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Religious Intolerance Now Admitted

Religious Intolerance Now Admitted

 Religious Intolerance Now Admitted


“BISHOPS Regret ‘Terrible Crimes’ of Queen Mary,” headlined Britain’s Catholic Herald of December 11, 1998. The Roman Catholic bishops of England and Wales acknowledged that “in the name of the Catholic religion terrible wrongs were done, for example to Protestants at the time of the Reformation in Great Britain.” Who was Queen Mary? What wrongs did she commit that prompted such an admission? And why did the bishops of England and Wales choose this time to issue their statement?

Mary Tudor was born in Roman Catholic England in 1516. The only surviving child of Catherine of Aragon, first wife of King Henry VIII, Mary was brought up as a devout Catholic by her mother. Her father wanted a male heir, but Catherine did not produce one. Since the pope refused to annul his marriage to Catherine, Henry took matters into his own hands, thus preparing the way for the Protestant Reformation in England. In 1533 he married Anne Boleyn, four months before the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, pronounced Henry’s first marriage invalid.

 The following year a defiant Henry severed all ties with Rome and was made supreme head of the Church of England. Mary, now considered illegitimate, never saw her mother again, as Catherine was forced to spend her last years isolated from public life.

Protestant Intolerance

Over the next 13 years, some who refused to acknowledge Henry as head of the church or who still accepted the authority of the pope were put to death. Henry died in 1547 and was succeeded by nine-year-old Edward, his only legitimate son, by the third of his six wives. Edward and his advisers attempted to make England Protestant. Roman Catholics were persecuted for practicing their religion, and churches were stripped of images and altars.

Restrictions on printing and reading the Bible in English were soon lifted, and church services incorporating Bible reading were to be in English instead of Latin. But in 1553, Edward died of tuberculosis when he was only 15. Mary was considered the rightful successor and became queen of England.

Catholic Intolerance

At first, people welcomed 37-year-old Mary, but she soon became unpopular. Her subjects had become used to Protestantism, and now Mary determined to make the country Roman Catholic again. In a short time, all of Edward’s religious statutes were repealed. Mary sought the pope’s forgiveness on behalf of the nation. Once again, England became Roman Catholic.

Reconciliation with Rome, in turn, prompted a new wave of persecution against Protestants. They were likened to a malignant boil that was to be cut out before it could affect the entire body. Many who refused to accept the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church were burned alive at the stake.

Punishment of Heretics

The first to die during Mary’s reign was John Rogers. He had compiled what is known as Matthew’s Bible, which formed the basis for the King James Version. After preaching an anti-Roman Catholic sermon warning against “pestilent Popery, idolatry, and superstition,” he was imprisoned for a year, and in February 1555 he was burned to death for heresy.

John Hooper, bishop of Gloucester and Worcester, was also labeled a heretic. He declared that it was lawful for the clergy to marry and that divorce on the ground of adultery was permissible. He also denied that Christ was physically present in the Mass. Hooper was roasted alive, his agonizing death lasting nearly three quarters of an hour. When it was 70-year-old Protestant preacher Hugh Latimer’s turn for the flames, he encouraged Nicholas Ridley, fellow Reformer and fellow victim at the stake, with the words: “Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, and play the man. We shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out.”

Thomas Cranmer, the first Protestant Archbishop of Canterbury under Henry and Edward, was also condemned as a heretic. Although he recanted his Protestant beliefs, at the last moment he made a public about-face, denounced the pope as Christ’s enemy, and thrust his right hand into the fire to be burned first, since it had been guilty of signing the recantations.

While at least 800 wealthy Protestants fled abroad to safety, over the next three years and nine months until Mary’s  death, at least 277 persons were burned at the stake in England. Many victims were ordinary people who had become totally confused about what they should believe. Young people had been brought up hearing the pope denounced and now were being punished for speaking against him. Others had learned to read the Bible for themselves and had formed their own religious opinions.

The slow, agonizing death of men, women, and children who were burned at the stake appalled many. Historian Carolly Erickson describes a typical scene: “All too often the wood for the fire was green, or the rushes were too soggy to burn quickly. The bags of gunpowder tied to the victims to shorten their agony failed to ignite, or else maimed them without killing them.” The victims were not gagged, and so “their screams and prayers were audible often until the very moment of death.”

A growing number of people began to doubt a religion that needed to burn people at the stake to enforce its teachings. A wave of sympathy for the victims led ballad makers to compose songs about Protestant martyrs. John Foxe started compiling his Book of Martyrs, which was to become almost as influential to the Protestant Reformers as the Bible. Many who were Roman Catholics at the beginning of Mary’s reign became Protestants by its close.

Mary’s Legacy

After becoming queen, Mary said that she would marry her cousin Philip, heir to the Spanish throne. He was a foreign king and an ardent Roman Catholic, the last thing many of the English wanted. A Protestant uprising organized in protest against the marriage failed, and 100 rebels were executed. Philip and Mary married on July 25, 1554, although Philip was never crowned. However, their childless marriage was a source of distress to Mary, who wanted a Roman Catholic heir.

Mary’s health failed, and after a short rule of five years, she died at 42. She went to her grave grief-stricken. Her husband had tired of her, and most of her subjects hated her. At her death, many Londoners held parties in the streets. Instead of rebuilding Roman Catholicism, she had furthered the cause of Protestantism by her fanaticism. Her legacy is summed up in the name by which she is known—Bloody Mary.

Wrongly Motivated Conscience

Why did Mary order so many people burned to death? She had been taught that heretics were traitors to God, and she thought it her duty to cut out their influence before they infected the whole nation. She listened to her conscience but ignored the rights of others whose conscience led them in another direction.

However, the Protestants were equally intolerant. Under Henry and Edward, people had also been burned for their religious beliefs. Mary’s Protestant successor, Elizabeth I, made the practice of Roman Catholicism a treasonable offense, and during her reign more than 180 English Roman Catholics were executed. Over the next century, hundreds more died for their religious opinions.

Why Apologize Now?

December 10, 1998, marked the 50th anniversary of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 18 recognizes “the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion,” including the freedom to change one’s religion and to teach and practice it. The Roman Catholic bishops of England and Wales chose the 50th anniversary as “an appropriate occasion for Catholics to examine their consciences in these matters” and to acknowledge the “terrible wrongs” committed, particularly in the time of Mary Tudor.

Although acts of religious intolerance nearly 450 years ago are now regretted, has anything really changed? People are no longer burned at the stake, but many so-called Christians continue to rape and slaughter those of other religions. Such intolerance does not please God. Indeed, Jesus Christ, the one who perfectly reflects God’s personality, declared: “By this all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love among yourselves.”—John 13:35.

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Queen Mary

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From the book A Short History of the English People

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Latimer and Ridley were burned at the stake

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From the book Foxe’s Book of Martyrs

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Cranmer ensures that his right hand burns first

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From the book The History of England (Vol. 1)

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Border: 200 Decorative Title-Pages/Alexander Nesbitt/Dover Publications, Inc.