are black or yellow
    They quick as winking chop him into
    Beefsteak tartar”

    Exactly how has the conversion of England into a secular atheist nation under the pretense of Protestantism ennobled them? And please, do not beg the question by saying that the same would have happened under a Catholic England. You cannot prove a point by citing nonexistent events.

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