REPORT: Trajectories of anti-Catholicism in British History

On 21-22 March 2018 the first workshop in the Anti-Catholic Network took place at Newcastle University. Despite rolls of yellow tape and a range of signs stating “Warning: Asbestos work” covering the door to the room adjacent, our discussions got off to a buoyant and fruitful start. As organiser, I was particularly heartened to see that my two greatest fears were quickly allayed: the IT worked, and the catering arrived on time (and was also, by university standards, surprisingly edible).

Our first session included 4 papers on anti-Catholicism in the 4 major regions of the British Isles. Ireland (Alan Ford), Scotland (Clotilde Prunier), Wales (Paul O’Leary), and England (John Wolffe). These excellent papers set the tone for the entire workshop – and, perhaps, the entire network – leading to a range of discussions about how we might actually write a history of anti-Catholicism which not only covers 5 centuries, but also gives adequate weight to the respective national perspectives of each constituent part of this “British” phenomena. Each speaker introduced us to the difficult issue of “anti-Catholicism” as it related to “anti-popery” and/or “sectarianism” in their country of focus, and took us through the many ways in which anti-Catholic intolerance changed across the centuries. The role of Irish immigration in the nineteenth century was quickly identified as a point of contact; as was the role of print culture in allowing ideas and attitudes to cross boundaries. We recognised that we need to adopt an approach which respects the specificity of anti-Catholicism in each of the 4 nations, but which also captures the ways in which anti-Catholicism in those 4 nations interacted and contrasted at different points in the British past. This sessions was expertly chaired by Anthony Milton, who raised a series of sinewy questions about the nature of the phenomena which we are investigating and pointed us towards an approach which problematized levels of belief which we might term “Anti-Catholic”.

Our next session was a roundtable entitled “Analysing Anti-Catholicism”. This was chaired with considerable aplomb by Andrew Holmes. Here short presentations by John Craig (the role of anti-Catholicism in the English Reformation and in debates about the legality of torture in the late sixteenth century), Aislinn Muller (the political reactions to the 1570 bull which excommunicated Elizabeth I and the legacy of the bull in seventeenth century British politics), Emma Turnbull (the role of anti-Catholicism in shaping reactions to the Thirty Years’ Wars in England during the mid-seventeenth century), Joan Allen (the role of anti-Catholicism in nineteenth century newspapers) and Don MacRaild (the transnational aspects of anti-Catholicism as shaped by the Irish diaspora and the internationalisation of the Orange movement) led into a broader discussion about how we approach anti-Catholicism as a phenomenon in history. It is striking how many historical topics are shaped – to a greater or lesser degree – by anti-Catholicism. Joan Allen’s comments that studying anti-Catholicism is often a way into the history of other things – in her case the history of popular politics in the nineteenth century, as the campaign for Catholic emancipation bled into Chartism and other democratic movements – underscores just how central the phenomenon is to British history. From the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries, the research outlined in this panel showed how anti-Catholic ideology shaped attitudes and opinions in a range of topics – religious, political, social and economic – across the course of British history.

Our second day began with a session led by two social psychologists – Cristian Tileaga and Jovan Byford – on prejudice and conspiracy theories. Cristian introduced us to developments in current literature which stress the ways in which the disciplines of social psychology and history might interact in a fruitful manner: both are concerned with motivation, behaviour, and (increasingly) emotion. For the purpose of this workshop, that exchange falls on how majorities approach (and demonise) minorities. Cristian then introduced us to his own work on prejudice against Roma people in modern Europe. He showed us how approaches by psychologists like Allport and Bauman remain useful in approaching stereotypes and prejudice, but are flawed because they do not adequately explain the stubborn and enduring nature of those phenomenon. For that, he explained, we need an historical perspective: prejudice – he showed – does not primarily reside in the brain, but in society. Cristian showed us how approaches to the discursive aspects of prejudice – the ability of language to shape thought and action – is a hugely rich avenue of investigation into the ways in which prejudice is sustained. Prejudicial language is hugely affective, and helps to create the conditions in which dignity is removed from minorities (a crucial basis for inequality).

