There once existed a special and very privileged land, an island nation blessed in every respect with benign climate, fertile soils, an industrious people, and plentiful natural resources. Its Christian inhabitants were prosperous and happy, lightly ruled by monarchs and able to redress any grievance through a people’s assembly. Common lands surrounded towns and villages providing the industrious peasantry with acreage to till their fields and graze their cows. A protective ‘Common Law’ combined with a ‘Great Charter’ (Magna Carta) ensured a framework of basic rights, making this island kingdom a shining bulwark of freedom among its many feudal neighbors.
Furthermore, the Catholic Church, endowed with lands and property over the centuries by wealthy and pious patrons, provided sustenance for the poor through her manifest resources. This common religion aligned with common law to foster social harmony. There was no standing army or organized police. Crime and theft were at a minimum because everybody in a town was known to everybody else. True, life could be short due to various diseases, but it was anything but brutish or hard as intimated by one latter day philosopher. In fact, leisure abounded. Between Sundays and holidays there were about 150 days sprinkled throughout the year where work was set aside for communal festivities.
The great historical irony is that with the onset of that ‘Age of Humanism’ which we call the Renaissance the former secure, contented way of life disappeared to a large extent in this blessed island of prosperity. For most of the common folk, that 16th century began in prosperity and ended in beggary, hardship, and servitude. This change can be traced to a dramatic realignment between the ruling classes and the Church. Historians blithely refer to that period of radical social and religious mutation as the “Reformation.” The word itself implies some improvement in the people’s morals, standard of living, and sense of justice, whereas just the opposite was the consequence of this “Reformation,” especially as it played out in England.
The Medieval Church had always provided some means of ‘checks and balances’ over royal absolutism and the power of the nobles. In the 16th century it was the tyrant who prevailed, however. Irritated with the pope over a failed annulment, the king induced Parliament to pass an Act of Supremacy which legally removed the administration of the English Church from Rome and set the king himself up as supreme head of the Church. Of course this action clearly violated Magna Carta, but this king cared little for precedent. Henry’s answer to protest was swift and certain, enforced by the headsman’s axe. Even the king’s own friend and chancellor Sir Thomas More was not spared the blade. From there a virtual reign of terror descended upon the formerly peaceful and secure island kingdom.
Now, the very Church, which had long spoken for and protected the common people against that rapacity to which the higher political classes are naturally inclined, became an instrument of the monarch and his minions (those nobles supporting the Act of Supremacy). In consequence, the small tradesman, laborer, and peasant were thrown to the mercy of powerful men whose avarice on this occasion seemed to know no bounds. Their first targets were the well endowed monasteries, about 900 in all, which for centuries had served to provide the poor with employment as well as plots of land to farm on favorable terms. In fact, these monasteries were the primary form of social relief for the poor and indigent. Their confiscation and closure meant that tens of thousands were thrown out of their livelihoods and into towns and villages where they were reduced to beggary and petty crime for survival.
This grand act of larceny by Henry VIII also marked the beginning of those “black legends” which have besmirched the pages of history ever since. These calumnies were designed to justify the blanket thefts by slandering the good monks and nuns who had been faithfully caring for the needs of the poor. French Ambassador Marillac wrote in 1540, “Henry employs preachers to… persuade the people that he could employ the ecclesiastical revenues in hospitals, colleges, (etc.) for the public good, which would be a much better use than that they should support lazy and useless monks.” Archbishop Cranmer further asserted that with the abbey revenues Henry would no longer have need to lay taxes on the people. Time, of course, proved the duplicitous nature of both claims. The money went not to public relief but to Henry’s friends and supporters. The lion’s share was doled out to courtiers and greedy nobles in order to buy their support for his otherwise unpopular policies.
It was only after that lascivious king’s death in 1547 that the real damage became apparent when the newly enriched squirearchy realized that the only sure way to protect their pilfered lands and treasure was by fully embracing Luther’s “Reformation” (which Henry had been loathe to do). That meant totally separating the Church in England from Rome under the banner of “no Popery.” In 1551 Parliament, under the Protestant boy-King Edward VI, created a whole new Church, “by law established,” Protestant in form, and permanently fusing the interest of Church and State into one polity (by acting as a virtual department of government).
All other religions were summarily outlawed while tithing for and attendance at the State Church were required under pain of heavy fines or even imprisonment. Two years later Edward died and his sister Mary ascended the throne. She honestly attempted to restore Catholic worship (much to the joy of the people) but her premature death in 1558 left the throne to her half sister Elizabeth. Thus began the real rise of the Church, “by law established” and the persecution of Catholics loyal to Rome.
Oddly enough Elizabeth herself had been a practicing Catholic at the time of Mary’s death in November. The new queen replied to Bishop Bollinger’s query a month later, “As to religion, I promise that I will not change it provided only it can be proved by the word of God.” Her royal promise was short-lived, however. She quickly restored the monopoly State Church, “by law established” via the Acts of Uniformity which Parliament now approved, abetted by an Act of Supremacy making the queen supreme in spiritual as well as temporal matters.
