Another on the religious persecutions promulgated by the much-unloved Tudor monarch, this time presented in a lively if highly partisan style reminiscent of John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.
England during the 16th century was not a good place for anyone with strong convictions. The Reformation began there in 1533 when Parliament decreed that Henry VIII and his successors, rather than the Pope, were to be considered supreme head of the Church in England—thereby guaranteeing that all religious disputes were henceforth to be treated as affairs of state and judged according to the sovereign’s good pleasure. The problem was that the sovereigns couldn’t agree among themselves. Henry VIII suppressed the monasteries (and confiscated their vast resources) but made very few changes in the daily practice of religion. The boy-king Edward VI was a fierce Protestant, Mary I a devout Catholic, and Elizabeth I a pragmatist who wanted to straddle the fence. With each new coronation, the entire populace had to re-conform itself to a new religious dispensation, and those who refused were considered traitors to the crown and dealt with accordingly. Although, in reality, Mary’s reign was no bloodier than her younger sister Elizabeth’s, it accomplished its atrocities in a far shorter span of time, sending some 300 Protestants to the stake in just five years. Ridley (Mussolini, 1998, etc.) gives a good narrative account of many of these victims, who came from every class of English society and usually met their fates with a courage that is hard for modern readers to credit. The gruesome details of death by burning (usually involving a progressive loss of limbs and extremities) are provided with relish, and the background history (e.g., Mary’s disastrous attempt to forge an alliance with Spain by marrying Philip II) is offered as a rough but helpful sketch. The work as a whole, however, is not helped by the author’s apparent acceptance of some of the hoariest myths (e.g., the wholesale corruption of the religious orders, the selling of indulgences) of Whig history.
Nicely told, but lacking depth and highly slanted.