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Sir Thomas Tresham in a print by Remigius Hogenberg, 1585 (©Trustees of the British Museum)

One of many amusing lines delivered by the Earl of Grantham, played by Hugh Bonneville, in ITV’s Downton Abbey was: “There seems to be something of the Johnny Foreigner about Catholics.” It was in poor taste, yes, but it did not come out of nowhere. Ubiquity breeds cliché. My historical interests centre around a circle of English Catholics in the late 16th century. Why Catholics? Because the 16th century saw the genesis of a prejudice rooted in anxieties about “foreign” influence. The Reformation bitterly divided the country and the Continent, raising questions about national identity that are now coming into focus again. In binding Protestantism to Englishness, Catholicism became the enemy of patriotism, but the process was neither organic nor uncontested.

As Elizabeth’s government tried to equate Catholicism with the threat of malign continental influence, debates arose about what was and wasn’t English. They made a plausible case. Pope Pius V claimed to hold the salvation of all Catholics in his hands, and he was clear that that salvation could not be found in the Protestant English Church. In 1570 he formally absolved Elizabeth’s subjects of their loyalty to her by declaring Elizabeth excommunicate. The Pope wielded extensive temporal power and with his blessing (and gold), Catholic Spain, under Philip II, promised invasion. They saw it as a spiritual imperative to restore Catholicism as the faith of the English, that which every monarch from Henry VIII onwards had a duty to uphold as “defender of the faith”.

English fear of Catholic invasion was not mere paranoia. Events overseas, over the course of the French Wars of Religion, and the assassination of William the Silent in the Netherlands, vindicated the association of Catholic powers with bloodshed. The challenge faced by Elizabeth’s government was to ensure that nothing of the kind spread to England. Any state can decry the foreign enemy, but the enemy within is all the more perfidious. Foreign influence over English subjects had to be controlled. So the very first statute of Elizabeth’s first parliament in 1559 addressed her “natural-born subjects”, and restored royal supremacy over the Church by “abolishing all foreign power repugnant to the same”. Those taking the accompanying Oath of Supremacy swore to “renounce and forsake all foreign jurisdictions, powers, superiorities and authorities”. There seemed to be something of the Johnny Foreigner about Catholics.

Just as England was under threat from invasion by foreign powers, English Catholics were developing links overseas. More than a hundred Catholic scholars left the University of Oxford — then one of only two English universities — during the first decade of Elizabeth’s reign, choosing exile on the Continent. Led by William Allen, they founded colleges based on the ones they had left behind, the first at Douai in 1568. These establishments re-created communities of learning centred around faith that were as English as the colleges they were based on.

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Lawrence Jamesnonymous
August 8th, 2017
4:08 PM
Catholic ( and Protestant ) anxieties were also heightened by traumatic memories of the havoc caused by the Wars of the Roses, a civil war whose fatal divisions were reproduced in Shakespeare's history plays. The alternative to submission to the crown was anarchy.

July 3rd, 2017
10:07 PM
The best paid spy of Queen Elizabeth, the one that was looking for the secrets of the invasion of the Armada in the Papal Court and in Spain, Anthony Standen, was a Catholic. The jesuit that baptized Ben Jonson in prison was another one against the invasion of the Armada. The majority of the English Catholics were pro Elizabeth, including the majority of the Jesuit Fathers.

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