Queen Mary of England (1516–1558; r. 1553–1558), the only surviving child from the union of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, inherited the throne after the death of her half-brother, Edward VI in 1553. From childhood to early adulthood, she suffered the misfortune of being the only daughter of the king’s rejected wife. When Catherine did not provide Henry with a surviving male heir, he sent her away and married Anne Boleyn. Mary was stripped of her princess’s title, declared illegitimate, and separated from her mother whom she dearly loved, at the age of fifteen. When Henry died in 1547, his ten year old son Edward succeeded him as king. Edward reigned only until he was fifteen, when in July 1553, he died after an illness in which he is reported to have “coughed and spat blood, his legs swelled painfully, eruptions broke out over his body, his hair fell out, then his nails.”[i] Edward had tried to keep Mary from succeeding him because she was Roman Catholic. He wanted to ensure that his cousin, Lady Jane Grey, ascended the throne. When Edward died, Jane was acclaimed as queen. But after a mere ten days, Mary raised an army, deposed Jane, and rode into London triumphantly as queen in August, 1553.
Despite her royal lineage, Mary had lived a troubled life. And despite the fact that the throne was finally hers, her troubles had only just begun. In her zeal for the Catholic faith, she married Philip II of Spain (1527–1598)[ii] and incurred the wrath of many of her people, both Catholic and Protestant, who feared that England would become subservient to Spain. She barely survived an attempted coup, but once she did, she became deeply suspicious of plots against her as well as Protestant threats against her beloved Catholic church.
In 1555, Mary initiated a brutal policy of persecution against Protestants. Many Protestants had already fled to the continent, hoping to wait Mary out and try to place Elizabeth, her half-sister, on the throne when the time was right. But between 1555 and 1558, more Protestants fled England to escape the awful torment of being burned at the stake. About 300 persons were burned during the reign of “Bloody Mary.” Victims were bound to the stake surrounded by a great pile of dried brush swathed in pitch and tar. For mercy’s sake, many of the condemned were strangled before they were burned. Others were secured to the stake with bags of gunpowder hung around their necks which were supposed to explode, and thus dispatch them quickly. To others, no mercy was offered and it took some victims up to an hour to die. Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer—he who had annulled Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon and wrote the Book of Common Prayer to replace the Mass—was among those to perish in flame on the pyre.
Several of those Protestants fleeing England sojourned in German and Swiss cities during the persecution. While in Europe, they grew rooted in Reformed theology and the writings of William Tyndale,[iii] the English reformer who translated the Bible from the original Hebrew and Greek into English. Tyndale was deeply impressed with the national covenant theology expressed in the Old Testament, and believed that God continued to work in human history through national covenants. Protestant sojourners adopted Tyndale’s high view of national election during the Marian persecution and believed that England existed in covenant with God as his chosen people. And they believed that it was their duty to restore England to right relationship with God in order to stave off his wrath that was sure to consume the nation because of Catholic Mary’s reign. These Protestant exiles, who returned to England after Mary died in 1558, were the vanguards of the Puritan movement. Richard Hughes wrote that “Tyndale’s vision of covenant . . . was the soil in which the notion of chosenness would slowly germinate until, finally it would spring full-blown in the United States.”[iv] So it was the Puritan tradition, informed by Tyndale, arising from the Marian persecution that advanced the English vision of the chosen nation, first in England and then in the colonies of New England.
[i] Will Durant, The Reformation: A History of European Civilization from Wyclif to Calvin: 1300–1564, vol. 6, The Story of Civilization (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1957), 586. I love Durant’s style as a tremendously descriptive storyteller. His eleven-volume Story of Civilization is a beautifully readable, thorough, and integrative survey for the general reader of western civilization from prehistory to the fall of Napoleon.
[ii] Philip II (r. 1554–1598) was the son of Emperor Charles V. Philip ruled Spain when that kingdom was at the pinnacle of its world power. Spain’s possessions included a vast empire in the Americas, the Philippine Islands (which were named for Philip) as well as numerous territories in Europe. While married to Mary, he claimed the title of King of England. And it was Philip that launched the ill-fated Spanish Armada against Elizabeth I’s English fleet to secure the English Channel for a planned invasion of England in 1588.
[iii] Tyndale was burned at the stake after being strangled in 1536.
[iv] Richard Hughes, Myths America Lives By (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 23.