Mary I of England

Bloody Mary’s 500th Birthday & Why Ideas Still Matter

on February 18, 2016

Born 500 years ago today, Queen Mary I of England — widely remembered as “Bloody Mary” — became defined by her violent persecution of Protestants during her short-lived rule. Mary banned the Book of Common Prayer, imprisoned so-called heretics, and forced hundreds of Protestants into exile. But that wasn’t the worst of it.

“During her five-year reign, the queen also executed around 280 Protestants, earning her the moniker ‘Bloody Mary,'” Dr. Galen K. Johnson and Dr. Charles Pastoor, both professors at John Brown University, wrote in their volume Historical Dictionary of the Puritans.

These martyrs included Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, Bishop Hugh Latimer, and Bishop Nicholas Ridley. Other than those three men, the British monarchy now admits on its website that “these heretics were mostly poor and self-taught people.”

“This was the most intense religious persecution of its kind anywhere in sixteenth-century Europe,” Cambridge Professor Eamon Duffy wrote in his book Fires of Faith: Catholic England under Mary Tudor.

Although not uncommon in that era, Mary’s penchant for burning religious dissenters at the stake far exceeded that of her father Henry VIII and her sister Elizabeth I. Henry burned 81 heretics while Elizabeth burned just five, even though they reigned for 24 years and 45 years respectively, many years longer than Mary.

So why did Mary kill so many Protestants? This can be partly discerned from her legal reasoning against heresy. Under the heresy laws she instituted, Mary classified religious dissent as treason. To believe “in a different religion from the Sovereign was an act of defiance and disloyalty,” the British monarchy explains in its profile of Mary.

For a queen who spent most of her reign attempting to defend her legitimacy and consolidate her authority, religion was one means of extending her royal power. That’s not to say Mary didn’t genuinely believe in her Catholic faith. Indeed, her Catholic faith was one key element of her identity that distinguished her from her predecessor and half-brother Edward VI and from her father Henry VIII.

Thus, since her religion served as such an integral part of her sovereignty, dissenting over non-essential dogmas was seen as disloyalty and a threat to the throne. Duffy noted that publicly disagreeing on doctrines of “matrimony, baptism and the Lord’s supper” could cost average Christians their lives.

Religious violence under Mary shocks modern commentators due to its scope and brutality. But that’s not all that contemporary observers should garner from Bloody Mary’s reign. Her persecution of Protestants shows that ideas have power in all times and places.

Indeed, Mary’s attempt to produce cultural cohesion through ideological unanimity was no historical anomaly. Even after 500 years, Bloody Mary’s tactics are still employed by dictators and totalitarian regimes in many less democratic parts of the world. Although it is no longer acceptable in the West to kill others over ideas, persecution by other means has made subtle gains.

I lack the space to describe specific cases here, my colleagues Faith McDonnell and Rick Plasterer have done so faithfully for years, documenting attacks respectively on international religious freedom and domestic religious liberty.

Suffice it to say, Christians familiar with history ought not to be surprised when their ideas inspire persecution against them. Religion that fails to conform to the ideology of those in power has never been popular.

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