Comment Comment and Features

What Catholic England would look like today

Thomas Cromwell depicted in Wolf Hall: his monastery closures cut off charitable lifelines

The 19-year-old King Henry VIII took to the field arrayed in cloth of gold and blue velvet, all spangled with golden hearts and K’s for his 25-year-old wife, Katherine of Aragon, whose honour he defended as “Sir Loyal Heart”. The joust was the most lavish of Henry’s reign, celebrating the birth, 10 days earlier on New Year’s Day, of their son, Prince Henry, Duke of Cornwall.

Henry VIII and Katherine went on to preside over England’s first truly Renaissance court, where the progressive influence of Thomas More and Erasmus brought a gentle but keen appreciation of the classics and humanities. When Henry died an old man, he was mourned as our greatest scholar king.

His son, King Henry IX, acceded to the throne, inaugurating one of England’s most luminous reigns. He sponsored the maritime genius of Drake and Raleigh, oversaw England’s first substantial colonies in the New World, and witnessed the consolidation of England and Spain as Europe’s leading Catholic powers.

Of course, that is not what happened. Personal tragedy struck just 43 days after Henry’s glittering joust at Westminster. Out of the blue, the seven-week-old prince died. Distraught, Katherine repeatedly tried again. Over a period of eight years, her agonising labours produced two sons and four daughters, but all except Mary were stillborn or died as infants.

Undeterred, Henry became fixated on a male heir to secure his lineage (ironic, given that two of his daughters rank among England’s best-known rulers). With increasing tunnel vision, he proceeded to scythe through wives and advisers in an orgy of beheadings.

Years earlier, Henry had been a stalwart of the Counter-Reformation, tearing into Luther’s theology in Assertio Septem Sacramentorum (1521), a heartfelt defence of Catholic beliefs. Had his monomania for a male heir not led him to co-opt Protestantism as a utilitarian tool to secure a divorce, he would no doubt have continued his strong public support of Catholic teachings, which he always maintained in private.

Although Henry’s marital intrigues inflicted serious damage on traditional English religion – most notably in the asset-stripping of over 800 monasteries – it was Edward VI who bulldozed Catholicism off the English landscape, smashing up parish churches and bulk-importing foreign Protestants via an open-door immigration policy for the continent’s ambitious Lutherans and Calvinists.

But let’s rejoin the story with Henry VIII, and ask what would have happened if Henry and Katherine had never divorced. How might England be different today?

First, the Reformation would almost certainly not have reached England, then known affectionately for the deepness of its Catholic faith as “Mary’s Dowry”. There were few Protestants this side of the Channel, and nothing suggests they would have grown in any significant numbers. So, like most of continental Europe, England would have remained Catholic.

There would have been no Edward VI, Elizabeth I, Stuarts, or the need to pass over 50 Catholic heirs before giving the throne to the acceptably Protestant Hanoverians. There would be no Bonfire Night or Guy to burn on November 5 each year. And Nelson would not have fought the Spanish at Trafalgar, so the centre of London might now commemorate some other victory: as Geneva Square, perhaps, marking a long-forgotten dust-up with Alpine Calvinists.

Geopolitically, the most significant consequence would be that the great colonisation of the New World – by England, Spain, Portugal and France – would have resulted in uniformly Catholic settlements in North America. There would have been no Puritan “Pilgrim Fathers”, who, like Catholics, were criminalised in England from 1559 for not attending the shiny new Tudor Church. Although Catholicism is still comfortably the world’s largest Christian denomination, the Protestant bond linking England with her former colonies is the ideological cement of a shared modern “Anglo-Saxon” identity. (It is an odd image, seeing as the Anglo-Saxons were firmly Catholic.)

England’s cultural and political links with Europe would be deeper, and we would look to the continent for “special relationships”. This is what Henry VIII was aiming for by marrying Katherine. The Tudors were young, with a fragile and complex claim to the English throne. By contrast, Katherine was the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, los Reyes Catolicós, as well as aunt to the Holy Roman Emperor. She outgunned Henry by a country mile, and was even directly descended from a fistful of Plantagenet kings of England.

Although David Starkey and others are championing a movement for historians to assert that England has a minimal shared cultural history with Europe, this view is light on history and heavy on 2015 Europolitics. Before the Reformation, England was an integral, interconnected and longstanding pillar of European Christendom.

Another difference would lie in the words of Shakespeare, whose influence continues to shape our language and identity. He was writing when the Triple Tree at Tyburn was busy with Elizabeth’s religious and political enemies, executing up to 24 people at a time. Like all Elizabethan writers, Shakespeare chose his words with caution. Speculation about whether he was a secret Catholic rumbles on; the evidence may suggest his father was. But it is self-evident that, if the political climate at Elizabeth’s court had not been so toxic, Shakespeare would have been freer to write without sensing her secret police at his elbow. If the environment were different, who knows what works he may have left us.

