05 November 2012

Remember, Remember

A couple of years ago I had rather a long discussion with an evangelical Anglican friend of mine, a mathematician of Calvinist inclinations, about Foxe's Book of Martyrs and perhaps the most famous passage in that dubious old tome, this being his account of the execution of bishops Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley on 16 October 1555. I was trying to explain that Latimer's celebrated exhortation to Ridley was almost certainly a pious fiction.

Play the Man...
Most of you know the line, I expect. I first learned it when I read Ray Bradbury's brilliant Fahrenheit 451 eight or nine years back:
"They crashed the front door and grabbed at a woman, though she was not running, she was not trying to escape. She was only standing, weaving from side to side, her eyes fixed upon a nothingness in the wall as if they had struck her a terrible blow upon the head. Her tongue was moving in her mouth, and her eyes seemed to be trying to remember something, and then they remembered and her tongue moved again:
'Play the man, Master Ridley; we shall this day light such a candle, by God's grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out.'"
What a line. What a cry to confidence. What panache. What rot.

The first edition of Foxe's Book of Martyrs carries no trace of this line, which seems, in any case, a tad eloquent for a man about to be burned alive -- it certainly doesn't really tally with Latimer's behaviour and words as otherwise related by Foxe. The account of the executions in Foxe's first edition was clearly based on the detailed eyewitness accounts given him by Augustine Bernher and George Shipside, both of whom were close associates of Ridley and Latimer. 

Absent from the 1563 edition, but present in the 1578 one, the question is how did it come about? Granted, Foxe sought for further information when expanding his original text, but he'd clearly gone to great effort in his first edition to get his account of Latimer and Ridley's executions as accurate as possible, and it's difficult to see why Bernher and Shipside would have refrained from sharing this detail with him, were it authentic.

It seems that somebody must have provided Foxe with this surely fictional detail at some point between the publications of his first and second editions, with Foxe eagerly accepting it as true, given how his description of the executions already echoed how the Apostolic father St Polycarp of Smyrna met his fate; Eusebius' account of Polycarp's death records that a voice had cried out "Be strong, Polycarp, and play the man."

Written by the Winners...
Foxe is a tricky source for historians, as it's very clear that it was written as propaganda, and indeed is a classic case of history being written by the victors -- which isn't always the way, for what it's worth -- and recently-persecuted victors at that. It's ultimately no more trustworthy than, say, a history of British involvement in Ireland as published by the IRA would be. 

The first English edition was published under state auspices a handful of years into Elizabeth's reign as a way of promoting the independence of Elizabethan England by showing that the Catholic Church was a brutal and cruel Antichrist. Foxe had begun work some years earlier, initially relying on propagandist tracts, designed to encourage opposition to the regime of Mary I, as his earliest sources. 

Unfortunately, Foxe was systematically used as state propaganda for centuries afterwards. As Diarmaid McCullough says in Reformation:
"From his various refuges in the exile communities abroad Foxe began gathering material which placed England Protestant sufferings against the background of the international fight with Antichrist. As Acts and Monuments, its English version first published in 1563 in the safety of Elizabeth’s reign and quickly nicknamed ‘Foxe’s Book of Martyrs’, this massive and repeatedly expanded compilation became one of the cornerstones of English Protestant identity, a potent reminder of the militant character of the English Reformation."
After swelling to a monstrous size, the book was edited down by 1700 into an even more sensational treatise on the evils of Popery, luridly illustrated folios being preserved in England's churches in order to convince the English people of the evils of Catholicism.

Foxe reveals a huge amount of important stuff and is invaluable as a carefully-controlled source for sixteenth-century England. The thing is though, that he's far from impartial in his melodramatic accounts, he does his best to gloss over the fact that the persecutions were -- bizarrely and appallingly to our eyes -- anything but unpopular, he exaggerates the presence of weeping crowds crying in sympathy at the public executions, he plays down the extraordinary extent to which the persecuting authorities sought to persuade rather than convict most Protestants, he eagerly repeats obviously biased and unsubstantiated claims, and he conspicuously omits the martyrdoms of those he presumably felt deserved execution for their beliefs. 

He also egregiously passes over inconvenient facts like Ridley having supported Jane Grey and preached from the pulpit that both Mary and Elizabeth were bastards who were not entitled to inherit the throne, or that Latimer's hands weren't entirely free from the ashes of burnt heretics.

For all that, Foxe reveals a lot incidentally and despite his his own intentions, his work inadvertently demonstrating that popular support for the martyrs was often limited, and that the authorities frequently went to extraordinary lengths to try to save prisoners from the flames. Leaving aside the cynical fact that a repentant heretic was far more valuable than a defiant dead one, from their point of view, the Catholic persecutors were desperate to avoid condemning Protestants to death, as they believed that if they executed unrepentant heretics, they were effectively condemning them to eternal fire. 

If Mary and Pole hadn't died so soon...
Seemingly Mary received a rapturous welcome when she became Queen -- over opposition from the likes of Ridley -- in July 1553. More than 800 wealthy Protestants -- including Foxe -- fled England, and the Duke of Northumberland recanted his opposition to the Catholic Church after his rebellion was swiftly quashed, spontanteously admitting at the scaffold that his own Protestantism had been an opportunistic sham, motivated by ambition and greed. As early as 1554 it was a standard lament among the Protestants who had fled that the English people and clergy at large had returned to Catholicism, even in the parts of the country where Protestantism had been strongest. 

