Catholics During the English Revolution, 1642-1660:
Politics, Sequestration and Loyalty, by Eilish Gregory
Boydell Press, £75, 234 pages
When civil war broke out in England in 1642, the Parliamentarians at least had their explanation for the conflict ready. The nation, they argued, had become enmeshed in a gargantuan “popish plot”. Its objects were nothing less than the destruction of Parliament and, ultimately, of Protestantism itself. Furthermore, its agents were everywhere: among the county gentry, the clergy, the officers of the army, the Whitehall court. Even the royal marriage had been infiltrated, as the pillow talk of the French-born Catholic queen (it was said) regularly trickled “Roman poison” into her husband’s bejewelled and receptive ear.
Nor was this “popish treachery” anything new. Sermon after Puritan sermon explained that the Civil War was merely the latest in a series of acts of Catholic perfidy that extended back, via the Gunpowder Plot and the Spanish Armada, to Pius V’s excommunication of Queen Elizabeth in 1570, when the “Whore of Babylon” – the Puritans’ favoured moniker for the Bishop of Rome – had released English Catholics from their duty of allegiance to the crown.
Yet if this demonised, apocalyptic “popery” was central to the Parliamentarians’ justification of their resort to war, how did the ferocity of that rhetoric square with the actual experience of English Catholics in the tumultuous decades of the 1640s and 1650s? Hitherto there has been little research on how the victorious Parliamentarians treated this “enemy within”, still less on how English Catholics responded to the perils and opportunities of those crisis years.
All of which makes Eilish Gregory’s new book, a revision of her doctoral thesis, a welcome arrival. The core of her study focuses on the workings of the penal laws which, with the outbreak of war, subjected Catholics to draconian new penalties for supposed disloyalty to the Protestant state.
In a few cases – as for Catholic noblemen, such as the Earl of Worcester, who had been active in raising troops and money for the king – these sanctions could be ruinous, with the confiscation and sale of large tracts of the offenders’ estates.
When it came to the Catholic gentry, however, Gregory reveals a subtler series of attitudes and responses coming into play. In practice, much of the enforcement of anti-Catholic legislation devolved, as it always had done, on the Protestant country gentry who were linked to their Catholic neighbours by ties of status, friendship and kinship.
Far from being a sect apart, Gregory argues, most affluent Catholics before the war had regularly socialised with their Protestant countrymen, and were “integrate[d] with their local parishes notwithstanding their nonconformity”. To the regular frustration of Westminster, wartime local administrators turned out to be all too willing to find loopholes through which these Catholics neighbours – or at least those who posed
no threat to the regime – could slip bruised, but rarely broken, by their encounters with the law.
Paradoxically, much of the evidence for this culture of favour and accommodation comes from the records of the very Parliamentarian institutions that were set up in the early years of the conflict to make “Papists” pay for the costs of the war: the Westminster-based committees that oversaw the confiscation of the revenues of Catholics’ estates (“sequestration”), and later allowed their owners to pay a one-off fine (“compounding”) to release their lands from sequestration.
Gregory discloses the multiple ruses by which Parliamentarian officials could mitigate or even negate the penalties imposed on Catholics to whom they were well disposed. Estates could be assessed at prices well below their real market value, or “purchased” by Protestant friends on the understanding they would be bought back by their original owners once normality returned. Fines could be reduced; case papers conveniently “lost”.
Parliamentarian pamphleteers regularly denounced this whole process as “riddled with corruption”, and there were spasmodic attempts at reform: as after the army coup of December 1648, which resulted in the execution of the king, and again after the panic caused by the Royalist risings of 1655. But pre-war social and kinship ties proved surprisingly resilient to the buffetings of political revolution. Even hardline Puritans like Harbottle Grimston and Parliament’s military supremo, Sir Thomas Fairfax, were involved in seeking favours for Catholic kin.
Papist responses to the Parliamentarian victory reveal a similarly pragmatic spirit. Time and again, Catholics were ready to subscribe oaths that “denounced Popery [and] pledged loyalty to Parliament”. Pope Innocent X was scandalised in the late 1640s when a series of prominent Catholic laymen were ready to renounce the papal power of deposition in return for Parliament legalising the private practice of their religion. By the mid 1650s, there was a significant Catholic constituency ready to acknowledge the legitimacy of England’s kingless new republic and to cast Cromwell, however improbably, as Catholicism’s local “protector”. (Irish Catholicism was another matter.)
Gregory charts these gradual shifts of attitude and practice within the English public sphere with impressive scholarship. Indeed, her case would have been yet further strengthened if she had placed it within the broader European context that helped make such alterations in England possible.
Back in 1642, the Thirty Years’ War was raging in Europe, and Habsburg Spain could still be plausibly cast as the “Antichrist” intent on Protestantism’s annihilation. By the end of the 1640s, however, Spain had been decisively vanquished; the Thirty Years’ War was over; and Protestantism’s future as the creed of numerous European states firmly secured. The old rhetoric of a global “popish plot” never quite went away, but amid the new geo-strategic realities it lost much of its former cogency. By the early 1650s, there was even a party on the Council of State arguing loudly for a military alliance between Puritan England and Catholic Spain, something that would have been unthinkable among the “godly” even a decade before.
These years still produced their martyr priests, like John Southworth, hanged and dismembered at Tyburn in June 1654. But it is a reflection of how much had changed that Cromwell was not only against the execution, declaring himself “opposed to violence in matters of religion”, but allowed the Spanish ambassador to acquire the body parts in full knowledge they would become the object of veneration. It typifies the paradoxes of the age that Southworth’s reassembled and (from 1970) canonised remains now repose in their glass casket in Westminster Cathedral by the indulgence of Protector Oliver.
Such saintly acts of witness were rare; and if Gregory’s book is therefore light on heroism, it is nevertheless a story of dogged and guileful survival; of frequent collusion across the confessional divide; and in which the Catholic laity of England proved themselves, not for the last time, selectively deaf to the censures of Rome.
John Adamson is the author of The Noble Revolt: The Overthrow of Charles I (W&N)
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