How rife was anti-Catholicism in Downton Abbey’s time?

Elizabeth McGovern, Hugh Bonneville, Maggie Smith and Michelle Dockery in Downton Abbey.

Downton Abbey, which I confess to not watching very attentively, is now broaching the question of anti-Catholicism.

Up to now I have been puzzled by the way Tom Branson, the Fenian ex-chauffeur and son-in-law, seemingly has no religion. I assumed he was a Protestant (some Irish nationalists were), but it turns out that, no, he is a Catholic after all. Funny it has only surfaced now, as I am pretty certain that someone like the Earl of Grantham, a self-proclaimed anti-Catholic, would not have employed Catholic staff, and would have died of apoplexy att he thought of his daughter marrying one.

How rife was anti-Catholicism in the 1920’s?

Drawing on my admittedly partial knowledge, among the upper classes it was common. It is possible that the aristocracy were less anti-Catholic than the people in the rungs directly below them: after all the Earl of Grantham would have known several Catholic peers, whom he would have seen regularly at the House of Lords. (The Earl in Downton never seems to go there, which is one of the many historical oddities of the series, but let that pass.) Edward VII, the recently deceased King, had several Catholic friends. So, one would imagine that Catholics were socially acceptable in the highest ranks of society, though this would not have extended to intermarriage, partly because of the Church’s laws on that. But further down the social ladder it was a different matter altogether.

Recently, talking to my last surviving aunt, I made the astonishing discovery that when a maternal uncle of mine married a Catholic, some time in the late 1930’s, in Chile, my maternal grandparents refused to attend the wedding. My mother, too, married a Catholic, my father, but I imagine that my anti-Catholic grandparents must have been sufficiently intimidated by him never to play the anti-Catholic card.

The odd thing is that both my anti-Catholic grandparents were descended from lapsed Catholics. My grandfather’s mother came from a well-known Catholic family in the North, that had given a martyr to the faith; on my grandmother’s side, her maternal antecedents were Irish, and presumably, judging by the surname, what an Irish friend of mine called “soupers” – Catholics who turned Protestant.

My theory is that anti-Catholicism springs from guilt, specifically the guilt for the crimes of the Reformation – but many people have scoffed at this idea. Please note, though, that the Earl of Grantham lives in an Abbey, that is, his estate was stolen from the Church at the time of the Reformation. One can never like those whom one has unjustly defrauded of their rights.

Who knows how or when the soap opera of Downton will end? One possible ending is that Branson’s Catholic daughter will inherit the lot. That would be some conclusion.