Conference 2008

Good Queen Mary,

Bad Queen Bess?

On 1st March 2008 [number] members and guests of the Cambridge History Forum gathered for their Annual Conference at Selwyn College, Cambridge, by kind permission of the Master and Fellows. There they had the pleasure of hearing the Conference’s theme - “Good Queen Mary, Bad Queen Bess?” – developed in two fascinating talks which were both informative and thought-provoking.

The Conference began with Dr Richard Rex (Fellow of Queen’s College) examining “Mary I and Elizabeth I, 1553-1563: A Short Comparison”. Dr Rex posed the question of how Elizabeth’s reputation might have been different had she died of smallpox in 1562, asking whether her sheer longevity as a ruler had enhanced the perception of her reign since. Turning to Mary, he strongly disputed the common interpretation – based on her accession – that Mary (unlike Elizabeth) was blind to the importance of propaganda. On the contrary, as Eamon Duffy had demonstrated, Mary’s regime made systematic use of propaganda, but historians have tended to overlook the evidence which exists of this. Similarly, whilst Mary has been seen as suffering from the absence of an adviser such as Cecil, a good case can be made for Cardinal Pole exercising the political influence of a spiritual guide.

Overall, the apparent failures of Mary’s reign stand in sharper focus since she ruled for merely five years, compared to Elizabeth’s forty-five. Dr Rex finished by illustrating this point with regard to the Elizabethan Settlement, pointing out that it was only seen (and described) as such from the 1590s. At the time it was seen as “the alteration of religion”; indeed, a contemporary document analysing the likely consequences of this, and examined by the audience, was named the Device for Alteration of Religion. Its author (probably Cecil) was clearly far from confident that the “alteration” would prove to be a settlement, fearing that “many people of our own” would “be very much discontented” by it. In Dr Rex’s responses to questions the audience were directed to the pervasive and enduring influence of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, and left with the intriguing thought that it was “the death of Protestant England” over the last thirty to forty years which had made possible the rehabilitation of Mary’s reputation.

Dr Stephen Alford (Fellow of King’s College) then addressed the theme of “Tudor Monarchy and its Critiques”, taking his listeners back to the 1530s and the imagery of the frontispiece of the Great Bible, where Henry is depicted handing down the Word of God, via Cromwell and Cranmer and their subordinates, to the grateful people. This imagery of the King as God’s Lieutenant on Earth was part of a “massive recalibration of Tudor monarchy” witnessed during the 1530s. This was developed further during Edward’s reign, which elicited comparisons with the boy-kings of the Old Testament. However, these comparisons could become a double-edged sword: like the Old Testament kings who had a duty to purge their kingdoms of idolatry and superstition, with Edward’s power went responsibility, even accountability – what our modern government might term “performance indicators” against which a monarch was to be judged!

Once Mary came to the throne, Protestant exiles such as Christopher Goodman (a senior academic figure under Edward VI) had to redefine what it meant to be a ruler: only if a ruler performed the will of God could they expect their subjects’ obedience. These theories came during Elizabeth’s reign to underpin both criticisms from her Protestant bishops, and the loyalty – in the face of outright resistance from some Catholics – of those like Burghley who advised his son to “serve God by serving the Queen, for all other service is service to the Devil”. With Walsingham’s belief (redolent of certain modern-day American politicians) that there was “less danger in fearing too much than too little” being reinforced by a network of spies, disagreement easily became disloyalty; indeed, in the 1580s “the boundary between private conscience and public loyalty, under threat for twenty-five years, finally collapsed.” As torture was employed against those styled enemies of the state, so a vigorous pamphlet debate regarding its morality raged in the 1580s, and the audience were able in this context to examine extracts from Norton’s defence of the methods used against “traitors”, published in 1583.

In responding to questions, Dr Alford invited Dr Rex to contribute, and there followed an immensely rewarding discussion between the two speakers and members of their audience. This focused, amongst other issues, on the tensions between Lutheran and Calvinist emphases within Protestantism, and those created by a Queen who, as Roger Bowers had put it, preferred 1549 to 1552!

Both speakers’ talks and, not least, their willingness to engage in public debate and discussion of each other’s ideas left their audience both enlightened and yet asking new questions of the period. For this and their time, they are due our warmest appreciation and thanks. As ever, the hospitality and setting provided by Selwyn College was first-rate and for this all, notably those who took lunch, were extremely grateful. Those present left reflecting on an enjoyable, stimulating and convivial day – and with their appetite whetted for the Conference of 2009…