Writing history has never been a safe business. All histories have political implications and in Britain, since the Reformation, even apparently peaceable studies of church bells, parish records and gravestones have sometimes landed their authors in trouble. Specifically, they have attracted accusations of Catholic sympathy. In 1617, Walter Raleigh complained that any attempt to preserve church buildings was fraught with danger because “all cost and care” of them was “accounted a kind of Popery”. Nearly two centuries later, in 1797, George III condemned the Society of Antiquaries as “nothing but a Popish cabal”. Antiquaries were the people, men – and some women – who studied the material remains of the past. They were the first archaeologists, oral historians, architectural historians, folklorists and conservationists and they had annoyed the King by objecting to alterations to Salisbury Cathedral, to which he had made a generations donation.
There was more to the row than the rights and wrongs of moving the tomb of St Osmund. The national mood was febrile. Britain was at war with France and fear of sedition at home saw habeas corpus suspended and public meetings banned. Uprisings in Catholic Ireland added “popery” to the compound of moral panic. George III was obsessively anti-Catholic, but he was not deluded. While there was no “cabal” among the antiquaries, there were many Catholics, far more than the proportion in the population as a whole. At a time when Catholics could not vote, hold public office or graduate from universities, they could be fellows of the Society of Antiquaries and many of them were. In the decades before and after Emancipation removed these restrictions in 1829, Catholic historians and antiquaries wrote some of the most important and controversial studies of British history.
The greatest sensation was John Lingard’s History of England. Lingard was a priest and his Antiquities of the Anglo-Saxon Church had already caused a pamphlet war by challenging the Anglican argument that there had been an English church, independent of Rome, since before the Reformation. But Lingard realised polemic was a waste of time. He wanted to write history that would be widely enough read to change minds. A resourceful scholar, he made use of archives on the Continent, including the papers of Philip II, which no previous British historian had seen. Such was the fear of Catholic propaganda however, that Lingard’s printer made two eminent Whig politicians, Lords Holland and Brougham, read the first 300 pages and reassure him that it was safe to publish. The volumes dealing with the Reformation appeared on either side of the 1821 Emancipation Bill, which failed, and they caused interest and outrage in equal measure. Many were offended by Lingard’s argument that Henry VIII broke with Rome not out of religious scruple but because he wanted to marry an already pregnant Anne Boleyn. The Dean of Peterborough threatened to have Lingard tried for treason.
Bishop John Milner’s History of Winchester in 1798 led to questions in the House of Commons about Catholic influence, while the convert AWN Pugin’s Contrasts, which argued for Gothic architecture as the true Catholic and Christian style, caused another bout of outrage in 1836. Yet not all Catholic historians faced hostility. Lingard envied his friend John Gage, director of the Society of Antiquaries, whose scholarly edition of the 12th-century Chronicle of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds, by the monk, Jocelin of Brakelond, was an enduring success. Thomas Carlyle made it the basis of one of the great social essays of the 19th century, Past and Present. This was the more surprising since Gage came from an old recusant family and had among his ancestors two genuine seditionaries, one of the Gunpowder plotters, and a Jacobite, executed at Tyburn in 1696.
The difference between Lingard’s reputation and Gage’s owed much to the Romanticism of the late Georgian years and the all-pervading influence of Walter Scott. History is always half in the eye of the beholder and historic fiction was important in softening anti-Catholic prejudice. To the generation that grew up with the Waverley novels, the Catholic Middle Ages were the world of Ivanhoe, vivid and exciting. Gage, who lived at the Tudor Hengrave Hall, fitted the image of glamourous recusancy. His long-dead ancestors could be absorbed into the romance of history, as Lingard’s awkward facts could not. When Emancipation was finally achieved, Gladstone gave due credit to Scott.
Rosemary Hill’s Time’s Witness is out now, published by Allen Lane
Having been unable to sell in churches for well over a year due to the pandemic, we are now inviting readers to support the Herald by investing in our future. We have been a bold and influential voice in the church since 1888, standing up for traditional Catholic culture and values.
Please join us on our 130 year mission by supporting us. We are raising £250,000 to safeguard the Herald as a world-leading voice in Catholic journalism and teaching. For more information from our chairman on contributing to the Herald Patron's Fund, click here
Make a Donation
Donors giving £500 or more will automatically become sponsor patrons of the Herald. This includes two complimentary print/digital gift subscriptions, invitations to Patron events, pilgrimages and dinners, and 6 gift subscriptions sent to priests, seminaries, Catholic schools, religious care homes and prison and university chaplaincies. Click here for more information on becoming a Patron Sponsor. Click here for more information about contributing to the Herald Patron's Fund