What is it all about?

It all started with a question. “Adam”, came the frustrated enquiry of a particularly keen undergraduate during the early stages of their dissertation, “I have been wondering: what exactly was ‘popery’? It seems to be so……..muddy”.

The last word was left to hang in the air of my office as I was faced with the great joy and certain terror of teaching – the startling ability of young people to ask questions which reveal a glaring level of ignorance in those who are supposed to be teaching them. “Mmmm”, I began in a bid for time (never a sign that the answer which follows will lead us down a path marked CLARITY), “well, it was many things to many people” I tried (realising as I spoke that beginning an answer with a cliché is never an encouraging sign).

What followed was a monologue as long as it was unhelpful. I explained that “popery” began life as a product of Reformation polemic against the Roman Church and meant either papal tyranny over princes, or error, superstition, and idolatry in the Catholic Church as understood by Protestants, or both; that it soon mutated into Puritan attacks on the English Church, and that “popery” did not always therefore relate to what was exactly Catholic; that by the 1570s “papist” was synonymous with “traitor” as one who recognised papal supremacy over the church (and thus questioned Royal Supremacy and monarchical power); that in the early-seventeenth century – and increasingly throughout that century – it referred to absolute forms of government (in a manner equated with the papacy and Louis XIV of France), which were seen as tyrannous in many quarters of political thought and agitations about the rights of parliament, and that “popery” was therefore levelled against the Stuart crown as much as it was the Catholic Church; and that by the eighteenth century it could mean simply unreason in the face of Enlightenment assaults on and redefinitions of religion as rational. “Of course”, I finished, “after that it becomes associated with Jacobitism, the French, and then the Irish in the nineteenth century due to immigration abroad and sectarianism at home. But that is after the period of your dissertation”.

Pausing for breath, I added, nervously: “Does that help?”

“Not really”, the student fired back, looking even more confused. “I’d gotten that far from the reading. What I’m unclear about is what actually ties those things together? What makes ‘popery’ popery? There is no constant that I can see”.

Copyright of the Trustees of the British Museum

Copyright of the Trustees of the British Museum

At this point we both realised that I didn’t know. I also realised that I really should know, and that working on the topic had the potential to make important developments in our understanding of British history across multiple centuries – anti-popery, after all, was a central ideology of Englishness (and subsequently Britishness) – for centuries.

The origins of this network – which has been generously funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) – thus date from a moment of student-induced panic. It is an attempt to work through the problem of popery in British history from a range of scholarly perspectives (historical, literary, psychological). I was heartened that historians, literary scholars, and scholars of political thought from across the UK, Europe, America, and beyond, and whose expertise spanned the 16th to the 20th centuries, were keen to be involved. Together, we will be trying to answer two questions:

  • 1) What was popery? How – and why – did it change across the centuries of British History?;

  • 2) What role(s) did it play in that history?

It has quickly become apparent that question two is massive. Anti-popery has been given a role in pretty much all major political events in British history from the 16th to the 19th century. But what was the nature of that role? Was it a cause of events like the Civil Wars, Glorious Revolution, or Gordon Riots, or a catalyst serving other, more substantial, factors? And is there any constant in the role(s) played by anti-popery across those centuries?

As I discussed this with colleagues it became clear that a history of anti-popery would become even bigger still. There has been a lot of good work on anti-popery at specific moments of British history – the Reformation, in the reign of Charles I, during the Civil Wars, during the Restoration, in response to Jacobitism, during the evangelical movement of the 19th century, in response to Irish immigration, and during the sectarianism of 20th century Ireland and Scotland. The limitation, however, is that this is all very atomised. Scholarship which has analysed anti-popery in specific periods has not led to wider work on anti-popery in British history as a whole. How should we make the leap into this bigger topic? And will doing so produce a “British” account of anti-popery, or were their distinctly “English”, “Scottish”, “Welsh”, and “Irish” traditions of anti-popery? The more scholars who contacted me, the more I realised that I didn’t know, and the bigger the questions became. Was British anti-popery actually “British” or merely a species of European anti-popery? From the 17th century it clearly interacted with anti-popery in America; and from the 18th with anti-popery in other parts of the British Empire. The network will ask how we can write a history of ant-popery which adequately takes these various instances of anti-popery into account.

Copyright of the Trustees of the British Museum

Copyright of the Trustees of the British Museum

Enthused – and more than a little daunted – by a summer spent reading around the subject in centuries beyond my research expertise, and corresponding with scores of scholars on the subject, I returned to anti-popery with my keen undergraduate in the first meeting of the next academic year. I gave them an updated spiel about how we might unpick their questions “what was popery?” and signed-off with an enthusiastic “so, it’s a good question, but not one I am sure that I – or anyone – can answer properly. It’d make an excellent dissertation topic, though”. 

There was a pause. The student then realised that I had meant “a good dissertation, for them”. Wide-eyed, panicked, and recoiling in their seat they rebuffed the offer with a scoff: “sounds more like a life’s work to me, Adam”. Smiling, they looked at me with real a potent mixture of enthusiasm and excitement and said, “I’ve been binge-watching Game of Thrones over the summer, and I’ve decided that I want to do my dissertation on something to do with the Wars of the Roses!!”

A little piece of me died inside.