In no time the people learned that they were liable to imprisonment, hanging, drawing and quartering for professing spiritual loyalty to the pope. It became high treason for a priest to say the Roman Mass, to enter the kingdom from abroad, or for anyone to harbor or offer relief to a priest. Hundreds if not thousands were savagely executed over Elizabeth’s 44 year reign for “popery” and other religious “crimes” even though this very queen at her coronation had sworn an oath “to conform to all the rites of the Catholic pontifical.” For this reason the 19th Century English polemicist William Cobbett, himself a Protestant, would write that for every drop of blood spilt by “bloody Mary,” this “good Queen Bess” spilt a pint or more.
t was only the beginning of a purge of that same religion which had sustained the English people for over 900 years. Of course, it wasn’t only on religious grounds that the goodly people of England, Wales, Ireland, and later Scotland were to suffer. For once the assets of the monasteries and abbeys had been despoiled and absorbed by the ruling classes, greedy eyes soon turned to the common lands which for centuries had been tilled and shared by the commoners. The gentry now began pushing “Bills of Enclosure” through Parliament which effectively privatized what had heretofore been common property. Over the period of a century or more, Enclosure laws deprived the peasant class of the lands that had sustained them for generations. Naturally such appropriation led to strife, riots, and rebellion by the disenfranchised. These were harshly suppressed by a liberal use of force and the gallows.
Meanwhile, that Church, “by law established” had little or no interest in standing up for the rights or interests of the poor or dispossessed. The system naturally caused great resentment among the people who were still paying forced tithes to support fat salaries for the new clerical class who, unlike the old Catholic clergy, now had wives and families to support. Not surprisingly, want and famine became commonplace in this land of plenty which had never before experienced such poverty. Acreage under tillage declined precipitously as fields went fallow so that the lords of the manor could enjoy large park spaces and estates on which to graze their sheep and hunt foxes. A virtual caste system evolved as once free men were reduced to destitution and hunger.
The resultant social dislocation called for strong measures from the government, however. Beggary became so widespread that harsh laws were enacted to discourage the idleness. Begging merited first offenders punishments such as slicing off part of one’s ears or branding on the face. A second offense might subject one to two years of enslavement. The third offense could end in public hanging, all for the capital crime of asking for a piece of bread. Such cruelty, mind you, was possible in the very midst of the so-called “age of humanism,” as it played out in “merry” England. Queen Elizabeth herself had remarked in amazement, “the poor cover the land.” Her solution was to tax those not-quite-so-destitute through a compulsive relief act. Another favored method of clearing the land of such poor starving wretches was to impress them into the Royal Navy by force, a fate perhaps worse than death if we are to believe the abundant literature on this subject.
The age of free Englishmen whose rights were theoretically guaranteed in Common Law and the Magna Carta had, in fact, come to an inglorious end by virtue of the English “Reformation.” At the same time its proponents raised a chorus in shrill and ceaseless voices denouncing Catholic “superstition and Popery.” They defamed the late queen, Mary, and anything remotely Spanish while, at the same time, burning their own brand of heretics and witches by the hundreds. And thank God that those corrupt monks (who had faithfully fed the poor over centuries) were now gone! Civilization might now get about its business without such interference.
Part of that business was setting the record straight, for posterity that is. The propaganda mill was nearly as busy as the gallows in those heady days. And what was the penalty for writing or printing anything deemed offensive to the government? Well, the author of such a tract and his printer were liable to have their hands chopped off at the wrist, all with the express consent of “good Queen Bess.”
But it was the infamous “penal laws” which proliferated from her reign into the reigns of George 1, a century and a half later that truly left their mark on this “enlightened” age. These laws served no other purpose than to strip Catholics of their civil and political rights, all for the alleged crime of practicing that very same religion Elizabeth had sworn to uphold at her coronation, and which Englishmen had faithfully practiced for 900 years. Such legislation was the equivalent of our nation’s “Jim Crow” laws which persisted for about 70 years in a handful of Southern states. In contrast, the penal laws persisted in the entirety of Great Britain, including Ireland and Scotland, for a period of 270 years! A brief sampling of just a few of these reprehensible edicts might serve to illustrate their vindictive nature.
1570 – Act disallowing Catholics to reside abroad for more than 6 months without royal permission, upon forfeiture of one’s property.
1581 – Act making it high treason to reconcile or cause another to be reconciled to the “Romish religion.” Also, the prohibition of Masses plus an increase in fines for recusancy (failure to attend Anglican services) to £20 per month, and imprisonment until all fines are paid, or conversion to that Church, “by law established.”
1585 – Act against the Jesuits, seminary priests, and other such disobedient persons, all upon pain of death.
1593 – Act for restraining “popish” recusants.
