Victorian Protestantism & Bloody Mary

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Peter Wickins
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About The Author

Peter Wickins lectured on Economic History at the University of Cape Town and is the author of a number of books and academic articles on Africa.  On retiring to England he was drawn into an unfamiliar field of research when he encountered the memorial erected at the beginning of the 20th century in honour of the religious dissenters burnt at Bury St Edmunds during the reign of Mary I.  It seemed to him extraordinary that there should be such a resurgence of interest in the tragic events that had taken place three and a half centuries earlier.  As this book demonstrates, close investigation soon revealed that Protestant memorials had more to do with the 19th century Church of England than the religious disputes of the 16th century.

About The Book

This is an important and interesting book on aspects of our religious heritage which until now have escaped the investigation of scholars. History is all too often employed as a weapon for smiting the "infidel."  So it was among religiously-minded people in 19th century England.  By the beginning of the Victorian era, after the somnolence of the 18th century, religious enthusiasm among both clergy and laity in the established Church revived. This brought about such acrimonious differences it was a wonder they could be accommodated in the same Church. 

Provoked by a group of Oxford scholars who sought to show that the Church of England was neither Roman Catholic nor Protestant but a middle way between the two, Protestant militants were aroused to demonstrate against and even disrupt church services of which they disapproved. To remind English men and women of the glories of the Reformation they erected memorials in many towns to celebrate the heroic reputation of the martyrs who suffered in the reign of 'Bloody Mary.'

Memorials required names and to find out who the victims were and where they met their end the memorial committees turned to the pages of John Foxe's Acts and Monuments of the Christian Martyrs, better known as Foxe's Book of Martyrs.  A most effective work of propaganda in the days of religious warfare, it was reprinted in new editions.  Now the target was no longer the Church of Rome, but the Anglo-Catholics or the alleged ‘Romanisers.'

A perplexing problem for the historian is what the Protestant martyrs actually believed.  It is clearly naive to suppose that they died for 19th century parliamentary democracy and liberties.  Foxe's criterion of Protestant martyrdom was hatred of Rome and in his anxiety to drum up the numbers he was reticent about or ignorant of the widely varying beliefs of his martyrs.

The assumption of the 19th century Protestants was that the English people rose as one to reject popery, but it is impossible to accurately assess the support for state-imposed religious change.  Surviving evidence, as the preamble to wills, seems to suggest that people for the most part simply acquiesced in what the government of the day decided was the ‘true’ religion.