Christian History Home > Issue 48 > Why Queen Mary Was Bloody
Why Queen Mary Was Bloody
And why her persecution of Protestants failed
In January 1555, John Rogers—Bible translator and Protestant preacher—was being led to the stake. He was asked once more if he would recant. He replied that what he had preached he would seal with his blood.
“Then thou art a heretic,” the sheriff replied.
“That shall be known at the day of judgment,” said Rogers.
“Well, I will never pray for you,” said the sheriff.
“But I will pray for you,” replied Rogers.
They walked on as Rogers sang psalms. He was soon met by his wife and eleven children, one an infant in her arms. “This sad sight,” remarked chronicler John Foxe, “did not move him, but he cheerfully and patiently went on his way to Smithfield, where he was burnt to ashes in the presence of a great number of people.”
Rogers was the first of some 290 Protestants executed during the reign of Mary I, so-called “Bloody Mary.” Mary, however, was no more “bloody” than other monarchs of the time—perhaps less so. Henry VIII is said to have executed more than 70,000 people in his long reign, for all sorts of reasons. But Mary’s persecution was singularly ineffective: after her reign, Protestantism regained the crown, never to relinquish control of the nation again.
In spite of its mixed success, religious persecution was a common form of social and political control in the sixteenth century. Why? And why, in the case of Mary I, did it fail?
The Point of Persecution
The word persecution is a victim’s word. Persecution is always suffered but never inflicted. So monarchs never believed they were “persecuting” others, merely punishing people for breaking divine or human laws. When Cardinal Reginald Pole urged Mary I to harass heretics in her realm, he reminded her that God had placed the sword of justice in her hand “in order that those who disobey the Holy laws may be punished.”
It was universally assumed that there was such a thing as true doctrine, and that to reject it carried the sentence of spiritual death. To force the heretic to recant was an act of mercy. Edmund Bonner, the Marian bishop of London later castigated by John Foxe as “bloody Bonner,” observed that if such treatment persuaded the heretic to abandon erroneous ideas, he or she would have been saved from the death of body and soul.
If a heretic refused to recant and was finally executed, it was never claimed to be of benefit to the victim. The only people executed were the relapsed and the recalcitrant—those beyond hope of redemption.
In such cases, there were two reasons for the capital sentence. First, heresy was blasphemous and constituted treason against Almighty God. Both blasphemy and secular treason carried the death penalty.
Second, innocent souls might be corrupted and lost if heretics were not silenced. Heresy was seen as a social disease, and those who were irredeemably infected with it were carriers and must be destroyed.
There were other, non-doctrinal, reasons for religious persecution. In Spain, for instance, Catholicism became synonymous with national identity in the 1400s and 1500s. To be an “old Christian” was to be loyal to the crown; thus, Jews and Muslims were ordered to convert or leave the country. Purity of Christian ancestry became a requisite for office or any position of trust. Conversely, suspect religious practices were synonymous with disaffection or even treason. The Castilians blamed Jews for the rise of Protestantism in northern Europe, and the Inquisition became a committee for “unSpanish activities.”
In May 1558, Emperor Charles V wrote from his retirement to his daughter Juana, the regent of Spain, lamenting his failure to extinguish the “Jewish heresy” of Luther: “Believe me, my daughter, if so great an evil is not suppressed … from the very beginning, I cannot promise that the king or anyone else will be in a position to do it afterwards.”
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