A lesson for our time from Catholic recusants


Universe Column for January 7th 2006 by David Alton

As society grapples with issues of terror, the inter-face of politics and religion and the effects of alienation and the radicalisation of religious believers, we could do a lot worse than study again the story of English Catholics in sixteenth and seventeenth century Britain.

In a masterly account of those troubled times, Alice Hogge, in “God’s Secret Agents” pieces together the story of a country at war with an unseen enemy – the story of potential traitors, fifth columnists, and divided loyalties. If Norman Tebbit had been able to ask his famous question to Asian immigrants – “which cricket team will you cheer, Pakistan or England? – in the sixteenth century he could have asked  whether Catholics were on the side of Queen Elizabeth or the Pope. It was called the Bloody Question.

By and large, England’s Catholics, who yearned for the country to return to the old faith, were deeply patriotic and loved their country.

If in 1588 the Spanish Armada had successfully disembarked an invasion force, loyalties would undoubtedly have been stretched – but some English Catholics had undoubtedly collaborated with the Spanish – and from everyone’s point of view perhaps it’s just as well that “God blew and they were scattered”.

The dispersal of the Armada was followed by a different kind of invasion.

Scores of young Catholic men slipped out of the country and returned in disguise as Catholic priests. The stories of Edmund Campion, John Gerard, Robert Southwell,

Henry Garnett and the rest are well known. To this very day their personal heroism and courage remains an inspiration. Theirs was a religious mission. Other young men, feeling discriminated against and seeing their families face ruin, became dangerously politicised.

The effect which the faith of the Jesuit and Seminary priests had on their contemporaries – many of whom had become demoralised believers – created a network of resistance throughout the country.

The effect on the authorities was equally dramatic. And their response was to use every organ of the State to wage systematic persecution.

The authorities were appalled to see the level of continuing commitment to the Catholic Church and so they embarked on a series of actions which were designed to demonise Catholics, to destroy their livelihoods, reputations and standing. As crippling fines were imposed many could simply not afford to pay. Those families who refused to conform by attending the services of the Established Church

faced ruin.  Those who could not pay were arrested.

Places like Wisbech Castle became detention centres for Catholics. Conditions were marginally better than some of notorious jails into which Catholics were thrown – the Tower, the Clink, Marshalsea, the Bridewell, Newgate, the Fleet and the rest. They were often left there for years, if they didn’t die first from disease or the

Barbaric tortures inflicted by men like Richard Topcliffe.

Many would end their lives as traitors taken to places like Tyburn to be cruelly executed by being hung drawn and quartered.

As it increasingly became a crime, and Un-English, to be Catholic, the State created a network of informers to counter and root out this pestilence. Your nearest and dearest could become your enemy in a world of spies, pursuivants, informers, and secret hiding holes. Parliamentarians even brought forward measures proposing to remove children over the age of seven from their family homes if their Catholic parents did not conform.

Once it became clear that the most obdurate and stubborn group of non-conformists were the Catholic women of England specific measures were introduced targeting them. Extraordinary women,  like Margaret Clitheroe and Anne Line, were executed for harbouring priests in their homes. Margaret Clitheroe was pressed to death at York. Anne Line was executed at Tyburn – the last woman to suffer under the 1585 Act. Perhaps they were inspired by England’s first martyr, St. Alban, killed in 304 for providing refuge to a Christian priest.

Of course, the more that the Bloody Question was put to Catholics, the more impossible their situation became. Rather than trying to remove the causes of their alienation the State made their situation worse and worse.

And herein lies the moral for our own times.

If Muslims were ever asked to renounce their faith or to compromise their beliefs it would place them in an equally impossible position. There is no substitute for generosity and honest dialogue. Indiscriminate measures which alienate and isolate are generally counter-productive.

What Muslims have to do – and our Catholic history places us in a good position to say this – is to demonstrate that the State has nothing to fear from their religious impulses – and that where people use religion to try and justify terror or crime then  religious leaders will take the lead in explaining that this is not permissible.

Our story tells us that punitive measures and barbarous acts by the State simply feed the very things which frighten us. Our story is also an appeal for patience. Mistrust and bitter divisions are not replaced by tolerance overnight.