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29 April 2017updated 09 Sep 2021 4:17pm

The hidden history of Catholics in Britain

The Catholics by Roy Hattersley starts with the news his father was a Catholic priest.

By Frank Cottrell-Boyce

Roy Hattersley’s father was a Catholic priest. Two weeks after performing the wedding ceremony for a young couple, he ran off with the bride. Hattersley knew nothing about any of this until he read a letter of condolence on his father’s death that began, “As you will know, we were at the English College in Rome together and were young priests in the diocese . . .” It’s a story that confirms pretty much every negative aspect of the English view of Catholicism – sexual misconduct, secrecy, abuse of power. Yet somehow it has left Hattersley with a warm respect and fascination for the Church, the fruit of which is this big-hearted, fair-minded, insightful book.

As a history of Catholicism, it’s a joy to read. But the timing of its publication has made it much more important than that. Hattersley starts not with St Ninian landing at Whithorn in the 4th century, but with the Reformation. The separation from Rome is presented as a kind of Brexit, spearheaded by Thomas Cromwell. Cromwell had been an unremarkable MP but his Supplication of the Commons Against the Ordinaries argued passionately that England could become the most powerful state in Europe if it shook off the shackles of foreign ecclesiastical courts and became independent. He drove the separation forward long after Henry VIII had lost nerve and interest.

The national rejection of Rome obviously defined British Catholicism – as countercultural – but it was also the founding myth of modern Britain. These parallels are not merely historic. The European Union’s ideology is deeply indebted to Catholic social teaching. Even the stars on the EU flag refer to the Blessed Virgin’s crown.

The story of British Catholicism is a kind of mirror image of the creation of a national identity. Catholicism was for centuries the negative against which Britain defined itself. “We have it in our power,” as Thomas Paine wrote in 1776, “to begin the world over again.” This is what the Reformation did. The separation from Rome was also a separation from the infrastructure of worship, of welfare, education and power. But whereas most politicians are happy merely to point to some historical analogy as justification, Hattersley’s 500-year timeline allows us to see just how long the reinvention took, how high a price was paid for it and how useful a tool is fear in creating nations and building state power. At times (the Spanish Armada, the Babington Plot, the Gunpowder Plot), that fear was reasoned. At other times (Titus Oates), it was “believed by fools and accepted by rogues for whom truth was less important than power”.

Being a Catholic made you a traitor. At his trial in 1581 Edmund Campion famously argued that he and his fellow prisoners were “as good subjects as ever the queen had”. Yet as an onlooker at his hanging said, “In your Catholicism, all treason is contained.” The “dazzling” reign of Elizabeth I was, for ten years or so, a time of terror for Catholics, who lived with punitive fines, travel bans and the ever-present threat of execution.

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Oliver Cromwell’s first public role was to lead a committee set up with the aim of ensuring that recusant families had no access to weapons. During his Protectorate – and despite organised migration to his “plantations” in the Caribbean – persecution reduced Ireland’s population by a third. There was a debate among those priests who came secretly to these shores, despite the danger of torture and death at the hands of the state, about whether they should be merely administering the sacraments to the faithful, or working to bring England back under the protection of Rome through either proselytising or terror. “Individual fanatics”, Hattersley writes, were “encouraged to treason and murder by men of learning and virtue who, from the safety and comfort of the Vatican, lectured their followers in England on the importance of killing and being killed”. It is impossible not to see parallels with the influence of Isis and the scaremongering about Islam and Muslim “plans” to impose sharia law on Britain.

This country has always been governed from the centre ground but it is a mistake to think that this shows it has been moderate. Politicians, whether they’re Thomas Cromwell or Theresa May, are able to define themselves as the centre by conjuring up extremes and dangers from very little. The effect of this can be very long-lasting. It’s a long time since Titus Oates, but even when I was growing up, being a Catholic in Britain was a bit like being Corporal Jones in Dad’s Army: he did his best in drill but was always just a bit out of step. British Catholicism has gained from this. One has only to look at Ireland or Spain to see that when a church cosies up to power, disaster strikes.

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The one thing that Hattersley gets wrong is his emphasis on the attraction of Catholicism’s “certainty”. Surely the opposite is the case: what is good about Catholicism is its tolerance of doubt and failing. It is why we are supposed to go to confession. But it is possibly not true that this thread of fear has been good for British identity. As Cavafy almost said, “we were useful, we barbarians”. Now that Catholics are no longer a danger, Islam supplies the same mixture of real and imaginary threat. Fear of the Other may be “useful”, but there is always a price to be paid and there are other ways to do things.

One of the heroes of Hattersley’s tale is James Nugent – the only Catholic priest to have a public statue raised in his honour in Britain. He lived in Liverpool during the Great Hunger, when the burgeoning merchant city became a refugee camp, crowded with packs of feral children, thieves, prostitutes and cholera. Here was something really to be afraid of. Nugent responded by founding ragged schools, homes, night shelters and a care agency that still bears his name. Within a generation, his projects integrated the new Irish population into the city. Like every educated Scouse Catholic I am indebted to him. Think of him when next you hear some Little Englander freaking out about being “overwhelmed”. 

Frank Cottrell-Boyce is a children’s author and screenwriter. His latest book is “The Astounding Broccoli Boy” (Macmillan)

This article appears in the 26 Apr 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On