Academic journal article The Historian

The Oxford Martyrs and the English Protestant Movement, 1553-58

Academic journal article The Historian

The Oxford Martyrs and the English Protestant Movement, 1553-58

Article excerpt

THE ASCENDANCY OF MARY TUDOR to the English throne in 1553, following the death of her half-brother Edward VI placed the island nation in a precarious religious and political situation. After enduring the break with Rome under Henry VIII as well as the dismantling of traditional religion during the Edwardian Reformation, England now found itself governed by a devout Catholic monarch. The fortunes quickly reversed for those evangelical leaders who had helped shape the previous two decades of the English Reformation. Mary wanted to restore traditional religion quickly. Consequently, the regime began to target reform leaders in order to make an example of them as well as to silence the opposition. (1) On 20 July 1553, Marian authorities imprisoned Bishop Nicholas Ridley in the Tower of London. Bishop Hugh Latimer joined him on 4 September, and Archbishop Thomas Cranmer followed on 13 September. These reform leaders went to the stake in 1555 at Oxford.

The interpretation of this period that endured until recently held that the English Reformation was a reaction against the inadequacies of Catholicism in England. This reaction "was a vital stage along the road to modernity, the cleansing of the English psyche from priestcraft, ignorance and superstition." (2) This Whig analysis assumed that traditional religion was not deeply embedded in English society and that there existed a significant disparity between the laity and the clergy. Consequently, a popular reaction to the deficiencies of the traditional church drove the diffusion of Protestantism. The reform movement therefore developed from the lower levels of society and moved upward quickly. The traditional interpretation of Mary's reign emerged soon after her death in 1558. In 1563, Protestant martyrologist John Foxe published his Acts and Monuments chronicling the suffering of the victims of persecution during the Marian Counter Reformation. This work provided "binding historical myths" that served to reinforce Protestant ideology. (3) The Oxford Martyrs stood center stage in this martyrology as symbols of English Protestantism. (4) Subsequent historians have thus depicted Mary's religious policy as a brutal and arbitrary campaign against a popular movement.

Recently, revisionist historians have challenged these arguments. Eamon Duffy's Stripping of the Altars successfully displaced the assumption that traditional religion was a weak institution. Duffy made a convincing argument that the English Reformation, rather than offering a constructive reform program to replace a failing church, instead dismantled a popular and important element of English life. The conversion of England to Protestantism therefore developed slowly driven by the "machinery of coercion and supervision" rather than popular initiative. (5) The revisionists also differed in their understanding of Mary's reign. Duffy argued that the Marian Counter-Reformation "was both far-seeing and practical" and "was in fact displaying unmistakable signs of success, till the death of Queen Mary wrecked the entire enterprise." (6) Revisionist historians did not dismiss persecution. However, the martyrs lost significance within the larger context of the Reformation.

The correspondence and various works produced by the Oxford Martyrs while incarcerated provide an understanding of the state of the Protestant movement during this period and the role that these leaders played. Among the three martyrs, Ridley produced the majority of the theological works and played the most active role in the Protestant leadership. (7) In fact, the Bishop of London "wrote indefatigably" while imprisoned. (8) Ridley, Cranmer, and Latimer had frequent contact with reformers in England, those in exile on the continent as well as their persecuted colleagues. Their religious tracts quickly found their way into the hands of supporters on the continent through sympathetic networks in England itself. These letters and treatises reveal the vitality of the Protestant movement during Mary's reign. …

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