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 ...

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