Wednesday, 20 June 2012

How not to respond to a blog post

A few months ago, I blogged about a debate in London over a tourist poster that showed Mary I, sometimes known as "Bloody Mary," transforming into a zombie-demon. Aside from being stupid and ugly, which for me is the main criteria for condemning it, the poster had also thrown yummy mummies and historians in the Greater London area into something of a tizz. The mummies were mad because the ghoulish hologram traumatised their young progeny and the historians were face-palming all over the show because the advert perpetuated the idea that Mary Tudor was a blood-sucking hellish sociopath, who liked to beat young babies with her rosary beads and toss virtuous Protestant maidens into Vatican-sponsored incinerators. 

For those of you not up to date on your Tudor historiography, Mary I (painted above in 1544) was Henry VIII's eldest daughter; she ruled England, Wales and Ireland from July 1553 until her death in November 1558. During those five years, nearly 300 Protestants were burned to death for their faith, which led to the devoutly Catholic queen being nicknamed "Bloody Mary" when her Protestant half-sister, Elizabeth, took the throne in 1558. Amongst historians, there has recently been a huge debate over whether or not Mary was quite the bloodthirsty incompetent that later Protestant historians portrayed her as; this is something which I did acknowledge in my post, but I did say that I think the rehabilitation of Mary might have gone a little bit too far.

Listen, I genuinely don't think that Mary Tudor was some sort of proto-Nazi who got her jollies from having hundreds of Protestants and anabaptists tortured and killed. But I do think that even by the standards of the Spanish Inquisition, she was a harsh and consistent persecutor of the nation's heretic minority. I think the pendulum of Marian revision has swung too far in the pro-Mary direction and to agree with the wonderful Leanda de Lisle, who spoke last week, we shouldn't have too "cuddly" a version of Mary. Or of any of the Tudors. They ruled as semi-absolute monarchs in a cut-throat and turbulent century. Cruelty, in one way or the other, was to be expected.

Anyway, after expressing the view that I think Elizabeth was more competent than Mary, I received this snippy little comment from a (you guessed it) anonymous reader. Ordinarily, I'd just post the comment and leave it at that, because apparently everyone has the right to free speech. But today, I thought - "Screw it." Actually, they don't. If they're going to be stupid, you should shut up. So, here's looking at you, Anonymous. The comment begins with a quote from my original article: - 

"The successes of Mary's reign do deserve to be analysed and appreciated for what they were, but the ludicrous revisionist attempt to suggest that the burnings were not unpopular or that the triumph of Protestantism was some weird Elizabethan fluke deserves to be treated with more than a little self-satisfied contempt." 

Oh please, you honestly think that with Protestants still an extreme minority in England (with no majority in any city to the extent that existed on the continent), and with the majority of the country pretty comfortable with Catholicism, that England would still have become protestant if there had been a Catholic heir after Mary? Especially one ruling for 40 years, and when they were implementing the same Counter-Reformation techniques that were so successful later in other places in Europe? (Except that they were doing it before the Council of Trent had even finished). How do you think that would have happened, exactly?
While Elizabeth was pretty talented, the fact that she was Protestant and ruled for 40 years is a MAJOR factor in the triumph of Protestantism, and to not recognize that is ludicrous in of itself. 
And honestly, what evidence do you have that the burnings really made people convert to Protestantism, etc? Foxe could only come up with one name, a guy who was already considering it before the burnings began. I know it seems like common sense to our modern sensibilities, but the fact is we just don't know how people felt about them. John Foxe's maltreatment of a lot of sources leading to his book often being the only one about many aspects of the burning certainly doesn't help. 

Well, let me begin by saying that starting a comment with the phrase 'Oh, please,' is the intellectual equivalent of a man stuffing a sock down his pants. You're trying to make yourself seem bigger than you are and it's not working. If you were intellectually capable of prosecuting the argument you're about to make, you wouldn't try to belittle your opponent through condescension before even starting. Would you? I.e. if you really were that big, you wouldn't need the sock. 

You ask, incredulously: "You honestly think..." - well, yes, I do, actually. Otherwise, I wouldn't have written it. A strange fluke I picked up at Oxford, I suppose.

You asked about a Catholic heir and what I think would have happened if Mary had produced one. Well, first of all, I have no idea about 'what if' because it's not real history, but if Mary had produced a child that was raised a Catholic, then, yes, I do think England might still be Catholic. However, I was a little confused about the next line of your argument because you seem curiously ill-informed about the exact nature of the Elizabethan religious settlement. You seem to be implying that it was Queen Elizabeth's religious faith, coupled with her longevity, that explains entirely the eventual triumph of Protestantism in England. Elizabeth I was, in fact, far more 'catholic' than is traditionally supposed. Like most of the country, she was what you called 'pretty comfortable with Catholicism'. But again, like most of the country, that comfort with traditional religion, (which is what it should be called rather than Catholicism, by the way), did not stop her siding with religious reformism after 1558. Why? Well, it seems that whilst most people were happy to conform, by 1558, they had lived under so many different variations of Christianity thanks to Henry, Edward and Mary that they were probably happy to adapt to any kind of "pick-n-mix" version of the "One True Faith," provided they were left in peace. It's not the stuff of martyrs, but there had been enough of them already, I suppose. Most people were comfortable with whatever was put in front of them, because they wanted to live, love and prosper without the fear of dying because of where they went on a Sunday. Under Mary and Elizabeth, those who chose to die for their faith made up an insignificant percentage of the population. And in both cases, the heroism of those martyrs led to them becoming ideological celebrities, both in their own time and in ours. 

