• Email
  • Print

The True History of the Catholics in England

The English Catholic Community 1570-1850

by John Bossy
Oxford University Press, 446 pp., $24.95

The English Catholic community has not hitherto been well served by its historians or publicists. In this century, the reality of a fascinating story has been hopelessly blurred by the romantic pseudo-medievalism of Belloc and Chesterton and, more recently, by the equally misleading nostalgic snobbery of Waugh in Brideshead Revisited.

As a result, the history of the community that is current today is roughly as follows. In pre-Reformation England, Catholicism was embraced by the bulk of the population. Over the next two centuries it slowly shrank, thanks to vigorous proselytization by Protestant preachers, reinforced by savage political persecution. Remnants of the medieval faith were preserved among a minority of wealthy landowners, thanks to the heroic efforts of dedicated missionary priests, many of whom suffered martyrdom for their pains. In the nineteenth century the community was transformed and revived by the removal of religious and civil disabilities—the Catholic Emancipation Act was passed in 1829—as well as by the influx of large numbers of Irish urban workers and the establishment by Rome of a formal episcopal organization.

The usual image we get of English Catholics is one of a perpetually backward-looking group who dreamed and plotted for a century and a half to restore the pre-Reformation church with the aid of Catholic kings, assassination schemes, and a serious attempt to wipe out, at one blow, the total ruling elite of the nation—the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. It was a dream that failed, leaving behind it little but a record of martyrdom, disappointment, and betrayal.

Meanwhile the raw materials for a new and more sophisticated interpretation of the problem were being assembled in the sixty-odd volumes of documents published by the Catholic Record Society. A few notable local studies were also being written, especially of Yorkshire by a Benedictine, Hugh Aveling; and anthropologists and sociologists were providing novel theoretical models for the analysis and classification of religious institutions, communities, rituals, and behavior. By the 1970s the stage was set—and now Dr. Bossy has arrived to fit it all together.

His story bears only the most tenuous relation to the traditional one. According to him, the first 200 years after the Reformation saw the creation of a healthy and growing sect, arising out of the ashes of the dead pre-Reformation Church. This community was a genuinely new one, a sect which owed little or nothing to the church of Cardinals Wolsey and Pole. By 1620 it was led by a close-knit intermarrying group of aristocratic and gentry families, inspired by, but the patrons and masters of, some 700 regular and secular priests. It was an upper-class, lay-dominated, domesticated, nonproselytizing sect—one of several which could not stomach the flabby inertia and lack of spiritual zeal of the Anglican clergy.

It is not at all clear at present just why some landed families took to Catholicism between 1570 and 1620 while others remained carelessly Anglican and others became zealous Puritans. Dr. Bossy points out that on the eastern slopes of the Pennine Chain of hills, the vales were alternately Protestant and Catholic, which suggests the perpetuation of old local feuds in a new religious form. What is certain is the enormous importance of the role of women in the conversion process, whether to Catholicism or to Puritanism. Both were religions of the spirit, reinforced by rituals of fasting and daily prayer. Both demanded zealous, learned, independent clergy who would speak directly to the soul. Both appealed to women under emotional stress.

In one of his most brilliant chapters, Dr. Bossy shows how this lay Catholic community slowly detached itself from the Anglican conformists around it by the observance of a series of rituals that emphasized the separation of the two groups: a quite different calendar of fasts and feasts; attendance at the Mass; and separate rites de passage of baptism, marriage, and burial. As he points out, the “Church Papists” of the Elizabethan period were a breed who could not reproduce themselves. In the face of strong priestly disapproval, they could hardly teach their children to live a life of deliberate duplicity by attending both public Anglican communion and private Catholic Mass, although in the early days it was easy enough for them to do so without moral discomfort.

By the time the separation process was complete, in about 1620, the characteristics of the Catholic community were set for the next 150 years, “the Age of the Gentry.” The Catholics were predominantly controlled by aristocrats and rich squires, but inspired by resident Jesuit chaplains, and supported by itinerant secular missionaries. They bunched together in clusters of servants and tenants around great houses, with their resident priests. They mainly congregated in the upland north, away from areas of new economic activity and largely nonproselytizing and loyal to the English Protestant state. They were, and accepted that they were, a minority group embracing maybe a fifth of the titular nobility and a twelfth of the upper gentry, but comprising only about 1 percent or less of the total population. Numbers remained static or even declined during the late seventeenth century under the hammer blows of vicious persecution. The priesthood became increasingly a profession drawn largely from the sons of the gentry. Its numbers fell, but this was no great loss since, just as in the Anglican Church, there had been a serious surplus of priests to serve the community in the second quarter of the century.

