I was fascinated and delighted to read in this month’s Herald about the extraordinary finds at Oxburgh Hall, which has for 600 years been home to the Bedingfield family. The Bedingfields (of Norfolk) refused to abandon their faith during the Reformation and spent three centuries ploughing the lonely furrow of recusancy in East Anglia, a Protestant stronghold in which the Catholic population had dwindled to only three or four per cent by the early 18th century.
It made me think. Given that an enormous amount of our history – in the last 500 years – is bound up with anti-Catholicism, how should Catholics in this country reflect on patriotism and history? Can we be patriotic for a country that for many years seemed to hate and excluded us? This is a hard question for British Catholics that are patriotic, keen to stress Britain’s historic strengths and achievements.
Can we be patriotic for a country that for many years seemed to hate and excluded us?
Catholics were excluded from the universities and a large number of public offices, including the House of Commons, until the Roman Catholic Relief Act of 1829, sometimes called the Catholic Emancipation. In fact, we did not have Catholic bishops for almost three hundred years from the end of Mary I’s reign in 1558 to the mid-nineteenth century.
National heroes such as Francis Drake and Walter Raleigh made their names (and substantial fortunes) waging extremely aggressive semi-private wars against Catholic Spain. These wars were understood and justified as attempts by plucky England, bastion of Protestant liberty, to withstand the Popish despotism of Spain, which was at the time the leading European power. Guy Fawkes Night was a focal point for anti-Catholic national feeling for hundreds of years, as it commemorated the foiling of a supposed Catholic plot against the life of James I. “No Popery” riots were a recurring feature of early modern England. In Ireland, a deep prejudice against the Church, as expressed in the Penal Laws codifying discrimination against Catholics, was part of the toxic brew of hostility and contempt which made British policy so cruel.
The monarchy, that great enduring symbol and embodiment of our national continuity, is Protestant in its very conception. The present Queen took an oath swore at her coronation that she would “to the utmost of [her] power maintain in the United Kingdom the Protestant Reformed Religion established by law”, and that she would “maintain and preserve inviolably the settlement of the Church of England, and the doctrine, worship, discipline, and government thereof”.
The monarchy, that great enduring symbol and embodiment of our national continuity, is Protestant in its very conception.
In the recent Brexit debates, the Whiggish view of British history (which views the Reformation as a decisive assertion of national pride and self-confidence – indeed, the beginning of our rise to greatness) was even espoused by certain Catholic Leavers, among them Jacob Rees-Mogg. Speaking about the Reformation (in Parliament in 2013), Rees-Mogg said, “it was when we had the confidence to be a nation standing on our own two feet that we said, “We will not allow any appeals to go outside this country.” A case in point at that time was the papacy.”
In the British mind, Roman Catholicism was for a very long time something essentially strange, the preserve of corrupt Cardinals and fanatical scheming Jesuits pulling the wool over the eyes of superstitious peasants. This was contrasted with the rational, straightforward and liberty-minded Protestantism of the honest Englishman.
This suspicion of Catholicism endures, in a mutated form, to this day. I once heard a well-known Christian journalist, noted for his moral and social conservatism, say that he could never become Catholic “because I’m an Englishman”. The novelist Hilary Mantel, is an atheist – although she was raised Catholic – but retains the traditional British Protestant wariness of us Papists: she was quoted as saying some years ago that the Church “is not an institution for respectable people” (to which the obvious response is, well that’s rather the point).
In the British mind, Roman Catholicism was for a very long time something essentially strange.
The dissociation of our national identity from Catholicism is not really fair, of course. At the Reformation, the faith had already been present in what is now England and Wales for more than a thousand years. There was a substantial Christian community in Roman Britain – just two weeks ago it was reported that a fifth century chalice had been discovered near Hadrian’s Wall. Furthermore, England was an important, unified and influential Catholic kingdom, in regular correspondence with Rome, long before the Norman Conquest. Pre-Reformation Catholicism appears to have been in rude good health, as shown by Professor Eamon Duffy and his followers, while many of our enduring national legends, most notably Robin Hood, take place in a semi-historical but attractive Catholic Merrie England setting. It is also noteworthy that the Victorian Gothic Revival in architecture looked back to our medieval and Catholic past for inspiration and a sense of grandeur, while the great English cathedrals – almost all designed and built by Catholics for Catholic purposes – continue to fascinate and inspire visitors.
Catholics are not under any obligation to disclaim British patriotism. But there is value in reflecting on exactly what we are celebrating when we celebrate our country, and perhaps using our status as outsiders to debunk a few myths and misconceptions.
Niall Gooch is a Chapter House columnist. He also contributes to UnHerd.
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