Academic journal article Albion

Heretic Hunting beyond the Seas: John Brett and His Encounter with the Marian Exiles

Academic journal article Albion

Heretic Hunting beyond the Seas: John Brett and His Encounter with the Marian Exiles

Article excerpt

The story of beleaguered Protestants who fled to the continent during the reign of Mary Tudor in the 1550s is well-known, but less familiar is the attempt by the queen and her representatives to order some of those exiles apprehended and brought back home for confrontation or punishment. One agent placed in charge of tracking down a few of the more prominent exiles and serving them with papers was John Brett: over the course of several months, in which he himself was pursued, insulted, beaten, and ultimately chased from Frankfurt and Strasbourg by protestant sympathizers, Brett persisted in his attempt to reach figures such as Katherine, the godly duchess of Suffolk, and her family; the result however was utter failure, described in an account of the tribulations written by Brett himself after his empty-handed return to England. (1)

Brett's adventure constitutes a tale of drama in its own right, but more important are aspects within the narrative that illuminate larger issues of the law, jurisdiction, exile, and strategies of resistance on the part of a community growing more confident and intellectually justified in its opposition to the queen (and her agent). Not only does Brett's narrative capture a tense moment in the lives of notable Marian exiles with a vividness and intimacy that supercedes other exile accounts; (2) even more, it unwittingly provides a complete portrait, at a specific and significant moment in time, of a community that is self-sustaining yet fearful, and one that directly relates in its behavior to resistance tracts such as fellow exile John Ponet's Treatise of Politike Power, written in the same year as Brett's visit. At the same time, Mary's decision to dispatch Brett overseas was not necessarily outside the law either, and neither was it especially persecutory in the larger context of Tudor behavior over the course of the sixteenth century. Brett's attempt to deliver his letters to a select list of exiles was simply an attempt to assert Crown privilege over wayward (indeed, politically dangerous) subjects, in an age when legal understandings--specifically concerning land law and international law--were undergoing profound transformations, and therefore uncertainties. Brett's journey was therefore not undertaken for completely unjustifiable reasons; still, the timing was wrong, and the exile communities too unified, for him to achieve anything other than getting out of the area alive, if not, in the end, unbloodied.

I

Brett's mission occurred at a particularly charged juncture in the reign of Mary, since the summer of 1556 resonated with the fresh memory of a conspiracy that had begun in December 1555, when Henry Dudley and a group of other disgruntled noblemen hatched a plot to depose the queen with French help and to install Elizabeth on the throne instead. Over the course of March and April 1556 the conspirators were arrested and interrogated, resulting in the indictment of thirty-six individuals and the execution of ten--a much higher number, as David Loades has pointed out, than were punished under Northum-berland's failed attempt to change the rules of succession in 1553. (3) While the extent of the danger was ultimately questionable, it nevertheless remained, in Loades' words, that "the council, and the queen herself, were desperately worried in the spring of 1556" for the "appearance of instability" that enshrouded the government, especially in the eyes of continental observers; moreover, the queen's subsequent behavior would represent, on the domestic front, Mary's "[disillusion] with the practice of clemency" that she had undertaken previously. (4)

The conspirators' refuge in France led in part to Mary's intensifying efforts to control, silence, or apprehend notable individuals who had fled overseas--the mission with which Brett was charged. As will be seen, other more pecuniary motives mingled with these efforts, but the spring of 1556 represented a shift in her larger persecutory policies, of which the exiles were, at least partially, a target. …

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