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