It doesn't take much to see pointers to the extent to which Mary's reign had returned England to Catholicism. Ten of the 23 bishops she'd inherited from her brother returned to unity with the Catholic Church, and after her death all bar one of her bishops rejected the Elizabethan settlement. More than two thirds of Edward's clergy returned to unity with the Catholic Church under Mary, and while much of this was surely down to simple opportunism, it's telling that many of them retained that allegiance after Mary's death. Indeed, even at the lowest levels of the clergy this was the case. Eamon Duffy, in Fires of Faith: Catholic England under Mary Tudor says it was possible in 1561 to walk from the Surrey border to the Sussex coast, crossing sixteen parishes in every one of which the incumbent had either died of influenza or been deprived of office for refusing to conform to the Elizabethan settlement.

Fires of Faith...
Contrary to popular misconceptions, largely rooted in Foxe's myth-making, Mary's reign was a golden age of Catholic preaching, publishing, and polemical argument, but unfortunately the whole period is unforgiveably tainted by Mary's persecutions of Protestants: more than 280 Protestant men and women were executed in just under four years, from February 1555 to November 1558, the most intense religious persecution of its kind anywhere in sixteenth-century Europe, an era when religious persecution was the done thing. 

Most people back then -- Catholics and Protestants alike -- believed that though regrettable it was sometimes necessary to execute people for their religious views. They believed heresy was worse than sin, that it begat sins and by causing people to sin, led to their damnation. Our eternal souls were at stake, and desperate action had to be taken to stem the heretical tide. It was this attitude that drove Mary I in her campaign against Protestants, and drove Elizabeth I in hers against Catholics.

If I can quote Duffy's Fires of Faith on this one:
"Religious persecution remained a viable government option, frequently resorted to all over Europe, well into the seventeenth century. Nor were barbaric forms of execution going out of fashion, least of all in England. Elizabeth I burned no Catholics, but she strangled, disembowelled, and dismembered more than 200. I should not myself care to allocate marks for brutality between these different methods of slow killing."
And that's not to get into those who were imprisoned or exiled, or the thousands who were slain in the suppression of Catholic revolts such as the Northern rebellion and the first Desmond rebellion, both of which took place in 1569, and the second Desmond rebellion of 1579-1583. Most of those who were executed under Elizabeth were nominally executed for treason, not for heresy, but one cannot really distinguish between the two in the sixteenth century: from the viewpoint of whoever was doing the persecuting, and given the whole question of supremacy, treason and heresy were often synonymous.

The burnings constitute an indelible stain on Mary's reign, and rightly so, but it's about time people started to get their heads around the fact that 'Bloody Mary' was nowhere near as murderous than 'Good Queen Bess'.

The Pearl of York...
In summarising the horrible ways in which Elizabeth had Catholics executed, I'm not sure why Duffy leaves out crushing, that having been the standard Elizabethan punishment for those who refused to plead their case. 

In 1586, for instance, St Margaret Clitherow, a 29-year-old butcher's wife who had converted to Catholicism a dozen or so years earlier, was arrested in York for the crime of having harboured Catholic priests -- a crime, in Elizabethan England, but one that Catholics were driven to, as without priests we cannot have Mass, cannot celebrate the Eucharist in remembrance of him, and share in that sacrament which is the source and summit of Christian life. A mother of three, Margaret refused to plead her case, as doing so would have meant that her children would have been made to testify, and would themselves probably have been tortured.

And so, rather than being tried for harbouring priests, she was executed for her silence. On the morning of Good Friday 1586 she was taken to the tollbooth at York's Ouse Bridge and was stripped naked. A handkerchief was tied across her face, and she was laid down with a sharp rock the size of a man's fist under her spine. A door was placed upon her, and rocks and stones were piled upon this, so that her spine broke and she was crushed to death. 

It took fifteen minutes for her to die.

Her broken carcass was left there for six hours.

Blood begets Blood...
One of Margaret's neighbours was a sixteen-year-old youth named Guy Fawkes who'd been baptised into the Church of England, but had become Catholic as a boy. His mother moved from York to Scotton, roughly thirty miles away, a year or so later.

Nineteen years after Margaret's martyrdom, Guy Fawkes was tortured to reveal his part in a murdeous conspiracy to blow up Parliament and kill King James I, who was hated by Britain's persecuted Catholics over his failure to remove from the Church's throat the State boot Elizabeth had planted there so firmly. Fawkes was sentenced to be hung, drawn, and quartered. 

And tonight people will light bonfires and set off fireworks to celebrate this.

Things, as you'd expect, got even worse for Catholics after the Gunpowder Plot. Shortly afterwards, parliament passed the Popish Recusants Act 1605, pressing the boot down further by -- for example -- barring Catholics from acting as legal guardians or practicing law or medicine, and mandating the receipt of Anglican communion. In 1613 there was even an unsuccessful attempt in Parliament to introduce a law to compel Catholics to wear a red hat, or coloured stockings, just so they'd be immediately identifiable. Legislated oppression against Catholics continued in all manner of ways until Robert Peel and Ireland's own Duke of Wellington gave way to popular pressure led by the Liberator himself, Daniel O'Connell, and pushed through the Catholic Relief Act of 1829. 

Even now, Catholics are technically third-class citizens in Britain, the only people specifically barred in law from even marrying someone who's in the line of succession to the throne. I'm okay with this, though; sure, it's unfair, but it doesn't make that much difference to Catholics' lives in reality. I doubt there are many Catholic schoolgirls who've been heartbroken by the prospect of having to choose between, say, Prince Harry and the Mass.

The bottom line for me is that I don't think we should be pulling threads out of the British Constitution to make a cosmetic change so that Catholics can feel better when in practice we have exactly the same rights as everybody else in Britain.

Things are okay now. The State doesn't approve of us, but it tolerates us. That's good enough, though there are signs that the tide is turning, and I just worry, at times, that that tolerance may ebb, as other groups, historically less oppressed than Britain's Catholics, demand not merely tolerance, but approval. 

But then, people who point this out tend to be misrepresented and barracked as bigots. Strange times. 

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