English Catholic History and England’s European Identity

Thomas More

I do not think my self bound to conform my Conscience to the Counsel of one Kingdom, against the general Consent of all Christendom.

– Sir Thomas More, 7 May 1535

The trial of Sir Thomas More for high treason on 7 May 1535 was a defining moment (perhaps the defining moment) in the creation of what can be called English Catholicism – that is to say, the self-conscious adoption by English men and women of a religious identity as Christians in communion with the See of Rome. It would be excessively simplistic and ahistorical to say that More was defending the pan-European institutions of his day (the Papacy) against a king obsessed with strengthening national sovereignty, but it is nevertheless true that More’s conception of what constituted English identity was broader than Henry VIII’s, since More saw England’s participation in Catholic Christendom as essential to what it meant to be English. The trial of Thomas More marked a parting of the ways between a view of English national identity as distinct from other Europeans – even in the spiritual realm – and another that saw England as part of the greater whole of Christendom.

Members of More’s own family joined a stream of English exiles to the Low Countries and other Catholic nations as a consequence of the break with Rome, and it is noteworthy that the restoration of Catholicism, when it finally arrived in 1553 under Mary I, brought England back into the mainstream of Catholic Europe. Mary’s marriage to Phillip of Spain meant that most of the European Counter-reformers who pitched up in Oxford, Cambridge and elsewhere were Spaniards, but Cardinal Reginald Pole also brought with him an Italian entourage. The accession of Elizabeth and the Act of Uniformity in 1559 again sent many Catholics into European exile and reinforced the idea of England as politically and spiritually insular – and the loss of Calais in 1558, the last fragment of the Angevin Empire, did not help matters. Elizabeth dallied with the idea of engaging with other Protestant European powers – and even hosted European reformers in England – but the English Reformation remained, on the whole, a profoundly insular project.

Another defining moment in the divergence of English Catholic identity from the mainstream of English national identity occurred in 1571 when the Catholic exile John Story – who had been kidnapped from the Low Countries by English agents – was put on trial for treason. Story pointed out that he had long since become a naturalised subject of Spain, but the court was baffled by this assertion and denied that it was possible for any Englishman to give up his natural allegiance. In other words, the only way to be English was to be loyal to the Queen of England – and this applied even to exiles. Parliament then determined in 1585 that any Englishman taking orders under the authority of the Bishop of Rome was, ipso facto, a traitor – even though, like Story, many of those Englishmen had renounced their allegiance to Elizabeth. England’s confrontation with Spain in the 1580s resulted in xenophobia, combined with a hefty dose of anti-Catholicism, becoming a crucial component of the national psyche.

The alienation of English Catholic identity from the mainstream of English national identity reached its apogee in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, when a group of Catholics attempted to eliminate Parliament in entirety (as well as trying to kill the son of the woman previously favoured as a Catholic pretender, Mary, Queen of Scots). Thereafter, however, Catholics began a slow journey back to the heart of the establishment as the House of Stuart vacillated in its commitment to the Protestant cause; the ‘Spanish marriage’ of 1623 was a particular high point, when it seemed that a precondition of the Prince of Wales’ marriage to the Spanish Infanta would be toleration for Catholics. Likewise, the personal rule of Charles I saw a small number of favoured Catholics moving close to the heart of political power. The interruption of the Interregnum notwithstanding, the process of Catholic advancement at court continued in Charles II’s reign, culminating in the conversion of the King’s brother and heir, the Duke of York, to Catholicism. Attempts to exclude the Duke of York from the succession failed, and pent-up popular resentment exploded in 1678 in the form of the ‘Popish Plot’, a vast anti-Catholic conspiracy theory that produced the final crop of English Catholic martyrs.

The accession of James II in 1685 promised to heal the rift between Protestant and Catholic understandings of English identity in the King’s own person, since he would (as a Catholic) continue to be Supreme Governor of the Church of England and appoint Protestant bishops. James tactfully opted for a Protestant coronation without a celebration of Holy Communion, and enjoyed huge popularity amongst Church of England loyalists. However, the fact remained that the penal laws against Catholics remained in force. Some historians have argued that James squandered his popularity amongst Tories by insisting on legislating toleration, but in reality he had no choice but to do so while his co-religionists were systematically discriminated against by the law. Yet James’ vision of an England in which Catholics and dissenters enjoyed religious toleration alongside the Church of England was too much for the national church to stomach. The King was deposed in 1688 and went into exile, along with his followers (the Jacobites), who entered the service of France, Spain, Sweden and Russia and who cherished a transnational identity in which their Englishness was rooted in loyalty to the House of Stuart rather than living in England or even speaking English.

Prince Charles Edward Stuart’s successful invasion of Scotland and England in 1745-46 represented the last serious attempt by Jacobites to impose their conception of kingship and Englishness; the succeeding years saw Catholics come to terms with the Hanoverian polity of an institutionally Protestant constitutional monarchy, a process that culminated in the death of Charles in 1788, at which time the Catholic bishops permitted prayers for George III at the end of mass. Over the succeeding decades a painfully slow process of legal emancipation for Catholics began, ending with the Third Catholic Relief Act of 1829 which allowed Catholics to sit in Parliament. Nineteenth-century Catholics tended to ally themselves with the Liberals on the grounds that the Tories favoured a close alliance between established church and state, but after the brief flurry of Protestant concern over the establishment of Catholic dioceses in England in 1850, Catholics began gradually to be integrated into all levels of the British political establishment. Today Catholics can be found across the full spectrum of political views.

So was Thomas More, and other English Catholics after him, advocating England’s identity as a European nation? To claim this would probably be too much. However, there can be no doubt that More was advocating limits to the absoluteness of national sovereignty: he was adamant that Henry VIII’s sovereignty did not extend to governance of the Church, a supra-national body to whom Christian kings rendered their allegiance. On one reading, the history of English Catholicism, and especially the history of English Catholics’ engagement with the state, is the story of the gradual acceptance by the state that its sovereignty over one portion of its people (Catholics) could never be absolute. This is why, as a historian of English Catholicism, I cannot but feel the relevance of the experience of English Catholics to the debate on the UK’s continuing membership of the European Union. The historical parallels are far from exact, but one lesson today’s politicians could learn from the history of England’s gradual acceptance of Catholics as true Englishmen and women is that it is far easier to tolerate difference and accept the limitations of sovereignty when fear is set aside – in 1829 the Papacy looked and felt a great deal less threatening than it did in 1535, even if its claims to spiritual jurisdiction over England’s Catholics were much the same.

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