1661-1673 – Various “Test Acts” were passed requiring all municipal officials to take Anglican communion, use the Book of Common Prayer, and deny of transubstantiation.
1664 – Conventicle Act forbidding unlicensed private worship by five or more unrelated persons.
1678 – Act to Disable Papists from sitting in either house of Parliament.
1699 – Act for preventing further growth of Popery which offered a bounty of £100 for the apprehension of any priest. The same reward was offered for the conviction of any Catholic sending children abroad for their education.
1715 – Acts were passed obliging “Papists” (Catholics) to register names and real estate. They were then double taxed under the annual land tax acts.
1722 – Act for granting aid to His Majesty by levying a tax upon Papists. This discriminatory tax wrung an additional £100,000 in revenue from Catholics already impoverished by fines.
Through such governmental action over centuries, anti-Catholic prejudice was systematically planted in the English mind. Beside the penal laws, there were endlessly manufactured “popish plots” like the infamous Babington Plot, which falsely implicated Mary Queen of Scots leading to her execution, or the Titus Oates plot of 1679 resulting in the execution of 30 innocent Jesuits based on perjured testimony. It seems as though the government and its vassal Church, “by law established” were terrified that this same Catholic religion which had supported and nourished England for countless centuries, if tolerated in the present, might suddenly undermine the very foundations of the state.
But certainly such irrational aversions had one strong ulterior motive: the keeping of vast plunder seized from the mother Church AND from countless Catholics families in the form of fines and seizures. The amount of land from freehold estates confiscated or greatly reduced to pay recusancy fines is probably incalculable. Even today one can everywhere see countless “Anglican” cathedrals and parish churches originally built by Catholics. The main object of the official propaganda was to prevent the common Englishman from obtaining any real knowledge of or feelings for the Church of his ancestors. An oppressive ruling class had much injustice to hide, and little to gain from Catholic emancipation.
In the end it came about anyway, beginning in 1778, as a necessary expedient to help in the flagging war effort against the Americans. That year some, though not all, of the penal laws were finally revoked and yet even this modicum of justice provoked the Gordon riots, the most destructive in London’s history. Complete suppression of the penal laws was achieved in stages culminating in the Emancipation Act of 1829, readmitting Catholics to Parliament. Still, it was not until 1871 that they were finally readmitted to the British universities. Meanwhile, three centuries of relentless persecution had taken its toll on the British psyche, yet through it all there were families who stubbornly and heroically held fast to the ancient faith of their fathers.
But history is not for condemning, rather it should foster learning and self examination. Great Britain is, after all, America’s mother country. Our language, culture, and political institutions derive directly from those very people and times under scrutiny. My own ancestors were English Puritans. The so-called English Reformation was not a true reform of religion but rather a social revolution in which religion only played an incidental part. That this revolution succeeded in tearing away the greater number of Englishmen from the faith of their fathers is indisputable, but it had far more reaching consequences as Great Britain grew into an influential worldwide empire. Her ideas, and prejudices, naturally accompanied that growth, spreading into the far corners of the world.
Unlike what transpired on the continent in Germany, Scandinavia, or Holland, this new religion was not quickly adopted in England. The people resisted such novelty and clung stubbornly to their Catholic roots. It took nearly 200 years of relentless pressure and persecution to really establish the Reformed faith in England. Even today Anglicans are torn between “High Church” (Catholic) and “Broad Church” (Protestant) factions. Still, through all the calumnies, oppression, and confiscations many of the nobility and common folk, clung tenaciously to their Catholic faith, particularly in the north.
That history provides a useful lesson for us today, for it demonstrates just how quickly prosperity, freedom, and security can be overthrown by dedicated tyrants. And once people become conditioned to tyranny, it can take centuries to eradicate the scourge, as the Irish can well attest. Yet there is no hardier or more resilient lot than the English people, which might explain much of their success in world affairs. They tend to be a generous, sanguine, and hospitable race ─ with a streak of iron stubbornness that has saved them more than once.
That same stubbornness served the English Catholics as well. While laboring under enormous legal and social disability they were, by and large, faithful both to their religion and to their sovereign. They fought in the kings wars and served in his navy, thereby setting an example of patient endurance that should inspire all Christians today. What truly impressed me while visiting that special isle was how their descendants harbor no sense of grievance or retribution in spite of their minority status. They have learned to forgive the wrongs committed and move on in life, something that some brooding minorities in this country could well learn from if they ever hope to obtain peace of mind.
Today there are still many persecuted Catholics in the world in places like Indonesia, Vietnam, Cuba, Africa, and the Middle East. China, like England before it, also has its “Patriotic Church, by law established,” so things have not really changed all that much. Christians will always be torn between what they must “render unto Caesar” and “render unto God.” But regardless of circumstances, we can all take courage in the immortal words of that great English statesman and martyr, Thomas More, just before his execution, “I die the kings loyal servant, but God’s first.”
Francis J. Pierson + a.m.d.g.
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