Anyway, the so-called "via media" or Elizabethan Religious Settlement of 1559-1650 was not simply a result of the new Queen's allegedly protestant faith, like you suggested. Had Elizabeth had her way - which you seem to think she had - then, in fact, she would have produced a much more 'catholic' Church of England. Yes, it would have been separate from the jurisdiction of the Papal See, as it had been in her father's reign,  and there'd have been a serious trimming back on time devoted to the Virgin Mary and the saints. (And I for one am not thrilled about that, by the way - I love me some Hail Marys. But I digress.) Anyway, overall, if Elizabeth Tudor had gotten her own way, then the new Church of England would have been far more traditional in its liturgies, practices and hierarchy. However, this did not happen and that's because from the moment of her accession, Elizabeth was under sustained political pressure from the House of Commons and the emergent Puritan faction of elected MPs, who collectively forced Elizabeth to move "Left" on her religious settlement. Put simply, by 1559, the hostility towards Catholicism or traditional religion had solidified within much wider sections of the rural and urban elite than had been the case in 1553 - before Mary I took the throne. Why? Well, the obvious argument would be that  between 1554 and 1558, the burnings instituted by Mary Tudor's regime did harden hostility against Catholicism within the educated sectors of English society; meaning that when Elizabeth took the throne in November 1558, she found it impossible to ignore the concerns of the landed gentry and the elected politicians, all of whom put her under considerable pressure to create a far more 'protestant' Church of England. If you want evidence that the burnings were unpopular, then, I'm afraid, that's where it is. Whilst I understand that you're attempting to claim that the vast majority of English people didn't mind the 300 deaths by burning, it is quite simply absurd to make such a sweeping statement. You ask how I know the burnings weren't popular - one could justifiably flip the question and ask how do you know they were? The sad fact for historians is that we have almost no surviving sources that reflect public opinion amongst the majority of English Christians. The only parish records that survive and give any real kind of insight into grass-roots religious opinions are from the parishes that caused trouble to the government. In Mary's reign, those were the parishes that were too reformist; in Elizabeth's, they were the ones that were too conservative. I mean, maybe I'm wrong and you're right. Maybe you have a mass producing ouija board with impeccable results and a lot of time on your hands? But short of that, I'm not entirely sure how you could be any more clear about what the majority of Mary and Elizabeth's subjects thought than the rest of us are.

What is clear is that by the time Elizabeth came to the throne, the heresy trials and executions had galvanised opinion within a sizable section of the English and Welsh elite. Had that not existed, then the church Elizabeth created would have been very different and she would not have had to give way on things like church decorations, the Book of Common Prayer, clerical celibacy and clerical vestments. All of which she did, eventually, have to concede on in order to appease Protestant political pressure.

Of course, the main point of this is that whilst your arguments are wrong, you had the right to make them and it is always interesting to hear what readers think. However, your tone was smug, patronising and you entered the comment anonymously. To paraphrase a friend of mine - anonymity is tolerated, but manners are mandatory. Your comment was as irritating as it was stupid - and I've had quite enough of receiving remarks like it. I enjoy the debate - it's what history is about. I don't enjoy rudeness or running from one's own comments. It's cowardly and it's annoying. I don't write this blog to deal with passive aggressive nonsense from pseudo-intellectuals who can't sign their own names to their comments. 

Thank you.

You can read the original article here.


  1. Anne Marie Barrios20 June 2012 at 16:04

    Amen! Let's keep the debate civil--we all find it much more interesting and thought provoking that way. Any comment that begins that way is one I immediately skip.

  2. I completely agree. There is no need for condescending and cheeky remarks. It's history, not Twilight vs. Harry Potter.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. "'Oh, please,' is the intellectual equivalent of a man stuffing a sock down his pants."

    That is a truly brilliant line that made me laugh out loud!! It's so true!
    Thank you for a fascinating article!

    I think the saddest part of the whole era is that 'ordinary' people could have lived quite happily side-by-side whatever their beliefs about Catholicism or Protestantism (or anything else). It was the 'powers that be' who whipped up such hatred. Mary, I think, had such a hatred of Protestantism due to the treatment she received from her father and her realisation that he had not attacked Catholics out of any religious sentiment but simply to satisfy his own whims. Elizabeth, I believe, would have been happy to see Catholics living peacefully in her realm were it not for the Pope's 'fatwa' which put her in danger from any Catholic who saw fit to kill her. If only they had all minded their own business and let people practise according to their own beliefs, all of this would have been unnecessary. Strange sort of interpretation of Christianity when people kill one another for it!


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