Your RDA of Irony

Of Mice and Mitres

Mean Mary TudorOctober 16, 1555:  The Mary Tudor Cookbook


On this day in 1555, Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley inspired two-thirds of a nursery rhyme. They were not intentionally whimsical; Bishops are not supposed to be frivolous, Protestant ones seldom are, and being burned at the stake is never fun. As if they needed further martyrdom, they were Cambridge graduates being publicly executed at Oxford.

What had Latimer and Ridley done to earn their kindling? Both men had been vociferously Protestant at a time when the monarch was just as dogmatically Catholic. Latimer had been too Protestant for Henry VIII–and had a few cautionary “timeouts” in the Tower of London; so just imagine the reaction of Queen Mary, the pinup girl of the Counter-Reformation. Worse for Latimer, he had supported the failed Protestant coup to place Lady Jane Grey on the throne. So Latimer was already condemned for treason, but Mary preferred to execute him for heresy. Guess which crime had a more painful sentence.

Ridley had risen to royal favor in the 1530s defending the King’s ecclesiastical supremacy, which included the divine right to dump the first wife. For some reason, Queen Mary resented her mother being declared a whore and she being demoted to “bastard.” When the erstwhile bastard became queen in 1553, Ridley went in person to Mary to apologize for any past misunderstandings. But “Spanish whore” is a difficult term to misinterpret; it is rarely synonymous with “martyred saint”, which is how Mary referred to her mother.  If Ridley received any mercy from the vindictive queen, it was his being transferred from the stressful job of Bishop of London to the salubrious simplicity of the Tower.  Latimer was also vacationing there.

After a year in the Tower, the two were sent to Oxford where an inquisition of impeccably Catholic judges awaited them. Latimer and Ridley knew they were condemned; no one ever beats a heresy charge. However, you can grovel your way out of the most permanent sentence. The men simply had to recant every tenet of Protestantism, fully confess their errors and fervently embrace Holy Mother Church. In return for their humiliation and conversion, they probably would have gotten off with a few years in prison. But Latimer and Ridley would not bend, instead debating every religious point with their accusers. Unfortunately, the Inquisition was not known as an ecumenical good sport.

The men were burned alive in a public square. It was said that Latimer’s last words were, “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.”

No, that is not the nursery rhyme… or even two thirds of it. The remaining inspiration was Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who was burned alive at Oxford some five months later. Mary showed considerable restraint in not lighting the pyre herself. She really, really, really hated him. Everything about him seemed damning. When he still was supposed to be a Catholic priest, he had been married. He had risen at the recommendation of the Boleyn family, and he had endeared himself to Henry VIII by being the chief advocate for the first divorce. As if to further aggravate Mary, Cranmer did not even prove to be loyal to his Protestant convictions. When confronted by the Oxford tribunal, he recanted. Given his groveling and Church etiquette, his life should have been spared. But Mary had made her feelings known to the judges. (“Do you enjoy your tenured niche at Oxford or would you prefer being a chaplain at a leper colony in Wales?”) So, when Cranmer was condemned to death, he recanted his recantation.

And, with his death, the wags and wits of the time memorialized the three executions with a nursery rhyme. And you know it, this story of heretical bishops destroyed by an irate queen. Heretics are figuratively blind, so you could say “three blind mitres, three blind mitres…”

Or something similar.

  1. Renee Keats says:

    Eugene– You should know by now that I am a true “sucker” for the substance behind the most innocuous and seemingly mundane nursery rhymes. I had no idea that the 3 Blind Mice had anything to do with Bloody Mary. Neither did I know before today, that “Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary” was based on the same monarch’s thirst for revenge and blood.

    For instance the Instruments of Torture would be the silver bells and cockle shells. While the ” Maids” or Maiden was the original guillotine!

    So are the rumors true? Queen Mary executed a mere 300 people during her reign as opposed to her father who had more like several thousand executed? Why was she so reviled while her father revered?

    Oh! How I love these history lessons about the Tudors! Please keep ’em coming.

    • Eugene Finerman says:


      Thank you for the praise. I hope that you will be just as grateful for the reproach. “Mary, Mary quite contrary” was about Mary, Queen of Scots. The quite contrary refers to her impulsive choice of husbands (Darnley and Bothwell). “Silver bells and cockle shells, and pretty maids all in a row” describes Mary’s introduction of French fashion and manners to the Edinburgh court. In an impoverished land, with half of the nobles and most of the commoners converted to the most dour, puritanical form of Protestantism–(John Knox was no fun at parties)–Mary’s francophilia was an outrage. Any Catholic would have been precariously perched on the Scottish throne; and Mary was less than brilliant.

      As for the abhorrence of Mary Tudor’s persecution of Protestants, compared to the acceptance of her father’s massacres of Catholics, the difference is in who is writing the history. Most of the works in English were written by Protestants. They dismiss the tens of thousands of Catholic victims as superstitious peasants. Catholic historians are in full-throated denunciation of Henry’s murders; but the same writers ignore a “few” kindlings in Spain and the Netherlands, as well a little fracas in Paris on St. Bartholomew’s Day. It is ironic but the safest place for all Christians in the 16th century was the Ottoman Empire. The Turks didn’t care if you espoused transubstantiation or consubstantiation; just pay the infidel tax. And if you referred to the communion wafer as a matzoh, you were also safe in the Ottoman Empire.


  2. Eugene Finerman says:

    My thanks and admiration for the artistry of Nadine Eastwood.

  3. Mary says:

    Thanks for this, Eugene. I’m always curious about all things Mary.

    Am smack dab in the middle of Hilary Mantel’s “Bring Up the Bodies” — have you read it? Hilary is so shrewd and caustic with her characters! Mmmmm! Earlier this week it was announced that “Bodies” and “Wolf Hall” will be made into a BBC/PBS Masterpiece series that Hilary actually approves of.

  4. Tosh Keune says:

    I first heard about this link in of all places the White Tower (aka the Tower of London) during a tour.
    Lady Jane is mentioned in one of the Nursery rhymes but I am not sure it is this one.

  5. Joan Stewart Smith says:

    As I read this, Eugene, I also thought of Hilary Mantel’s books about Thomas Cromwell, advisor to King Henry XVIII. Speaking of Mantel, she’s become a bit of a loose cannon. Maybe the two Man Booker prizes went to her head? (There you go, Eugene, perfect opening for you to make an “off with the head” joke.) The British papers are now on her case about her comments promoting her recent short story collection, “Assassination of Margaret Thatcher,” which is a far cry from “Wolf Hall,” I’ve heard. Then of course, there were her controversial “plastic princess” remarks about the Duchess of Cambridge. I guess I sound a little snarky here, but I’m just envious that I didn’t write “Wolf Hall.”

  6. As usual, you put a wonderful spin on a relatively uninteresting afternoon, at least to this point. Have read both Mantel books.Thought provoking, to say the least but your delightful historical comments are more fun to read.
    Thanks, Kalli

  1. There are no trackbacks for this post yet.

Leave a Reply