Anti-Catholicism: Moderate and Militant

It is always a pleasure to read a book which makes your brain race with ideas and causes you to re-evaluate your own approach to a subject. I experienced that particular pleasure over the past week while reading Adrian Streete’s Apocalypse and Anti-Catholicism in Seventeenth-Century English Drama (Cambridge, 2018), a provocative account of the various roles which anti-Catholic imagery played in the public sphere in early modern England which wears its learning very lightly. Streete considers the role of theatre in the public sphere through detailed readings of John Martson’s, The Dutch Courtesan (1605), Thomas Middleton’s The Lady’s Tragedy (1610), Philip Massinger’s Believe as You List (1631), James Shirley’s The Cardinal (1641), and John Dryden and Nathaniel Lee’s The Duke of Guise (1682). This book is of value to literary scholars intimately familiar with these plays who may well see them in a new light, and those of us (like me) who approach the early modern stage as a hobbyist rather than as expert, but who will find multiple connections here with the anti-Catholicism of their own source material.

We are now accustomed to interpreting the stage as a political forum in the sixteenth and seventeenth century. Two generations of scholars have historicised early modern literary texts to underscore that they must be read in light of with the political and cultural moment in which they were performed in order for us to appreciate their ability to commentate on contemporary debates, mediate trauma and crisis, or critique and counsel a given regime. Streete’s locating of anti-Catholic drama as a decidedly political discourse therefore operates in an established paradigm of literary scholarship. What his study shows us is how varied and flexible anti-Catholicism was in the seventeenth century as a tool of political commentary and counsel. His account of his subject is sensitive to both consistency and nuance: anti-Catholicism is shown to have been used with varying degrees of zeal, oppositional sentiment, and sincerity, but regardless of the specific religious, factional, or party leanings of a given playwright or audience Streete shows that anti-Catholicism was always a potent language with which they thought-through the challenging foreign and domestic situations of their day. Playwrights used anti-Catholic language “for a wide variety of reasons. They might attack, satirise, or modify a particular political view; mediate between competing political ideologies; defend a particular political faction or religion from attack; comment on court politics; explore the utility of prophecy; interrogate monarchy, especially in its European context; or defend parliament” (20). 

These various uses of anti-Catholicism were tied together by apocalyptic interpretations of history, which Streete outlines in chapter 1. Here the ways in which multiple apocalyptic traditions – classical, Christian, and popular – were developed in the seventeenth century to help contemporaries think-through problems of state is shown in clear and precise detail. Critical to the moral force which apocalyptic anti-Catholicism possessed for protestants was the longstanding associations between imperial thought and apocalyptic interpretation. The idea that the end of the world would be signalled in part by the rise of a Universal Emperor whose powers of renovatio would reform corruption in both spiritual and temporal realms before the second coming was particularly important. This legend helped to invest the English Reformation with apocalyptic significance. The Royal Supremacy which emerged from the break from Rome in 1533/4 positioned the English monarch as an “emperor” in order to justify its claims to jurisdiction over both church and state, and the Tudor dynasty subsequently made much of imperial iconography and rhetoric. Doing so presented the fight against Roman Catholic usurpation – first against the jurisdiction of princes and subsequently over the word – as an act of renovatio, and accorded the English monarchy eschatological significance in many quarters of protestant thought and writing. When Catholicism became more militant in Europe during the seventeenth century these eschatological expectations placed the Stuart monarchy in a difficult relationship with many parts of its people: the latter saw opposition to Papal, Habsburg, and latterly French superiority as a duty of the English crown, and Stuart reluctance to live up to the ideal of leading a militant, international protestantism in the service of renovatio caused strains in church and state, and between rival conceptions of national identity. Streete builds on important historical scholarship by Jason White, Anthony Milton, and Thomas Cogswell here. His subsequent chapters argue that the playwrights he studies utilised this commonplace apocalyptic anti-Catholic language in order to navigate, discuss, and contest the scope of monarchical power caused by competing ideals of “Protestant England” within the Stuart church and state.

The significance of this for readers of this blog is it shows anti-Catholicism to have been a common rhetorical device, ideology, and world-view for both moderates and militants in the seventeenth century. Anti-Catholicism was “a common language for various stripes of religious [and political] opinion” and, as such, became “a flexible and sophisticated discourse capable of considerable political nuance” (23). The binary nature of its language and imagery (which rested on Revelation’s extreme contrasts between darkness and light, and truth and falsehood) often tricks scholars to interpret anti-Catholicism as exceptionally zealous or vitriolic by default. This in turn leads us to presume that it was more often than not the preserve of oppositional or radical religious and political groups. Although it was certainly a commonplace of protest against the Stuart crown, Streete shows us that anti-Catholicism was equally used by friends and defenders of the regime. His consideration of Massinger’s Believe As You List (1631) is significant here. This played responds to the political and religious tensions in the early years of Charles I’s reign and comments on conflicts within the regime about foreign policy. Charles’s failure to live up to the expectations of militant protestantism by intervening in the Thirty Years’ War to defend protestant interests in Europe had caused strains with parliament, who saw this rejection of the English monarch’s imperial role of renovatio as denting national pride. These strains bled into other tensions during the late 1620s between conflicting understandings of the boundaries of parliamentary liberties and royal prerogative which led to accusations that Charles was an arbitrary, “popish” monarchy in the wake of the crisis of 1629 which ushered in Charles’s period of personal rule (in which he did not call Parliament for 11 years). The rise of an equally “popish” branch of Arminian, anti-Calvinist protestantism within the English church only added to resistance to the monarchy, and led to a public downplaying of the apocalyptic anti-Catholicism which had been an important ideological point of unity in the church since the Reformation. Massinger’s play shows us that anti-Catholic language still had political potency despite its official downgrading, however, albeit in ways which were more moderate than radical. Streete shows that Massinger’s treatment of the apocalyptic figure Antiochus – at times a reference to both Charles and Ferdinand II (whose election as Holy Roman Emperor had triggered the Thirty Years’ War) – served as a form of moderate criticism of both Charles and his critics. Antiochus is a deeply flawed figure in the play, and this is a “moderate Protestant reflection on what happens when imperial apocalyptic expectations are invested in flawed political figures” (159) like Charles. The renovatio tradition here is presented as futile. In doing so, however, Massinger develops a wider criticism of the imperial kingship which the Caroline regime was keen to appropriate, and presents it as teetering on tyranny. Both sides of the dispute of Caroline foreign policy and political legitimacy are therefore criticised through a play which used apocalyptic anti-Catholic language in an intelligent and sceptical, rather than polemical and de-stabilising, way. Anti-Catholicism is something with which Massinger thinks rather than merely asserts.

