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Further rehabilitation of Cardinal Pole
on 19 May 2012
The two pre-eminent historians of the Tudor Church, Eamon Duffy and Diarmaid MacCulloch, disagree on much, but in the 21st Century reassessment of the Reformation, they are united on one thing: Cardinal Pole deserves a much more positive perspective than he has hitherto been given.
After MacCulloch's monumental "Reformation", with a highly favourable excursus on Pole, we now have this, Duffy's book on the Marian church and its legacy. Mary herself is almost completely ignored; rather, Duffy's tome is ultimately a reconstruction of Pole's plan for the re-Catholicising of England, and a further argument that Pole's blueprint was not left behind in an English backwater, but rather highly influential in the Counter Reformation across Europe: for example, his plans on seminaries found their way into the contemporary Council of Trent's final text.
There remains an essential disagreement, however, between Duffy and MacCulloch. For MacCulloch and others, there was something much more inevitable about the Reformation event in Europe and in England. Duffy has never accepted this, arguing that such a view comes from secular/ Protestant bias.
In his famous "The Stripping of the Altars", Duffy argued that, far from being on its last legs when the Reformation happened, traditional Catholic religion was flourishing in England right up to the Henrician revolution. Most historians would now agree with him. Here, he extends his argument by three decades: deep into the 1550s, traditional Catholic religion was genuinely popular over most of England: the Protestant martyrs were only popular in London and Kent, and even there a campaign of repressive force was on its way to wiping them out.
Thanks to Pole's policies and patronage, the cathedrals were brimming with bright young things, of deep Catholic conviction (hundreds of them fled post 1558 and ended up in European universities and colleges), and England was well on its way to a secure Catholicism, in part because the people had never ultimately had their hearts converted to Protestant ways.
For Duffy, the only thing that stopped this was the monumental fluke of the deaths of Mary and her Archbishop dying on the same day, which allowed in a deconstruction of Catholic England under Elizabeth and a new archbishop that otherwise might never have happened.
It's a brave thesis. However, I believe this book only takes us halfway there. Yes, historiography has been skewed by ignoring the chance element of Pole and Mary's deaths and we may have therefore tended to see the Elizabeth settlement of Anglicanism as falsely inevitable, as it was true to the 'English spirit', in some way.
But, no, I don't think you can ignore the sheer number of martyrs Mary and Pole needed to slay: these had to have been conviction Protestants and must have been the tip of a pretty decent Protestant iceberg. And, no, I don't think you can ignore entirely the eventual success of the Elizabeth settlement (though some early Stuart/ Civil War historians would disagree.)
Duffy can challenge our view of grassroots religion, but he hasn't got the evidence to prove his case.
The other reviews make good points about the way this book is written. It's dense, and certainly assumes a decent knowledge of the basic historical events: this isn't for firsttimers. Also, it perhaps lacks the flair Duffy has brought to his other books. But even so, his ear for a telling turn of flair has not gone:
at the end of his chapter on burnings, he notes "On both sides, this was an ideological struggle inscribed in the quivering flesh of suffering human beings."( p123)
Strong history, albeit not ultimately convincing.