Mary Honywood and Her Flickering, Unquenchable Faith

Mary Honywood and Her Flickering, Unquenchable Faith

By 1558, most Londoners had come to loath Mary Tudor’s systematic executions of Protestants. Keeping the throngs away was in the crown’s best interest. On July 1, during the scheduled execution of preacher John Bradford (1510–1555) and apprentice John Leaf in the district of Smithfield, the authorities delayed the proceedings for five hours, hoping the massive crowd would disperse. This didn’t happen. In fact, the attendants were so many and so eager to find a good spot that Mary Honywood of Kent (1527-1620), one of Bradford’s closest friends, lost her shoes in the commotion, and had to walk barefoot to the center of town, where she bought a new pair.

Struggles of Faith

Mary was one of the many gentlewomen of her time who supported Protestant preachers during the troubled reign of Mary Tudor. She was also one of the many who struggled in the transition from Roman Catholic to Protestant teachings.

This transition had created new questions. In the Medieval Church, the attitude that Christians had to contribute to their salvation by living godly lives had become prevalent. Since anyone who is honest knows that godly living is never fully attainable in this life, the Medieval Church encouraged believers to remedy to this lack by attending the sacraments, offering prayers to Mary and the saints, lighting candles, paying for indulgences, participating in pilgrimages, doing acts of penance and charity, donating money to the church, and so on. Even then, few people could hope to go straight to Heaven, but could be thankful for Purgatory, the imaginary place where they would be able to pay the penalty for their sins by sacrifice and suffering.

As precarious as this system might seem, it offered Christians the satisfaction of knowing they had done what they could. No Christian could be absolutely sure of his or her salvation, but this assurance was not expected. In fact, it was discouraged as presumptuous.

On the other hand, the pure Gospel, as presented by Protestant preachers, seemed too good to be true. The biblical injunction, “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved,” was a comforting thought, but difficult to accept when the reality of one’s sins came crushing down.

This was the perplexity that troubled Mary Honywood, a perplexity historian John Foxe (1517-1587) described as “that heaviness and godly sorrow, which the feeling and sense of sin worketh in God's children.”[1]

Besides, the new emphasis on the Biblical teaching of salvation through grace alone by faith alone created an additional conundrum. In spite of the Apostle’s description of faith as a gift of God (Eph. 2:8-9), for people who had been trained to depend on their own works there was a constant temptation to turn faith into a work that needed to be constantly improved and carefully monitored.

Mary’s compulsive scrutiny of her faith and her sins escalated into utter frustration. When John Foxe tried to assure her that her faith will eventually become stable, she responded that the chance of that happening was as great as the chance of a glass not breaking when thrown against a wall. To reinforce her statement, she threw the Venetian glass she was holding. But the glass hit a chest and fell to the floor without as much as a crack.

Bradford’s Words of Comfort

            If an unbroken glass could make an impression on Mary’s mind, it took much more to strengthen her faith, as her friends (including the preachers John Bradford and Edward Dering) continued to point her to God’s Word. Some of these friendly reminders are preserved in two letters from Bradford, who encouraged her to believe “that you are beloved of God, and that he is your dear Father, in, through, and for Christ and his death's sake.”[2]

            These reminders were reinforced by the remembrance of what God had done. “This love and tender kindness of God towards us in Christ is abundantly herein declared, in that he hath, to the goodly work of creation of this world, made us after his image, redeemed us being lost, called us into his Church, sealed us with his mark and sign-manual of baptism, kept and conserved us all the days of our life, fed, nourished, defended, and most fatherly chastised us, and now hath poured, or at the least instilled and dropped in our hearts the sparkles of his fear, faith, love, and knowledge of his Christ and truth.”[3]

            And these reminders were reinforced by the remembrance of “the promises and covenant of God in Christ's blood; namely, that God is our God with all that ever he hath. Which covenant dependeth and hangeth upon God's own goodness, mercy, and truth only, and not on our obedience or worthiness in any point, for then should we never be certain.”[4]

            Bradford insisted on the correct sequence. Before giving his commandments, God reminded his people of who He was and what He had done for them “in respect of himself, of his own mercy and truth, and not in respect of us, 'for then were grace no grace.'”

            Likewise, “God requireth of us obedience and worthiness, but not that thereby we might be his children and he our Father; but, because he is our Father and we his children, through his own goodness in Christ, therefore requireth he faith and obedience. Now, if we want this obedience and worthiness which he requireth, should we doubt whether he be our Father? Nay, that were to make our obedience and worthiness the cause, and so to put Christ out of place, for whose sake God is our Father.”[5]

            And just as the indicatives of the gospel precede the imperatives of God’s laws, faith precedes feelings. We don’t always feel that we belong to God’s children, but we can still believe it by faith, and “then feeling will follow.”[6]

            Finally, Bradford encouraged Mary to fight her feelings of inadequacy as guiles of Satan. “For, when we stand in a doubt whether God be our Father, we cannot be thankful to God, we cannot heartily pray, or think anything we do acceptable to God; we cannot love our neighbours, and give over ourselves to care for them, and do for them as we should do.”[7]

An English Matriarch

            Mary eventually heeded to Bradford’s advice, because she heartily gave her life to the care of others. Besides supporting Protestant preachers, visiting them in prison, and writing letters to them at a time when her own safety was at risk, she raised an enormous family. By the time she died in 1620, at 93 years of age, she had 16 children, 114 grandchildren, 228 great-grandchildren, and nine great-great-grandchildren. Her husband, Robert Honywood, esquire, died in 1576, after 33 years of marriage.

            Some say that her descendants preserved the Venetian glass, still unbroken, for generations, as a reminder of how God preserved Mary’s faith in spite of her vacillations. In fact, historian Thomas Fuller (1608-1661), who included her in his History of the Worthies of England for her “patient weathering out the tempest of a troubled conscience,” credits “God, the great Clock-keeper of Time, who findeth out the fittest minutes for his own mercies,” for suddenly shooting “comfort like lightning into her soul, which, once entered, ever remained therein.” [8]


[1] John Foxe, Acts and Monuments, vol. 7, ed by George Townsend and Stephen Reed Cattley, London: Seeley and Burnside, 1838, p. 227.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., quoting Rom. 11:6.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid, p. 228, emphasis added.

[6] Ibid., p. 227

[7] Ibid., pp. 227-228

[8] Thomas Fuller, The History of the Worthies of England, vol. 1, ed. by John Nichols, 1811, pp. 511-512


Simonetta Carr