Harvington Hall
Summer at Harvington Hall

The English Reformation was a violent and bloody process. Henry VIII liberally executed both Catholics (as traitors) and Protestants (as heretics); Mary I burned to death almost 300 Protestants for heresy; and Elizabeth I presided over the executions of almost two hundred Catholics, two-thirds of them priests, for treason. Even more significant than the contemporary impact of such persecution, however, was the development of distinctive martyrological traditions by which those who died for their faith in Tudor England were memorialised for generations to come: the literal process of making martyrs. While martyrs had been a prominent feature of Christianity from its earliest days (with Christ himself as the prototype), in the wake of the Reformation English Protestants and Catholics created new (and subtly different) martyrological traditions.

Dr Willis explores how both Protestants and Catholics constructed accounts of martyrs in Elizabethan England, ranging from John Foxe’s famous Actes and Monuments, the so-called ‘book of martyrs’, to Catholic works including John Mush’s account of the life of Margaret Clitherow, and Richard Verstegan’s Theatrum Crudelitatum Haereticorum Nostri Temporis. He considers common problems faced by authors of martyrological accounts – such as how to present unruly women as exemplars of Christian piety and devotion – as well as distinctive features of both Catholic and Protestant martyrology.

Harvington Hall is a hidden gem: an absolutely stunning Elizabethan manor house only 15 miles from the University of Birmingham. It’s a real privilege to help them celebrate the centenary of Harvington’s ownership by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Birmingham, by telling the hidden story of how those who died for their faith in Tudor England were memorialised during the reign of Elizabeth I.

Dr Jonathan Willis

Dr Jonathan Willis is Associate Professor in Early Modern History at the University of Birmingham. An expert and author of several books on the religious and cultural history of England in the sixteenth century with a particular focus on the impact of religious change on the lived experiences of ordinary people. ​