Report: Anti-Catholicism in 19th Century Britain

This workshop took place in the salubrious confines of 2.49 Armstrong Building at Newcastle University, a space which doubles up as a teaching room and a Classics library and is affectionately referred to by our undergraduates as “Hogwarts”. It was organised by Network members Adam Morton and Joan Allen in conjunction with the Centre for Nineteenth Century Studies at Durham University, who sponsored the event. Generous funding from the “Ideas and Beliefs” research strand in History, Classics, and Archaeology at Newcastle made the event possible, and the day was expertly chaired by Hugh Macleod, who led us through several hours of questions and discussion with aplomb! Joan and Adam would like to express their deep gratitude to Hugh.

The 19th century was one of the high watermarks of anti-Catholicism in British history. Although the conventional view that there was a lull in anti-Catholic opinion between the Gordon Riots (1780) and Catholic Emancipation (1829) was questioned throughout the workshop, it is undoubtedly the case that events like Emancipation of 1829 (by which the penal code against Catholics was largely removed), the Maynooth Grant (a grant made by the British government for Catholic education in Ireland), Papal Aggression (the establishment of a clerical hierarchy and diocese in Britain by Pope Pius IX), the Oxford Movement, and, from the mid-century, growing Irish immigration, saw Catholicism become a live cultural and political issue. That anti-Catholicism spiked as a result is therefore unsurprising.

That spike has been subject to several explanations, including the growth of Protestant evangelism as an international movement (John Wolffe), the emergence of the Orange order across the globe (Donald MacRaild), and the changing social and economic conditions of the mid-century (Denis Paz). Current research focusses on anti-Catholicism as an international phenomenon, either in response to Irish immigration across the English-speaking world, the cultural wars of post-Enlightenment Europe, or in response to the first Vatican Council (1869-70). The notion, commonplace amongst British historians, that anti-Catholicism was an ideology essential to “Britishness” is therefore called into question. Discussion at this workshop stressed that relations with America, Canada, Australia, and Europe clearly conditioned anti-Catholicism in Britain. The question of whether there was anything distinctly “British” about anti-Catholicism, or if it was simply part of a wider phenomenon, remains unresolved. If there was any agreement, it is that this question is ripe for further research!

Our first speaker was Jonathan Bush from Ushaw College, whose expertise lies in local manifestations of anti-Catholicism in the North East of England. His paper explored the extent to which anti-Catholicism can be said to have been "national" when its local manifestations were varied; and outlined similarities and differences between the anti-Catholicism of different political groups (Liberal and Tory) and religious denominations (Anglican and nonconformists). Bush demonstrated that outside of the campaign for civil rights, liberals and non-conformists in the North East were not more tolerant than their Tory and Anglican contemporaries: their anti-Catholicism on many issues (such as Maynooth and the establishment of convents) was vehement and in many ways mainstream. Nonetheless, political circumstances did result in anti-Catholicism having distinct colourings. Radicals, for instance, co-opted anti-Catholicism and anti-clericalism in support of Garibaldi – democracy here was contrasted with papal tyranny.

Bush then discussed Hartlepool as a case study. He noted first that its virulent anti-Catholicism might be usefully compared with that of industrial towns in Antebellum America. Using local newspapers to show that political stance shaped how anti-Catholicism in local political disputes, Bush nevertheless pointed to the fact that aggressive anti-Catholic “fake news” did not seem to have affected local Catholics all that much. Catholic communities paid little attention to anti-Catholicism, which did not hinder the practice of their faith. This discrepancy requires further explanation, Bush suggests. He closed his paper with a call for us to pay more attention to the local. Doing so, he suggested, is the best way to see how anti-Catholicism affected ordinary people. The trend for wider perspectives which transnational approaches to the subject have fostered has enriched our understanding in some ways, but have hampered it in others. Bush concluded by suggesting that a study of anti-Catholicism in one place over the course of a century might allow us to better see anti-Catholicism in action and give us a sense of its contours and malleability.

Our second speaker – Andrew Atherstone, Wycliffe Hall, Oxford – also discussed local manifestations of anti-Catholicism. The focus of his paper was the campaign across England to erect monuments to local heroes and martyrs of the sixteenth-century Reformations between 1840 and 1910. Like Bush, Atherstone demonstrated that anti-Catholicism was appropriated according to local agendas: in the history of monuments we do not see one map which covers all of England, but rather a series of overlapping and competing stories. Atherstone illustrated his presentation with lots of images of the monuments in question – many of which were imposing in pomp and stature! – and demonstrated how despite their claims to represent a communal honouring of a local martyr, they were often the product of considerable dispute and contestation.

