Social Networks and Ideological Movements in History: Burning and the Rise of English Protestantism

author: Andrew P. Roach, Department of History (Medieval), University of Glasgow
published: Dec. 14, 2007,   recorded: October 2007,   views: 3456


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There is a historical consensus that at the beginning of the reign of the Catholic Queen Mary (1553-58), the Protestant reforms instituted by Henry VIII in the 1530s and continued under Edward VI (1547-53) had engaged the support of only a tiny minority of the population. The restoration of Catholicism met with widespread approval.

But a mere six years later the re-introduction of Protestantism on the Edwardian model by Elizabeth I in 1559 met with virtually no protest.

A good historical case can be made that the persecution and burning of high-profile Protestants by Mary was an important factor in reversing public opinion.

A network approach, in which society is envisaged as a scale-free network with each individual influenced in their religious beliefs by a small number of others to whom they pay attention yields the result that the burnings may well have been the decisive factor. The highly connected individuals here are of course the Protestant martyrs.

England in 1559 had not become a nation of Protestant zealots, but sufficient people were impressed by the martyrs’ demeanour to acquiesce in the new faith. This analysis is supported by contemporary evidence that Protestant leaders under Mary stressed that executions were opportunities to display public fortitude and piety to influence people.

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