The late seventeenth century was the time of the resident chaplain in the great house, who serviced the community controlled by the lord. There was sometimes friction between the two, if the former was treated like a servant. But things usually ran fairly smoothly so long as the priest did not display a foolish excess of zeal, like the one who tried to persuade the married couples in his congregation to take a vow of chastity. Priests wore secular clothes, and many served useful double lives as family lawyers, stewards, land-agents, or tutors, just as chaplains did in Protestant noble households (and as the philosopher Thomas Hobbes did at Chatsworth). Because of the peculiar nature of the social composition and organization of the Catholic community, which catered to an educated and leisured class in a household setting, the forms of devotion were more spiritual than magical, and more domestic and private than collective.

This structure survived the public paranoia and official persecutions of the late seventeenth century remarkably well, but it underwent profound transformations in the eighteenth century in response to the economic and intellectual changes of the age. The old rituals of fasting, feasting, and day-long church attendance on saints’ days could not survive the challenge from the pragmatic work ethic of the age of Adam Smith. As early as 1683, William Blundell, a pious Catholic gentleman, was calculating the cost of such behavior in terms that were as materialistic as those of any hard-boiled, contemporary political economist. He estimated that in England and Wales the work of the whole population for one day “will amount to £100,000, so that the difference of working and not working…is no small matter as to civil and political respects.” In the face of this sort of calculation, the more time-consuming separation rituals were drastically reduced. Secondly, the priests were increasingly drawn from classes below the gentry, increasingly turned their attention from the gentry to farmers and laborers, and increasingly shifted the center of their activity from dispensing the sacraments to moral catechizing, in conformity with the more rationalist currents of the age. Thirdly, the number of Catholics increased.

After 1770 the pace of change picked up. Penal restraints on Catholic worship were removed, missionary activity increased, and the Catholic population shifted from the countryside to the new industrial areas in the cities, especially in Lancashire. One reason for this shift was the enormous influx of Irish immigrants after 1790, but Dr. Bossy provides plausible reasons for thinking that the change would have taken place anyway, as surplus English Catholic laborers were forced to leave their villages and emigrate to the cities to take up industrial occupations. The result was that the Catholic community grew from about 80,000 in 1770 to 750,000 in 1850, a tenfold increase in eighty years.

The size, the social composition, and the geographical distribution of both the lay community and the priesthood had been radically altered. With the lifting of all civil disabilities in 1829, the Catholic sect became a denomination, just one among the many that made up England’s extraordinarily pluralistic religious configuration. Clerical influence increased and lay control declined (just as they did among the Protestant churches in the early nineteenth century), culminating in the imposition of episcopal organization by Rome in 1851. This tendency was not due to any economic decline among the Catholic aristocracy and squirarchy, who if anything were getting richer as the survivors in the male line gobbled up the estates of more and more Catholic heiresses. It was part of a broader movement toward clerical power in early Victorian England, which was reinforced by the Gothic Revival, the shift of the center of gravity from the countryside to the towns, and the increasing numbers of people living outside the orbit of the household and tenantry of the Catholic landlords.

Another organizational structure was congregationalism, in which the middle-class farmers and businessmen who built the chapels and raised the necessary money were in control. This model had genuine possibilities of taking hold for a while, but it was defeated partly by energetic counterattack on the part of the priestly hierarchy, and partly by the prevailing sentiment of the times which favored clerical claims.

In his conclusion, Dr. Bossy suggests a broad scheme into which his picture of the Catholic community can be fit. He points to the persistent pluralism of English religious history, the fact that, ever since its establishment, the Anglican state church has failed to satisfy the spiritual aspirations of the whole population. It was one Renaissance state in which the doctrine of Cuius regio, eius religio did not apply. Dr. Bossy would like to abandon the traditional division of dissenters into the Catholics on the right and all the others on the left. He would regroup them into two divisions, one of which was composed of those who accepted at least two of the three major tenets of Protestantism, the prime authority of the Bible, justification by faith, and the priesthood of all believers. This leaves out the Catholics, Quakers, and Unitarians, but includes Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Baptists, and Methodists. Bossy argues that it was the rigidity and unwillingness to compromise of the Anglican Church that spun off this diversity of dissenters century after century.