Demonstrating that the thrust of this memorialisation was a sense that “Protestant England” was endangered and in need of protection, Atherstone concluded with three points. First, that memory is political and shapes the past in the image of the present. Second, that the movement to remember the Reformation crescendoed with the Oxford Movement and its high-profile conversions in the late-century – by 1910 local communities were more keen to memorialise their more recent dead. Thirdly, that monuments were inherently “plastic” in meaning: those who subscribed to them wanted to remember different elements of the Reformation or the martyrs in question for different reasons; the construction of monuments thus raised debates about the acceptability of the imagery used to do so; and the legacy of the Reformation was contested here according to conflicts between church and chapel. Discussion focussed on the extent to which we might usefully understand anti-Catholicism as a “tradition”. Wolffe and Paz have both been suspicious of that term, as it implies that anti-Catholicism was unthinking or static, a knee-jerk form of prejudice. Did this use of Marian martyrs in the nineteenth century as a response to fears about contemporary “popery” suggest that there were core components of anti-Catholicism dormant in British culture? We have a tendency to focus on the changing nature of prejudice, but discussion of Atherstone’s paper suggests that we need to focus on how memory permits it to survive. The relationship between “memory” and “tradition” is a complex one.

Harry Cocks, from Nottingham University, focussed on how traditional aspects of anti-Catholicism – its recourse to homoerotic and lascivious imagery – changed in significance from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century. Cocks demonstrated that treatments of “monkish” sodomy, prostitution, and other illicit sexual practices in anti-Catholic polemic were more than mere invective and need to be treated seriously. Tracing its origins to Reformation commentary on Revelation – in which Rome was to become Sodom and whoredom was a mark of Antichrist – Cocks went on to show that sodomy became a rhetoric through which religious conflict was understood in the sixteenth and seventeenth century; and that this significance had important consequences for how the rhetoric of sodomy was used an received in the nineteenth. In one sense we see the repetition and re-cycling of a tradition – stressing fears about the corrupting influence of priests on women in the confessional re-surfaced, as did the polemical connections between clerical celibacy and sodomy. These connections were commonplace, and even used by moderates. In the 1830s, however, this language helped to develop concepts of obscenity and pornography and, as a result, anti-Catholic works were censored. Here, then, we find anti-Catholicism in an unlikely place: being involved in social mores and legal norms concerning sexuality and obscenity. The rhetoric of sodomy was traditional; its reception, novel.

Novelty was also a theme in our final paper, presented by Sarah Roddy from Manchester University, in which we learned that anti-Catholicism shaped popular attitudes to money and charity. As Roddy noted, “you will find anti-Catholicism in the most curious places”! That it could shape the minutae of people’s attitudes in this way is a testament to how quietly pervasive it had become in British/Irish culture by the nineteenth century. Roddy’s work focusses on the consequences of Irish immigration in the nineteenth century. She traces the effects of the Irish diaspora on the various churches in Ireland, the attempts to convert the Irish to Protestantism, and the way in which the Catholic Church influenced the economic culture of Ireland. This final aspect was the focus of Roddy’s paper. She demonstrated that the Catholic clergy’s attempts to raise money for education and other charitable activities was readily interpreted through the lens of anti-Catholicism: Catholic clerics used piety as a mask for avarice; this was a testament to their excessive authority over the Catholic laity; any advance in Catholic fortunes detracted from Protestant ones; and that their greed sapped money from the population and stunted Irish economic development was a cliché of the late-nineteenth century. Roddy used the fascinating case study of lotteries used by the Catholic Church to raise money in England. MPs who campaigned against these lotteries did so not because gambling was immoral, damaging, or illegal, but because they directly helped the Catholic Church: a campaign against gambling, of all things, was conducted in anti-Catholic terms.

General discussion was as wide-ranging as the papers were rich. Three themes emerged as significant, however. First, the question of labels: what – if anything – is the difference between “anti-Catholicism” and “anti-popery” and how do they relate to “sectarianism”? It was suggested that tracing the use of these terms in the nineteenth (and perhaps even eighteenth) century would be highly useful. The question of when anti-Catholicism became sectarianism, the role of Irish immigration in this process (by transporting sectarian violence/prejudice), and what the dividing lines between the two might be were all raised as important questions which a longue duree history of anti-Catholicism must address. Second was the issue of decline (in England, at least) – did anti-Catholic sentiment drop off towards the end of the nineteenth century, and if so was this tied to a decline in the extent to which “Protestant” was key attribute of national identity and patriotism? Third, speakers and delegates agreed that a crucial issue is to uncover anti-Catholicism at its most banal: we have a tendency to study spikes in feeling and sensational events, but to really understand a prejudice, it was felt that we needed to know how it operated in a less dramatic, quieter ways at the point of assumptions about people’s ideas and beliefs about the world.

It is certainly not a reflection on the quality of these papers that we concluded discussions with a call for a history of the humdrum! Many thanks to Jonathan, Andrew, Harry, Sarah and Hugh for providing such stimulating discussion.