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