The religious turmoil that England and Wales had experienced since the late 1520’s continued after the death of Edward VI. By Edward’s death, England had a Church of England that was very recognisable as being Protestant. Whether Luther inspired it or Calvin was a separate issue but all vestiges of Catholicism has been removed. Edward has been educated as a Protestant so there would have been no surprise at the direction that the Church would take while he was king. There was also no confusion as to the direction the Church would take with Mary I. Mary had been educated as a Roman Catholic and she would have been very aware that the issue of religion started with Henry VIII’s attempt to divorce Mary’s mother, Catherine of Aragon. When Mary became queen in 1553, few doubted that she would return the Church to both Rome and Catholicism. How the people would react to yet more change would be an unknown quantity.


After the failure of Northumberland’s plot to put Lady Jane Grey on to the throne, it quickly became apparent to Mary that she had a powerful weapon on her side – that the people were instinctively loyal to the legal ruling monarch and that they greatly valued a legal succession. This, along with her own beliefs, quickly persuaded Mary that she would have few problems undoing the reforms of her half-brother.


When Mary was crowned there is little doubt that she was very popular with the people. However, she interpreted this as support for her desire for wholesale religious reform. In this she was wrong. The senior nobility was divided over many religious issues but over one it was united – royal supremacy. The break from Rome and the establishment of monarchical power as being supreme in England was an accepted way of life. Mary’s plan to restore Papal authority in England was bound to be highly controversial – even Pope Julius III urged her to be cautious. He believed that any rash move by Mary might cause a rebellion that would oust her from the throne. Stephen Gardner, her most trusted advisor, was also wary about restoring the authority of the Pope in England. Cardinal Reginald Pole, Papal Legate for England, stayed in the Netherlands for a year before coming to England – presumably to see if he was safe to return.


However, the public reaction to the first of Mary’s religious reforms encouraged her to do more. Mary used the royal prerogative to suspend the second Act of Uniformity and reintroduce the mass. There was little public outcry and this must have heartened Mary. Eight hundred Protestants left the country for Protestant Europe – but this was all.


In October 1553, Parliament met. There was a discussion – described as lively but not angry – about potential religious changes and at the end of it the first steps were taken to remove Protestantism from the Church of England in the first Statute of Repeal. This act removed all the religious legislation that had been introduced in the reign of Edward VI and the Church was restored to what it had been in 1547 under the Act of the Six Articles. Combined with this was the arrest of Cranmer, Hooper, Ridley and other leading bishops – none of whom, after their arrest, could speak in the House of Lords. At this stage, Mary was cautious. Listening to her advisors, she did not touch on the issue of royal supremacy nor did she discuss what for some was a more vexed issue – the sale of Church land to members of the laity, which by the very nature of what had previously happened, meant the more wealthy, and therefore influential, members of the nobility and gentry.


The changes to the Church continued in 1554. Gardner wanted to act quickly. He had removed from their sees, Protestant bishops appointed in the reign of Edward. Catholic bishops replaced them. The Archbishop of York was also deprived of his see. In March 1554, all bishops were ordered to adhere only to legislation passed in the reign of Henry VIII, with 15547 being used as a benchmark. Latin once again became the language of the Church and clerical marriage was outlawed. Clergy who had got married were ordered to leave their families or lose their posts and face a fine. Many complied with the ruling though a few did not and fled abroad.  


Cardinal Reginald Pole arrived in England in November 1554. His arrival was significant. Pole had remained in the safety of Catholic Europe while the initial reforms occurred. It is assumed that he must have felt that the time was right – and safe – for his return as Papal Legate. In the same month, Parliament passed the second Statute of Repeal. This did away with royal supremacy and restored Papal authority once again. It also removed from the statute books all the religious reforms that Parliament had passed between 1529 and 1547.  However, Mary was capable of compromise. Those who had purchased Church land after 1536 were protected. This was a simple recognition by Mary that an attempt to do the opposite would provoke a negative reaction against her by some of the most important men in the land. Therefore, Mary’s desire for a restoration of the monasteries never came about. She did return to the monasteries former monastic land held by the Crown (worth £60,000 a year) but this was a very small proportion of the original amount of land held by the monasteries.


Parliament also restored the old heresy laws. This resulted in leading Protestants being tried for heresy, being found guilty and executed. The first burning at the stake took place on February 4th 1555. On February 9th, John Hooper, former Bishop of Gloucester, was burned in Gloucester. By March 1556, Ridley, Latimer and Cranmer had all been burned at the stake. Eventually 274 Protestants were executed in the reign on ‘Bloody’ Mary.


Ironically it was the death in November 1555 of Stephen Gardner, a devout Catholic that led to a repressive campaign being started against Protestants in England. Even though Gardner was a devout Catholic, he urged caution and restraint when it came to dealing with Protestants. Gardner was a well-known Catholic during the reign of Edward VI, but he was never faced death for his beliefs. While Gardner had supported the execution of the first few Protestants (in the belief that it would frighten off other Protestants) he did not believe in a wholesale campaign against them. He was astute enough to realise that the campaign against the Protestants would be enough to rally them together as a far more cohesive force.


Gardner’s death led to Pole becoming far more influential on Mary’s decision making. Pole had been made Archbishop of Canterbury in December 1555 and he persuaded Mary that it was their sacred duty to rid England and Wales of heretics. Historians claim that the number of people in England executed for heresy between 1555 and 1558 was greater than in any other European Catholic state. However, it has also been noted that the total of 274 is fewer than at other times in English history.


Many in England did not support the execution of men who were thought of as learned and not a threat to social stability. An obvious comparison was made with the England of Edward VI when Catholics may have been removed from religious office, but were not persecuted for their beliefs. This, along with her very unpopular marriage to Phillip II, led to the rapid decline in Mary’s popularity. A lot of southeast England and East Anglia was flooded with Protestant literature – brought in from Protestant Europe – and in 1558 the Privy Council passed a law that anyone caught with such material would be executed. The more Mary and her government were seen to be, the more unpopular she became.


Pole did what he could to restore Catholicism to its former authority but he failed. Ironically, it was something to do with Pole himself that assisted this. In 1555, Pope Julius III had died. Paul IV succeeded him. The new pope had a long-standing dislike of Pole. He removed his title of Papal Legate and ordered that he return to Rome. Pole refused and remained in England as Archbishop of Canterbury. The significance of this was that it showed the impact of attempted Papal interference in English affairs. While many may have been Catholic in England, few supported the return of Papal authority. In fact many interpreted ‘Papal intervention’ as Papal interference in English affairs.


How successful were Mary’s reforms? How Catholic was England by the time of her death?


Both of these questions are difficult to answer. The speed with which England returned to Protestantism under Elizabeth I would indicate that though legislation was on paper, their impact in the community was not great. Research at a local level also shows that the authorities introduced Mary’s reforms at a local level. However, it can be argued that they had to. Failure to do so would have led to any local government leader being punished. However, what was on paper does not show what the local people thought. It is difficult, if not impossible, to know what the people of England believed about these reforms. Few could write and while Mary was alive and the repression in existence, few would have been brave to have written down their thoughts if they were anti-Catholic.