I see no reason why gunpowder treason should ever be forgot

And it won’t be. As this writer tells it, “what gets my adrenalin flowing is the words Roman Catholic.”

For us English, hostility sprang from ancient politics. The little history I learned at school taught me of Mary Tudor, the bigot whose five-year reign saw some 300 Protestants put to death; of papal efforts to unthrone the queen of England, her successor Elizabeth I; of Catholic Spain and its Armada; of Catholic Guy Fawkes plotting to blow up Parliament; of James II trying to reinstate his Catholicism in a country that had rejected it. Why all this should matter 300 or 400 years later I did not ask.

All this despite having “no perceptible faith”, yet he still has his “childhood prejudices”.

I don’t think this visceral hostility is sensible, let alone in an unbeliever. No one is trying to ram Catholicism down my throat. Yet, however little it may affect my actions, my prejudice is a fact—after 60-odd years, in a man reasonably educated, still tolerably intelligent, in a largely secular society, in the 21st century.

Some years ago the German ambassador to the UK complained that the British had made World War II the “core of their national identity”. But he was wrong. Anti-Catholicism is the core of British national identity, despite being a post-Christian, non-believing, non-church-going country.

The author concludes:

There are warnings in this for people like me who see human reason and conscience as better guides to modern life than are ancient scriptures, however admirable. First, that we too may be leopards. Second, that if our gut feelings are that durable, we are unwise if we discount the strength of other people’s.

That should be uncontroversial. The Sunnis and Shia, to pick one example, are not going to start liking each other any time soon.

But as to Merry Old England, the problem may have a solution. The recent fumbling around about defining its national identity has been interesting. The Labor Government is unlikely to celebrate the burning of the Pope in effigy as a “core value”. Yet there really is a lot in its history and contemporary culture which has value. By rediscovering its heritage of freedom and individualism and enterprise, they would do themselves a lot of good. I can suggest some books.

11 thoughts on “I see no reason why gunpowder treason should ever be forgot”

  1. Anti-catholism stamped the English character so profoundly because breaking from Catholicism represented the critical phase change in the evolution of England from a loose collection of extended aristocratic families with competing interest into nation state united top to bottom by a common culture.

    Before the rise of nationalism (in modern terms, ethnicism), people identified with personal loyalties to families and more loosely with a identity with the rest of “Christendom” Breaking with the Catholic Church caused a shift in identification away from the smallest political unit, the extended family and away from the largest unit, the entire Christian religion and focused it on a mid-level unit of the nation state. The war against Catholicism solidified England’s collective identity as did no other factor.

    (Personally, I think the major factor is less hostility to Catholicism per se and more a matter of “we decide, not some foreign poof in a funny hat.” )

    Every cohesive people no doubt have some historical event that defines them by separating them from others. For the French, its the Revolution. For the Dutch its the Republic. Sadly, for the Germans, its WWII. For Americans, its the Revolution or the Civil War.

  2. For we Irish? I think it is Easter, 1916 and the war against Britain leading to independence that followed it. As an Irish American, that was part of the mythic Irish history that I was brought up with, as “our” Irish founding moment.

  3. “…Mary Tudor, the bigot whose five-year reign saw some 300 Protestants put to death; of papal efforts to unthrone the queen of England, her successor Elizabeth I…”

    I see. Clearly Mary should have made some flimsy pretense that the heretics were actually being executed for treason, the way her sister did, and she would have been OK.

  4. Brian,

    Not the way I read the history. Mary was a true believer, Elizabeth was a secular pragmatist. Mary killed people for refusing to recognize the religious and moral authority of the Papacy. Elizabeth killed people for committing overt political acts in furtherance of the interest of a foreign power. As long as English Catholics stayed politically loyal or at least neutral she left them alone.

  5. Shannon,

    Murdering priests simply for being priests seems to me exactly equivalent to “kill[ing] people for refusing to recognize the religious and moral authority” of the Crown. And I don’t think being forced to pay exorbitant taxes for refusing to attend official church services quite qualifies as being “left alone.”

    But I suppose that 400+ years after the fact we’ll probably just have to agree to disagree.

  6. Mary gets a bad rap. William Cobbett, not a Catholic, has a good counterbalancing view. Mary’s great crime was trying to restore the lands and property seized from religious communities by Henry and his cronies without a shred of due process or any legitimate legal basis, with zero compensation paid out for the lawless takings. The people she put to death, generally, were guilty of the same think Elizabeth’s enforcers accused their victims of: treason. Except in the case of the Protestant “martyrs” their is little or no dispute that they did call for the violent overthrow of the legitimate monarch. So much of Elizabeth as the mild monarch and Mary as the bloody-handed tyrant.

    “As long as English Catholics stayed politically loyal or at least neutral she left them alone.”

    No way. She was out to destroy the Catholics once and for all, and she largely succeeded. She unabashedly killed people if they professed the Catholic religion. Elizabeth was a tyrant, and her reign and the reign of her equally monstrous father were near-death-experiences for Anglospheric liberty. It would take several more generations before the idea that religious liberty is a universal right would take hold. That tale is brilliantly, though densely, told by J.N. Figgis, here.

    But it is interesting that after 400 years these are still live issues.

  7. The Jesuits missionaries, almost all of whom were returning Englishmen, were instructed to avoid politics and anything that even smelled like advocating the overthrow of Elizabeth. Of course, in country in which Church and State were anything but separate, that was actually quite impossible. Elizabeth had no deep religious convictions (and the ones she had seemed to have been rather Catholic, e.g. she always kept a crucifix in her chapel after she had banned them in churches). She saw Catholicism as a political threat to her reign. Whether she was correct or not is impossible to say. Clearly, as Lex points out, she was not in any sense a Liberal, and the cause of Liberalism in England suffered grievously under all the Tutors. The first four Stuarts were not much better, and only the Lockean triumph of 1688 set England on an irreversible Liberal path.

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