Each of the other chapters unpicks the anti-Catholic language in a given play in a similar way. The conclusion develops the insights drawn from the close reading and historicising of each play into a more general thesis about what the relationship between apocalyptic anti-Catholicism and drama tells us about British history more broadly. Surveying the continued presence of anti-Catholic drama in the period 1688-1789, Streete argues that even in an age increasingly attached to professing itself “reasonable”, “tolerant”, and “Enlightened”, anti-Catholic language and ideology continued to play important roles in negotiating and contesting politics in much the same way that it had in the previous century. During this period anti-Catholic drama negotiated the tensions caused by a disconnect between the ideals of the 1688 Revolution and the compromised manner of its implementation. It also responded to the threat to the protestant constitution caused by Jacobitism as a real and present danger to the Williamite and Hanoverian regimes. In this context, plays with anti-Catholic plots which teeter on the hyperbolic or fantastic to us must be understood as “not simply the paranoid warning[s] of […] anti-Catholic fanatics who see plots at any turn. They are the product of a political culture where the hegemony of the Protestant polis is anything but secure”. And herein lies the key point. Apocalyptic anti-Catholicism may be associated with bigotry to us, but it was reasonable to contemporaries and as such intrinsically associated with the birthpangs of the modern state. This, above all else, is what the polemical visions of Catholicism were wrestling with in a period during which the ideal of the protestant state was based upon the rejection of Roman tyranny and universal monarchy. Anti-Catholicism is not something which we can dismiss precisely because it was so intimately tied with the making of our modern state: “the roots of what we presently call the United Kingdom emerge[d] from [a] decidedly troublesome religious soil” (261). Anti-Catholicism is inherent in modern British history.

This study has the potential to make a much larger contribution to our understanding of the roles of anti-Catholicism in English culture between the reigns of Henry VIII and William III. It really set me thinking. The underlying reason anti-Catholic discourse proved so useful in helping seventeenth century playwrights and audiences to negotiate and contest confessional and political issues, Streete tells us, is because “popery” articulated anxieties about monarchy, the limits and strains of political authority, and the meaning of national identity.

This is undoubtedly true. Seventeenth century English/British protestants had good reasons to be anxious about “popery”, and understanding that anti-Catholicism was not a hysterical reaction or wholly irrational world-view, but rather one which developed from a series of specific political, cultural, and religious tensions, is now a truism of our approach to the topic. Anxieties about the unfinished nature of the English Reformation had been prevalent among hotter protestants since 1559 – the Church of England, many worried, was a half-reformed, “popish” church, and the nation had spurned the opportunity offered by God’s providence to build New Jerusalem. In the face of a strident Counter Reformation Catholicism in the seventeenth century – which saw the 30 Years’ War significantly scale-back protestant territories and was booked ended by two Catholic superpowers, Spain and France – these anxieties about the credentials and security of English protestant nationhood were exacerbated and, as Jonathan Scott has shown, provoked a series of constitutional crises in which the nature of political and religious liberty, and the respective powers of parliament and monarchy, were re-defined under the mantle of safeguarding the nation from “popery”.

Alongside the Reformation and the shadow of Catholic Europe, that anxiety had a third strand, however: the strength of Catholicism within England. A generation of scholarship (Peter Lake, Michael Questier, Alexandra Walsham, Gabriel Glickman, and others) has shown us that far from the older image of a spiritually moribund and politically quiescent faith, English Catholicism was a strident, transnational, and dedicated community capable of contesting the historical, political, and religious claims on which the protestant Reformations – and the state which had emerged from them – were built well into the eighteenth century. The Reformation(s) in England is now presented as a non-linear, multifaceted, and multifarious phenomenon which resulted in religious pluralism rather than a monolithic “Protestant England” and in which all claims to political and religious authority by the state were contested by protestant non-conformists and Catholics. Catholics may have moved from monopoly to minority over the course of the sixteenth century, but that they were not a spent political, religious, or cultural force is surely part of the reason that anti-Catholicism had the potency to articulate multiple views in the public sphere which Streete’s superb study shows it to have done.

Consequently, anti-Catholicism is perhaps best studied as a discourse which helped English protestants to negotiate and contest relationships between themselves and with their fellow (and often rival) Christians. Seeing it as a language which shaped relationships between Anglican and Dissenter, conformist and non-conformists, and (perhaps) Catholic and Protestant is one way in which we might begin to fully understand its prevalence and potency in early modern society as a moral language variously co-opted by different groups to justify conflicting political and religious points of view. Streete’s demonstration that it was common to both radicals and moderates during all political crises of the seventeenth century provides an excellent model for how this broader study of the topic might be conducted.