Individuals kept the faith
Roy Hattersley is the perfect person to write a history of Catholics in Britain and Ireland since the Reformation. He is a conscientious atheist who was brought up an Anglican but he does have a foot in the Catholic camp. After Hattersley’s father died, Roy discovered an astounding secret. Hattersley Sr, who worked as a lowly government clerk and lived as a modestly devout Anglican, was once a Catholic priest. Five years into his priesthood he married a young couple, then two weeks later ran off with the bride and lived happily ever after.
Roy Hattersley was a minister in the Harold Wilson and James Callaghan governments and deputy leader of the British Labour Party for nearly a decade. He is a distinguished member of the politician-author-public intellectual class, a group that is much rarer in Australia. We’ve had a few, notably Barry Jones, John Button and Paul Hasluck, but not too many.
Hattersley approaches the English Reformation and its consequences not as a religious or anti-religious partisan but as a politician and political commentator, and this is one of this absorbing book’s great strengths. He doesn’t downplay the theological conflicts or the human drama but relishes the political intrigue.
Thus Henry VIII’s objection to papal authority arises partly out of his desire to get rid of his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, and marry Anne Boleyn. But as Hattersley makes clear, the king’s real objections to the papacy were not doctrinal. Rather, they centred on power. He wanted to be clear that the pope had no power over him and indeed that he, Henry, ran the Church in England.
Doctrinally, Henry was not much fussed and when he did turn his mind to doctrine he often expressed what his conscientiously Protestant advisers regarded as dangerously Catholic theology. But he didn’t want Rome making any decisions that had consequences in Britain. This part of the Reformation prefigures Brexit more than any modern religious dispute.
Once the Protestant ascendancy in Britain was fully established, Catholics were much more persecuted than persecuting. But there is no cause for sectarian sneering here. Henry’s daughter, Mary I, Bloody Mary as she was later known, restored Catholicism for the five years she reigned and had hundreds of Protestants executed. And of course you could balance the scales further by the actions of continental Catholic powers.
When Mary, in turn, was succeeded by her half sister, Elizabeth, Protestantism was re-established in Britain and the direction of persecution, but not its savagery, reversed. That persecution was barbaric.
Hattersley rightly builds his sweeping history on the stories of striking individuals.
Even across these centuries, the execution of Catholic priest Nicholas Postgate in 1679 is chilling. Under a modest level of unusual local tolerance, he had been quietly saying mass and cultivating daffodils in East Riding for 30 years.
A zealous official heard of him, spectacularly fraudulent evidence was brought that he was involved in a plot to overthrow the monarchy and, at age 80, Postgate was hung, drawn and quartered. This was the favoured and particularly gruesome form of execution. The idea was that the victim was hanged but cut down before he lost consciousness and then disembowelled and cut into four pieces.
The most striking figure in Hattersley’s entire history is surely Edmund Campion, a Prot- estant, active in Elizabeth’s reign and destined for high office, who went to Europe, converted to Catholicism, became a Jesuit and was sent back to England to administer the sacraments and offer spiritual guidance to those Catholics
Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Henry VIII and Natalie Dormer as Anne Boleyn in television series The Tudors