Following the death of Edward, July 17, 1553, Mary, daughter of Henry VIII, began to reign at thirty-seven years of age. Her accession was met with satisfaction, if not with enthusiasm, by the great majority of the nation. It was the general belief that the throne was rightfully hers, though an earlier parliament had annulled her right of succession on the grounds of the unlawfulness of Henry’s marriage to Catherine. Later, another parliament had restored it to her, which was in keeping with Henry’s last will and testament. Under this arrangement, she placed next after Edward, Prince of Wales, and heir to the crown. Few indeed anticipated the terrible changes that would soon sweep the nation. Mary’s education had been conducted mainly by her mother, who had taught her little besides a strong attachment to the Roman Catholic faith. No sooner had the way to the throne been cleared for her than she sent a message to the pope to the effect that she was his faithful daughter and England had returned to Rome. The knowledge of the joy of this would bring to the Eternal City enabled the messenger to make the trip in nine days, something that had taken Campeggio three months to accomplish when he came to pronounce Henry’s divorce.
Realizing that these same tidings would be far from welcome in England, Mary hid her true feelings. To the Reformers of Suffolk, who before espousing her cause sought a commitment from her as to the course she intended to pursue, she bade them put their minds at rest; no man would be molested on the grounds of his religion. Upon entering London, she sent the Lord Mayor the message that she meant not to compel other people’s consciences otherwise than God should persuade their hearts of truth. By these words, her right to the throne was confirmed. No sooner, however, was she firmly established than she threw off all disguise and left no one in doubt that it was her settled purpose to suppress the Protestant faith.
All of the circumstances that had made progress of the Reformation so difficult in England worked in Mary’s favor as she sought to restore the Catholic religion. Large numbers of the people were still attached to the ancient beliefs, as there had not been sufficient time for the light to fully dispel the darkness. A large portion of the clergy, though professing the Protestant faith because of the pressure that had been applied to them as a result of the laws passed during Henry’s reign, were still papal at heart.
Throughout all of England, all men who held any position of influence and who were known to be favorable to the Reformation were removed. During the months of August and September, Ridley, Bishop of London; Rogers; Latimer, the most eloquent preacher in all of England; Hooper of Gloucester; Coverdale; Bradford; Saunders; and others were deprived of their liberty. In addition, some noblemen and gentlemen were deprived of their lands which the king had given them. Many churches were changed, altars were set up, and masses said, even before a law had been passed making it legal.
All of the foreign Protestants were given passports, with orders to leave the country. Nearly 1,000 Englishmen under various guises left with them. Providence had arranged that just as the storm was about to break in England, it had begun to abate on the Continent.
Soon after being confirmed to the throne, Mary considered a marriage to the emperor’s son, Philip of Spain. Parliament begged the queen not to marry a stranger; and the queen, not liking to have her matrimonial interests interfered with, dismissed the members and sent them to their homes. Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester and Lord Chancellor of England, learning that a galleon loaded with gold had just returned to Spain from South America, wrote the emperor, suggesting that for the price of a few millions of his wealth he might be able to buy sufficient votes of influential men, thereby assuring that England would be rescued from heresy. At the same time, it was suggested that it would be an opportunity to add another to the many kingdoms that were already under the Spanish scepter. The idea was agreed to and plans for a wedding moved ahead.
With the year 1555, the stake returned to England. Secret informers were appointed in each district to report on all who did not attend the mass or who otherwise failed to conduct themselves as good Catholics. Among the first victims to suffer for their faith were Rogers and Hooper. The men who were burned during Mary’s reign died mainly because of their denial in the belief of transubstantiation—the actual presence of the body of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. The question was direct and there was no reasoning the matter. "What sayest thou?" was the question put to each of them. If in answer they said "flesh," they were acquitted; if in reply they said "bread," they were condemned to be burned.
Rogers had been an associate of Tyndale and Coverdale in translating the Scriptures. On the morning of February 4, he was awakened and led to Smithfield. In the crowd he saw his wife with their eleven children, the smallest still an infant. His persecutors thought that his fatherly instincts might prevail where they had failed, but in this they were mistaken. Refusing the pardon that was offered him, he replied; "That which I have preached will I seal with my blood." Accused of being a heretic, he calmly replied that this would be determined at the last day.
After this beginning, the work moved ahead rapidly. In order to strike terror to the populace as a whole, stakes were raised all over England. The clergy, thinking that seeing their pastors burned would terrorize the flock, arranged to have the Reformers burned in various places throughout England. Little did they realize that the people might be moved to pity by the sight and, admiring their heroism, would come to despise the tyranny that doomed them to such an awful death. A thrill of horror swept the nation.
Hooper, who had been a companion of Rogers at his initial trial, had expected to accompany him to the stake. Instead, however, he was told that he was to be transported back to Gloucester where he had been bishop. Though he welcomed the privilege of dying anywhere for Christ, to seal his testimony before the flock to which had preached filled him with joy. Arriving in Gloucester, he was met by a crowd of tearful people. Three days were allowed him before his execution. On February 9, he was led out. It was market day and not less than 7,000 people assembled to watch. He did not address those assembled, as he had been forced to give his promise to remain silent by the threat of having his tongue cut out. His courage and the serenity of his countenance, however, preached a more eloquent sermon than any words he might have framed.
Men were able to contrast the leniency with which the Romanists had been treated under Edward VI with the fierce cruelty of Mary. When Protestantism was in the ascendancy, not a single papist had died for his religion. A few priests had been deprived of their offices and revenue, but the vast majority had saved their livelihood by conforming. Now that popery had revived, no one could be a Protestant but at the peril of his life. All over England fires raged. From the child, to the elderly, without regard to sex, the victims were brought, sometimes singly, at other times by the dozens. An England that till now had placed a small price on the Reformation, awoke to a better idea of the value what Edward VI and Cranmer had given it.
The gloomiest year in the history of England was the last year of Mary. Drought and tempests had brought about a scarcity of food. Famine brought plague in its wake. Strange maladies attacked the population and a full half of the inhabitants fell sick. Many towns and villages were almost depopulated, and a sufficient number of laborers could not be found to even reap the fields. In many places the grain, instead of being carried to the barn, stood rotting in the fields. The kingdom was rapidly becoming a satrapy of Spain, and its prestige was year by year sinking in the eyes of foreign powers.
Between February 4, 1555, when Rogers was burned at Smithfield, and November 15, 1558, when five martyrs were burned in one fire at Canterbury just two days before Mary died, no less than 288 persons were burned alive at the stake.
Mary breathed her last on the morning of November 17, 1558. On the same day, but a few hours later, Cardinal Pole died. He along with Carranza, the Spanish priest who had been Mary’s confessor, had been chief counselor in carrying out the deeds that were to crown her reign with such infamy in England. The news of Mary’s death spreading rapidly through London caused general rejoicing. Wherever the news was told, it was heralded with great joy. The nation awoke as from a horrible nightmare.