In­di­vid­u­als kept the faith

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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

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