What does Fires of Faith tell us about the consequences of religious brutality?
Later generations built the reign of Mary Tudor into a protestant national myth – innocence and truth pursued by popish brutality. I hope the book shows that matters were not quite so simple. A lot of the catholic restoration was won by brilliant writing and preaching, and by impressive organisational grip. And even the repressive side of the story was never straightforwardly a matter of moral dark and light. Many of the hunters shrank instinctively from violence, pitied the victims, and struggled for loopholes to release them. Many of the victims approved of punishing heresy, but thought catholics, not protestants, were the ones who should be suffering. And, sadly, I fear the book also provides some evidence that rigorously planned and ruthlessly pursued persecution achieves results, though that’s not a notion with much appeal in our time.
How do your research and your beliefs intersect?
I’m a Roman Catholic, and I suppose my books are marked by an imaginative empathy for the feel and texture of popular catholicism. Empathy can be a wonderful tool for a historian, helping you to see what others miss. But inevitably, there’s a price. Sympathy for some of the people of the past can entail a lack of feeling for others. That’s why we always need different historical perspectives on the same issues and episodes. But in Fires of Faith I have tried to do justice both to the idealism of those who imposed catholicism under Mary Tudor, and of those at the receiving end of that sometimes savage zeal. And that’s why the book devotes so much space to the grim topic of the burnings.