Finally he suggests, almost as a postscript on the last page, yet another way of grouping dissenters, this time according to the principles of structural anthropology. There were those whose relation to a Divinity, in some way continuous with humanity, was mediated through nature: and those whose relation to a Divinity, fundamentally transcendent and different from humanity, was mediated through culture, namely the text of the Bible. The practical result of this division is the same as before, with the same two spectrums running from Unitarians through Catholics to Quakers on the one side and Presbyterians through Congregationalists to Particular Baptists on the other.

What are we to make of this remarkable book? The first thing that strikes the reader is how very different a picture it presents from the traditional story. In it persecution, and the slow relaxation of persecution, ending with full toleration in the nineteenth century, play almost no part, while social factors and internal tensions between laymen and clerics are stressed. The Tower, the rack, Tyburn, the Gunpowder Plot, the Popish Plot, the rebellions of 1715 and 1745 are scarcely mentioned and then only in passing. Histoire historisante, the narrative of external events, has been drastically and deliberately rejected.

Here I think Dr. Bossy has thrown out too much. The evolution of the Catholic community is just not fully intelligible without consideration of a century and a half of official persecution and popular hatred. After the Gunpowder Plot, Catholics were generally regarded as traitors to their country, and vicious conspirators capable of almost any criminal act. For example, the fiction of their responsibility for the Great Fire of London of 1666 is officially cut in stone on the base of the Monument, for posterity to read to this day. Any breakdown of law and order, in 1640-1641 and 1688, immediately led to the looting of Catholic country houses by infuriated mobs. In 1639 a suspected Catholic officer was flayed alive by his troops before an approving crowd in the public square of Wellington in Somerset. The mass hysteria generated by the Popish Plot has few historical parallels—the storm whipped up by Senator Joseph McCarthy and so skillfully exploited by Nixon is one.

Only this background of persecution, and the psychological characteristics of a persecuted minority sect, can explain the concentration of the missionary priests upon the aristocracy and more powerful gentry, who alone could provide the necessary local protection; and the insistence by these patrons that active proselytization of the population at large should cease, for fear of bringing further troubles upon their heads. It was persecution that decimated the Jesuits and led to a probable decline in total numbers of the community in the late seventeenth century. It was the easing of persecution that permitted missionary work to begin again in the early eighteenth century, and it was the abolition of the penal laws against Catholic worship that allowed the priests to exploit the opportunity offered by the Irish immigration after 1790. The idleness and powerlessness of the Catholic nobility and gentry, caused by their exclusion from public office, and their desire to play their natural role as leaders of the society and supporters of law and order, tempted a steady trickle of them to abandon their faith and conform to the Anglican Church in the eighteenth century.

Some families were endlessly torn by this dilemma, the most striking example being the Howards, Dukes of Norfolk. Between 1570 and 1850 there were thirteen heads of the family, of whom all but one adopted a different religious faith from that of his predecessor, who was usually his father. This can hardly be interpreted as an extreme case of hereditary oedipal rebellion. Rather it shows that the tension between loyalty to their religion and loyalty to the natural responsibilities of their class tormented these families from generation to generation, a tension which was only relaxed in 1829, when it was already too late to be of use.

At every point, therefore, from 1570 to 1850 the burden of persecution and exclusion influenced the evolution of the Catholic community in England. Virtually to ignore this fact is rather like writing the history of the Jews of the Pale, ignoring the existence of anti-Semitic laws and intermittent pogroms.

Despite this one obvious flaw, Dr. Bossy’s book in one giant stride drags the history of the Catholic community in England into the forefront of modern historiography. It is a formidably intelligent work in which the author argues with his reader on the printed page and calmly persuades him by logic and example. It is revolutionary in its interpretation, subtle in its conclusions, learned in its scholarship, and wide-ranging in its discriminating borrowings from anthropology and sociology. It is a very fine book indeed, and I believe that in almost all important respects it is correct.

  • Email
  • Print