The Trail of Martyrdom: Persecution and Resistance in Sixteenth-Century England

Article excerpt

The Trail of Martyrdom: Persecution and Resistance in Sixteenth-Century England. By Sarah Covington. (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press. 2003. Pp. xii, 288. $55.00 clothbound; $28.00 paperback.)

This book is an institutional and social history of the judicial processes by which suspected heretics and religious traitors were identified, sought, apprehended, imprisoned, tried, and executed in England from the reign of Henry VIII through that of Elizabeth I. The principal argument is that executions of religious dissidents, insofar as they depended upon sixteenth-century institutions and the often unstable relationships among the crown, local authorities, and the population at large, were less than entirely successful in achieving the crown's goal of ensuring religious uniformity and control. Such executions were also occasions for contestation and resistance. The book's five chapters discuss both Roman Catholics (under Henry VIII and Elizabeth I) and Protestants (under Henry VIII and Mary) who, depending upon the seesaw prescriptions of Tudor religio-political regimes, were prosecuted for religious dissidence. Through numerous examples drawn from martyrological and other published sources, trial records, correspondence, and government documents, Covington patiently describes the suspects' dealings with officials involved in the process, including paid informers, summoners, sheriffs, jail keepers, interrogators, and executioners. Variability and contingency characterized every stage, the result of the complex social interactions and individual qualities of the authorities, suspects, and coreligionists involved.

Covington's basic argument will be unsurprising to those familiar with the judicial and religious realities of Tudor England. The book's strength lies in its structure and scope, viz., the marshaling of examples from the 1520's through the 1590's of Protestants as well as Catholics, organized into a step-by-step description of the prosecutorial process. …