There would be no concept of “the Dark Ages”, which exists as an idea uniquely in the English language – largely because the Reformation destroyed centuries of medieval colour and beauty. Until the reigns of Henry VIII and Edward VI, our cathedrals were exploding with polychromy. There was nothing dark about them. Neither was the medieval world intellectually penumbral. Monastery, cathedral and university libraries were piled high with the weight of Christian and classical learning.

What brought darkness were mobs of iconoclasts and book-burners under successive Protestant regimes – vandals who destroyed 90 per cent of England’s historic artistic heritage as surely and mindlessly as ISIS is pulverising Iraq’s. If the Reformation had not reached England, our precious and irreplaceable heritage would have been spared the hammers, pickaxes and bonfires. Moreover, the austere grey puritanical gloom we now associate with medieval churches might today be the riots of colour and vibrancy they were always intended to be.

The Church would not, of course, have stood still. Humanists such as the Catholic priest Erasmus and the layman Thomas More were spearheading an intellectual renewal, broadening the medieval scholastic vision to include history, poetry and increased priestly education. If the violence of the Reformation had not intervened, perhaps they would have quietly opened up new avenues.

For instance, key biblical books had long been available in the vernacular: like the fourth-century Bible in Gothic, the Wessex Gospels of 990 or the 12th-century Ormulum. Luther and Tyndale were doing nothing new in the act of translating Scripture. English Catholics in exile published the official Douay-Rheims New Testament in English in 1582, a full 29 years before the Church of England brought out its literary masterpiece, the King James Version of 1611.

With no Reformation, maybe “the spacious, luminous world of Catholic humanism” (in Evelyn Waugh’s words) would have overseen an English scriptural renaissance, but without the bloodshed that scarred our country for centuries. The project would doubtless have appealed to one of the most eloquent Englishmen of the day, who could so easily have ended up as Cardinal Archbishop Edmund Campion.

Even if Henry had not detonated the Reformation under English society, the religious landscape would nevertheless look vastly different today. Europe has become a more global and areligious place, with traditional faith in steady decline. Nevertheless, a Catholic England (even if increasingly secular) would have defining characteristics, and it is worth mentioning three.

Pre-Reformation English spiritualty was vibrant, exuberant and community-centred. It was a celebration of colour, folklore, faith and song. The sober changes brought by Protestantism have undoubtedly made us a more dour, serious and less effervescent people.

Catholic England also revelled in the public spectacle of mystery plays, in which cities vied to outdo each other, roping in hundreds of participants. It is hard to see why this would have died out if it had not been stamped out. So today, in addition to Morris and maypole dancing and school nativity plays, our folk traditions might still include mystery plays. They would perhaps be secular, satirical theatre by now, but after watching London’s ever-grander New Year celebrations, there is no doubt we still love a spectacular son et lumière to tell the world we are here.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there is a good case for thinking the welfare state would have assistance. When Henry took the throne, England was carpeted with monasteries. Many would have closed naturally over time as the world modernised. But forcibly ripping them out of the English landscape destroyed an identifiable sector of society devoted to caring, feeding, housing, healing and educating. When Wolf Hall’s Thomas Cromwell talks superciliously about legions of indolent monks growing rich on dodgy relics, he is spinning Tudor high propaganda, not history.

Medieval monasteries mostly grew because ordinary people gave them money to conduct charitable works. On the eve of the Reformation, most wills, even by people of modest means, contained donations to religious houses for the relief of the poor. A century later, this Christian tradition was gone. Before Henry and Cromwell, London alone had 35 religious hospitals, including St Bartholomew’s and St Thomas’s, which are now both over 800 years old. Religion was inseparable from community caring.

The Reformation’s wholesale replacement of a Catholic framework devoted to the needy (salvation by faith and works of mercy) with a Protestant one of Bible study and personal prayer (salvation by faith alone) altered our society fundamentally, refocusing us into ourselves and cutting off an entire infrastructure of charity. If we still had monasteries with the money to heal, feed, clothe, educate and offer hospitality to the poor, I doubt we would have nearly so many in our society sleeping rough with nowhere to go.

Finally, it would be fascinating to imagine what England might feel like today. On the negative side, we would probably miss the familiarity of our parliamentary system, whose development was keenly informed by the individualism of Protestant thinking. And we would also mourn the absence of Church of England choral music, which is undoubtedly one of the finest gems in our country’s cultural heritage.

More broadly, to envisage a modern Catholic England, there is little point looking to other countries as examples. Like food, humour, clothing and music, a country’s religion is uniquely shaped by its people’s national characteristics. English Catholicism has always been a good-humoured affair: more Friar Tuck than Venerable Jorge, the grim Name of the Rose villain. For instance, the Inquisition never set foot in England, largely because our ancient common law is adversarial, relying on witnesses and jurors not judicial inquiries. (Well, there was one exception – the trial of the Templars – but you can blame the French for that.)

England’s Catholicism has always been, and remains, a very English affair. It is as quintessentially subversive and quirky as warm beer, cricket, Winston Churchill and the shipping forecast – a formative and integral part of English culture that deserves to be recognised and acknowledged.

Dominic Selwood is a historian, author and barrister. Visit

This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (24/4/15).

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