Mary had from the start intended to restore the papal supremacy over the Church of England. She began secret negotiations with the Pope soon after becoming queen. The Pope appointed the Englishman, Cardinal Reginald Pole, to be his legate in England. Pole was a grandson of Edward IV’s brother the Duke of Clarence and a distant cousin of Mary. His mother, the Countess of Salisbury, had been Mary’s godmother and governess and had been executed by King Henry VIII in 1541. Reginald had fled from England and began his career in Rome. Pole advised Mary to move quickly in returning England to Rome but Mary argued that this would take time. There were political problems and she suggested that it would be easier to persuade the Parliament and the people to accept papal supremacy if the Pope would agree to leave the confiscated monastic lands in the hands of the present owners. At first Pole did not agree but after a year the Pope agreed. In 1555 Mary was able to return to the Franciscan and Dominican monks the monasteries still in the possession of the crown that had not been given to private individuals. Pole arrived in England in November of 1554. By Christmas Parliament had passed ‘An Act for the Renewing of The Three Statues made for the Punishment of Heresies’, which reinstated the Act for the Burning of Heretics of 1401. The burnings began in February, 1555. 

Queen Mary by Hans Eworth

The fear that overcame Mary after the Wyatt rebellion led to the burning of the Protestants. Up until that time she had appeared lenient and fair but her attitude changed completely when she sensed that she could never feel completely safe until all heretics were shown the outcome of disobedience. The majority of the populace had changed religion under the assumption that it was their duty to do as their sovereign told them, but they had great respect for those who were willing to be martyrs and did not see them on the road to Hell, as Mary did, but on the road to Heaven. They lined the roads as the condemned made their way to the stake and asked their blessing. Instead of showing the people the error of heresy it turned them into supporters of the heretics and many began to speak out against the burnings. Those who showed sympathy to the heretics were also to be arrested. New Protestant leaders began to put their own ideas about the rights of sovereigns in their pamphlets and forwarded the concept that if a ruler was wicked it was the duty of the people to resist.

Mary and the burnings from The History of the Reformation of the Church of England

Nicholas Ridley, Bishop of London, Hugh Latimer, Bishop of Worcester, John Philpot, Archdeacon of Westminster, John Hooper, Bishop of Gloucester and John Rogers, a married priest, were all burnt at the stake by Mary’s order. Although the martyrs came from all social classes none were from the nobility. New victims were condemned every day. Most of these were ordinary villagers and not preachers or intellectuals. These simple people had been confused by years of religions swinging back and forth. The sight of these people going bravely to the stake was very powerful. To the onlookers they seemed to defy the flames and welcome them. The former Protestant Archbishop Cranmer was burned in November of 1555 dramatically thrusting his right hand into the fire as a symbol of his dismissing the recantation he had written to Queen Mary.

There was widespread anger at these burnings. Not so much because they were the burning of Protestants, this had gone on through Henry VIII’s reign, but because Mary had interfered with the right the condemned had to recant. The original purpose of heresy trials was to force the heretic to recant. Even when he was at the stake he was given one last chance to be given pardon if he would recant. Authorities realized that the recantation was not usually sincere but the display of a public submission satisfied them. Mary, though, was not satisfied with these submissions and after a year repealed the right the condemned had to recant. This was very unpopular and added a horrible element to the burnings. Now there was no way, once condemned, to save their lives.

Many escaped abroad. At first Mary turned a blind eye to these refugees, she did not try to capture them nor prevented their friends from sending them money. She even allowed the Protestant Bishop of Exeter and translator of the Bible, to leave England for Denmark. But when the burnings began she sent agents to spy on the refugees and money was not allowed to be sent to them. From abroad the refugees wrote pamphlets to undermine Mary’s authority. The most sensational was John Knox’s, “First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women” which was aimed at Mary as well as her Scottish counterparts, Mary of Guise and Mary, Queen of Scots. Mary ordered that anyone found in possession of these books would be put to death without trial.

Mary began to see that these acts to uproot heresy were failing. Instead of bringing people back into the fold of the Catholic church the executions were creating resentment and rebellion. Instead of helping the church she was harming it and the knowledge of this caused her much grief. Her only joy now focused on her marriage and the hope of a Catholic heir.

Bloody Mary by Carolly Erickson