Bri­tain’s left-foot­ers

Roy Hat­ter­s­ley has com­piled an im­pres­sive and crit­i­cal his­tory of British Catholi­cism, says John Gum­mer

Country Life Every Week - - Books -

His­tory The Catholics Roy Hat­ter­s­ley (Chatto & Win­dus, £25)

Son of a for­mer Catholic priest, ebul­lient po­lit­i­cal pugilist and cel­e­brated bon viveur: who would have cast Roy Hat­ter­s­ley as the el­e­gant, com­pas­sion­ate and dis­cern­ing au­thor of a notable his­tory of British Catholi­cism, yet his en­gag­ing and im­mensely read­able ac­count is just that. From the first stir­rings of Henry VIII’S dis­pute with Rome to the ar­rival of Pope Fran­cis, Lord Hat­ter­s­ley tells his story with clar­ity and un­der­stand­ing.

It is a joy to read, not least be­cause it makes clear the most com­plex of is­sues with­out los­ing the essen­tials or triv­i­al­is­ing be­liefs that, to­day, might seem of lit­tle im­por­tance.

The book opens with an ad­mirable ex­pla­na­tion of the pol­i­tics of the Court of Henry VIII, its ri­val­ries and the at­tempts to co­erce the Pope into an­nulling the King’s mar­riage. It is the au­thor at his best, only equalled by his ex­plo­ration of the re­la­tion­ship be­tween John Henry new­man and Henry Man­ning and their in­ter­ac­tion with the Vatican hi­er­ar­chy. In both cases, you see the man who sur­vived the ma­noeu­vrings of mod­ern Labour Party pol­i­tics ap­ply­ing a greater un­der­stand­ing to po­lit­i­cal process than ec­cle­si­as­ti­cal his­to­ri­ans could ever have com­manded.

Par­tic­u­larly ef­fec­tive is the way in which he moves the nar­ra­tive seam­lessly on through Ed­ward VI’S reign into the restora­tion of the old re­li­gion un­der Mary. The process through which peo­ple lived in these years is often por­trayed as a series of clear-cut changes about which in­di­vid­u­als made clear-cut de­ci­sions. Lord Hat­ter­s­ley catches the re­al­ity of com­pro­mise, con­tra­dic­tion and sim­ply hop­ing for the best that more ac­cu­rately de­scribes men’s ac­tions in this tur­bu­lent pe­riod.

His ap­praisal of St Thomas More and St John Fisher is par­tic­u­larly as­tute. He recog­nises More’s man­i­fest fail­ings, but warms to his fi­nal un­doubted hero­ism. Fisher emerges as a man of real stature, stead­fast and con­sis­tent, lov­ing and love­able, but sim­ply at sea in the world of pol­i­tics that was never his choice.

The same deft ap­praisal and clear nar­ra­tive car­ries us through the El­iz­a­bethan set­tle­ment, the plots and pro­pa­ganda, to the grad­ual emer­gence of tol­er­a­tion and ac­cep­tance. How­ever, through­out, it is the au­thor’s abil­ity to make plain what must have be­wild- ered the par­tic­i­pants that makes this book so in­for­ma­tive a read.

Par­tic­u­larly as­tute is the han­dling of the Ir­ish di­men­sion. It was, of course, es­sen­tial to cover the par­al­lel his­tory of Ire­land, yet it was im­por­tant not to be dragged down by it or to make the cov­er­age dis­pro­por­tion­ate. We learn enough to un­der­stand prop­erly what was hap­pen­ing in Ire­land it­self as well as the ef­fect of Ir­ish im­mi­gra­tion into Eng­land and Scot­land, but Lord Hat­ter­s­ley never al­lows him­self to be led away from the his­tory of Catholi­cism into a his­tory of Ire­land.

Through­out the nar­ra­tive, there is gen­tle­ness and un­der­stand­ing, yet its gen­eros­ity does not in­hibit sharp and ef­fec­tive as­sess­ment. Its han­dling of new­man and Man­ning is par­tic­u­larly in­ter­est­ing. The politi­cian in Lord Hat­ter­s­ley shines forth as he prop­erly es­ti­mates the sig­nif­i­cance of Man­ning as a leader both in Church mat­ters and as a so­cial re­former and pro­moter of just so­lu­tions, not only in Ire­land, but for the dock­ers and work­ing peo­ple more gen­er­ally.

He rightly recog­nises Man­ning’s strengths, but he is less than fair to new­man. new­man was a con­stant seeker—al­ways try­ing to see what was right, what the early Fathers ac­tu­ally said and what, in the cir­cum­stances, could be ad­duced. He was not a politi­cian and Lord Hat­ter­s­ley can’t for­give him for that, nor can he re­ally un­der­stand what is the essence of new­man’s charisma. Above all, he doesn’t con­front the sim­ple fact that it is new­man, not Man­ning, who drew men and women to the Catholic Church, not only in his life­time, but also to­day.

For the rest, this is a well­judged and im­mensely im­pres­sive book. Lord Hat­ter­s­ley has not brought new facts or undis­cov­ered ma­te­rial to his nar­ra­tive, but some­thing even more re­fresh­ing.

He has brought an un­der­stand­ing and a sym­pa­thy, but with a sharply crit­i­cal eye to Bri­tain’s Catholic her­itage.

A por­trait of Sir Thomas More. A Catholic, he re­fused to take the Oath of Supremacy to Henry VIII and was ex­e­cuted

An em­broi­dered tex­tile from the English School, Badge of the Five Wounds of Christ

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