The whitewashing of England’s Catholic history

A 19th century view of Magna Carta

Last week I was writing about Magna Carta and how the Catholic Church’s role has been written out, in particular the part of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton.

But the same could also be said about much of English history from 600AD to 1600; from the very first law code written in English, which begins with a clause protecting Church property, to the intellectual flourishing of the 13th century, led by churchmen such as Roger Bacon, the Franciscan friar who foresaw air travel.

However, the whitewashing of English Catholic history is mainly seen in three areas: political liberty, economic prosperity and literacy, all of which are seen as being linked to Protestantism.

Yet not only was Magna Carta overseen by churchmen, but Parliament was created by religious Catholics, including its de facto founder, Simon de Montfort – in fact not just devout but a fanatic who was so bigoted he made even his nephew Edward I look like Oskar Schindler in comparison. De Montfort called the rebellious barons ‘the Army of God’ and at Lewes in 1264 said they were fighting for England, God, the Virgin Mary, the saints and the Church. Likewise Robert Fitzwalter, leader of the rebels of 1215, had modestly declared himself to be ‘Marshal of the Army of God and the Holy Church’.

De Montfort ended up losing to the crown and having his testicles hung around his nose, but most of their demands were confirmed under Edward I, as was Magna Carta. And under his grandson Edward III the so-called ‘six statutes’ spelled out the idea of due process of law, which became perhaps the most important plank of freedom in the English-speaking world. All the institutions that would culminate with the political liberties of 1689 were well in place before Luther.

Likewise literacy, which hugely increased in the 16th century and is often attributed to the Protestant attachment to the word, was already increasing in the 15th and the rate of growth did not change after Henry VIII made the break with Rome.

As for the economy and the “Protestant work ethic”, well the English economy was already “Protestant” long before the Reformation. As one study puts it:

By 1200 Western Europe has a GDP per capita higher than most parts of the world, but (with two exceptions) by 1500 this number stops increasing. In both data sets the two exceptions are Netherlands and Great Britain. These North Sea economies experienced sustained GDP per capita growth for six straight centuries. The North Sea begins to diverge from the rest of Europe long before the ‘West’ begins its more famous split from ‘the rest’. [W]e can pin point the beginning of this ‘little divergence’ with greater detail. In 1348 Holland’s GDP per capita was $876. England’s was $777. In less than 60 years time Holland’s jumps to $1,245 and England’s to 1090. The North Sea’s revolutionary divergence started at this time.

In fact GDP per capita in England actually decreased under the Tudors, and would not match its pre-Reformation levels until the late 17th century.

There are of course many more examples of this whitewashing of Catholicism, but the main ideas associated with Protestant England – literacy, political freedom and prosperity – were all clearly in place before the Reformation.

Anyway, buy my Magna Carta ebook here – only 99p!