Catholic tastes: both English and European

Brexit has revived interest in Elizabethan England’s bitter religious divisions that pitted love of the Continent against loyalty to the Crown

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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.

Changes made by the Crown rendered membership of the universities untenable for many of its Catholic members, and an unattractive prospect for Catholic families looking to educate their sons. They wanted rigorous English Catholic education and English Catholic priests. The colleges evolved, as institutions have a habit of doing, in response to the changing world around them, and their focus shifted towards mission. True, the individuals involved did not all have irenic purposes. Some, like Robert Persons (later Parsons), and Nicholas Sander, were at times genuinely hell-bent on invasion and the replacement of the heretic Elizabeth by any means necessary, at whatever human cost. 

Young Englishmen sent abroad might return as missionary priests. Others sought a life beyond the seas where they could practise their religion freely, but an Englishman arriving on English shores was always coming home. The men who attended continental seminaries, and the women who populated convents — also, by the way, centres of learning — sought education abroad because they could no longer find it at home. Catholic priests, trained in the English colleges in France, Belgium, Rome and Spain, embarked on a mission to win hearts and minds for the Catholic cause. For English Protestants, this meant sowing the seeds of rebellion and poisoning English minds against their countrymen so Catholic invasion would meet a groundswell of support from within. Fidelity to a foreign temporal and spiritual power embodied in the papacy and theoretical affinity with Catholic potentates, chiefly Spain, tainted English Catholics. In the eyes of a hostile government, these were Englishmen poisoned by perverse foreign practices.  

The problem was that the government did not think all continental influences were bad: England was not monocultural. Trade was both essential and enriching, and its participants found more than financial reward in their professional activities. Courts travelled widely. Ambassadors went between them, exchanging gifts, and sharing in elite pursuits — feasting, dancing, music, art, and poetry. Yet even within these spheres, things in common were not things identical. For all its Italianate influences, English poetry developed a distinctive voice. The same was true of music, and of art. And these variations were not always dissonant: the continental and the English could and did sit easily together. Englishmen read manuals written by their compatriots about hunting, dancing, and horsemanship — hallmarks of gentility. The variety of translations of Machiavelli’s The Prince from its original Italian attests the popularity of continental perspectives on elite culture, though its controversial author provided some of the draw.

The high drama of what are essentially international relations is all well and good, but the knotty issue of reconciling Catholicism with Englishness is at its most interesting when real people are involved. The reality was exquisitely contradictory. The subject of my research, Sir Thomas Tresham, was a reasonably well-off gentleman living in Northamptonshire — landed, educated like his fellow gentry, knighted, but not among the nobility. He was also Catholic. Like many, Tresham was deeply wounded by the association of Catholicism with disloyalty, emphasising his desire to defend Queen and country from any foreign invasion at every opportunity. Why must an Englishman submit to interrogations about matters of conscience? Why should his love for Queen and country be doubted simply because he adhered to the faith of his ancestors? Other Catholics let the side down, like Philip Howard, 13th Earl of Arundel, who prayed for the success of the Spanish Armada while imprisoned in the Tower of London. Howard was canonised in 1970 along with others who had suffered for the Catholic faith. No such honour for Tresham, who endured years of imprisonment, financial penalties, and hostility.

The sons of English elites were populating the colleges, and families were marrying their daughters to Christ in faraway convents. A travel ban was a solution: in 1584 a statute prohibited English Catholics from sending their children abroad. Coincidentally, Thomas Tresham chose not to send any of his nine children across the seas. He arranged ambitious marriages for each of his six daughters to men of good English Catholic stock. His beloved brother-in-law William, third Baron Vaux, who made the same professions of patriotism, did otherwise. His son Henry aspired to become a Jesuit, apparently taking vows on his deathbed at the age of 28. Henry’s brothers visited continental colleges and his sisters, Anne and Eleanor, were instrumental in supporting missionary priests at home. Contrary to Protestant polemic, these priests claimed to offer only pastoral support, their ministry a necessary replacement for Catholic parish worship erased by the Reformation. But we have to assume that discussion of affairs of state, a euphemism if ever there was one, occurred behind closed doors. Indeed, Tresham, Vaux and others attended a meeting with missionary priests in London in 1585 to discuss how they might best support the provision of Catholic priests in England. They did not see this as incompatible with claims of loyalty to Elizabeth and avowed hostility to foreign invasion.

Instead of supporting the Catholic education of Englishmen on the continent, Tresham made a benefaction to the very university their founders had eschewed, on native soil, in the late 1590s. This took the form of an extraordinarily generous donation of books to St John’s College, Oxford. The collection is chiefly theological in its nature — this suited best the needs of the college — and Catholic in character. In a letter to a former fellow of the college, Tresham wrote of the books he intended to give, deeming the Venerable Bede — “our native countryman” — to be essential. Yet Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Dutch and German writers found a home alongside English ones. Language united them, for Latin was not only the tongue of Catholic rites: it was also the language of scholarship, of law and of humanism, common to men and women of a certain education across Europe.

Sixteenth-century elite culture, in England as on the continent, incorporated practices that tended towards representation of family, faith and locality. Through architecture a gentleman improved his estate, leaving his mark for future generations, and exercised local patronage. He thereby advertised the health of his estate and his conversance with current trends to his friends and neighbours. Books of architecture by continental authors joined English works in a typical gentleman’s library, and inspired personal projects.

Thomas Tresham was one such gentleman architect, using buildings to represent his Englishness and his Catholicism in permanent monuments. Heraldic devices adorning buildings and Latin inscriptions declaring a motto, quotation from scripture, or homage to a patron constituted a language that was completely intelligible to the initiated, even if it now seems recherché. Cultivating his library, an Englishman could buy and read books by writers of any nationality printed using German technology by Dutch compositors on French paper. Of course, there were centres of printing across Europe, but the point is that the book trade was transnational. Catholic readers in England bought books by Spanish, Italian and French divines as well as English writers: language-learning was part of English elite culture, and knowledge had no national identity.

When William Tresham, brother of Thomas, returned from 20 years abroad in 1603, servants remarked that he was “so much changed in his speech, for his tongue is as lisping in the French tongue”. Observing his strange accent belied scandalous foreign connections. William had left a position at court to go abroad without permission, and had got in with the wrong (i.e. Catholic) crowd. Worse still, the King of Spain paid his pension.

Contemplating the location of his house arrest in Hoxton, Shoreditch, and hoping to inch closer to the City of London, Thomas Tresham complained about the shortage of suitable houses, due in part to “the great resort of strangers”. Here are the roots of the detestable xenophobia levelled at Continental immigrants, with Jewish, Irish and Polish people regular targets. When people feel under pressure, they turn outwards to find someone to blame, a human flaw no less excusable for its ubiquity. We find that things in common are forgotten, often wilfully, in order to emphasise difference.

Just as we now wrestle with the complexity of English identity, Thomas Tresham and men like him reconciled the irreconcilable. Has there always been something Johnny Foreigner about English Catholics?  There can be no binary answer.  Some English Catholics, and English people, were Continental, in some respects and some of the time, but they were still English. This is not evasive; it is the historian’s prerogative. We do not deal in certainties, but in finding and discerning evidence, weighing it like Paris, and presenting likelihood through a melding of narrative and argument.

Our influences and interests, then as now, are multitudinous. Tresham and other English Catholics were able to square political divisions between states with social, cultural and religious cross-pollination (not cross-contamination). We can be both European and English, as long as we do not force monochrome divisions. Our history teaches us that.