Jovan Byford then demonstrated how social psychology and history might work together to understand conspiracy theories. He used contemporary anti-semitism as a means of illustrating this. Anti-semitism no longer rests primarily on stereotypes of Jews, he argued, but on conspiracy theories about their supposed (and fictitious) power in the world or finance and politics. Like Cristian, Jovan stressed how important the discursive aspects of prejudice are for its ability to endure. Conspiracy theories require believes and sceptics to survive: by engaging with the theorists, the latter force believers to adapt the conspiracy and provide further evidence/rhetoric which serves to add fuel to the fire. In discussion it was agreed that many of the rhetorical tropes which Jovan outlined as critical to conspiracy theories – exposure of secret histories, serving the greater good, the all-powerful conspirator with destructive intentions – were prominent in anti-Catholicism from the Reformation on. This, the delegates agreed is an area in need of greater investigation. Would an approach to conspiracy as a discourse help to explain why anti-Catholicism was so enduring and adaptable in centuries on British history?

Our final session was a roundtable on anti-Catholic stereotypes. Here papers by Susan Royal (the problems of labelling Catholic stereotypes “anti-Catholic” in the early Reformation), Carys Brown (the role of anti-Catholic and anti-Puritan stereotypes in the contested political culture which followed the 1689 Act of Toleration), Nailya Shamgunova (the role of the “sodomite” stereotype in early modern travel literature), and Adam Morton (the role of language analysis in studying how stereotypes mutated across time) introduced us to the complex and multifaceted nature of “popery” as an historical phenomenon. Discussion focussed on how points of contact in the appearance of stereotypes – the Jesuit, the plotters, the sexually corrupt, the traitor – actually mask a series of complex changes. Emma Turnbull was quick to alert us to the fact that although a great deal of anti-Catholic discourse is binary (true/false, dark/light, Catholic/Protestant) the way in which it was used in a given context and the meaning which it intended to convey was often far more complicated. Many thanks to our chair Rachel Hammersley, who guided us through a series of complicated methodological problems with a delicate hand.


There were a range of questions and issues which emerged during the workshop which it was felt needed to be investigated more closely. These included:


    • It became apparent in the first panel of the workshop that historians have a tendency to use three terms – “anti-Catholicism”, “anti-popery”, and “sectarianism” – interchangeably. We noted that there are a range of dangers in our doing so: 1) there is a lack of precision about the phenomena which we are investigating; 2) we must account for differences between our terms for this phenomenon and contemporary terms for it; and 3) the subject seems remarkably under-theorised. This, above all else, was recognised as the most pressing issue for us to take “Anti-Catholicism in British History” forward as a subject.

    • A range of sub-questions emerged out of this:

      • Can we write a history of the term “popery”? Would this adequately capture the malleability of the subject? “No popery” is the most commonplace historical term – perhaps we should start with an analysis of this across the centuries.

      • When does criticism of the Catholic Church (during the Reformation or Enlightenment, for example) become “anti-Catholicism” as an ideology? Not all criticism is ideological, so what is the dividing line?

      • When does “anti-Catholicism” become “sectarianism”? Is the latter a social and political manifestation of the former ideology? Or is it more complicated than that?

      • When did Protestant reformers cease to use the term “Catholic” positively? It was noted that sixteenth and early seventeenth century Protestants tried exceptionally hard to appropriate the term “Catholic” for their own churches. It was suggested that tracing the decline of this might be a significant rupture in the history of anti-Catholicism.


    • The question of how anti-Catholicism was sustained across the centuries led us to recognise that representation is a crucial avenue for analysis. Papers by Carys Brown, Emma Turnbull, Nailya Shamungova, Aislinn Murray and Susan Royal were particularly significant in setting the agenda in this regard.

      • We must analyse the reception of anti-Catholicism through stereotypes in a manner which blends the historical, literary, and art historical together

      • We must pay attention to how memory shaped anti-Catholicism in subtle and nuanced ways without falling into the trap of seeing it as a monolithic or unchanging tradition. It was noted that contested memory of a Catholic past in both English and Irish history is a crucial avenue for future research.

      • We must involve scholars in the field of memory studies in our subsequent workshops.  We also agreed that incorporating perspectives from social psychology – particularly those which focus on the discursive aspects of prejudice – will be invaluable to the published outputs of the network.

      • It was agreed that Representation and Memory will be the theme of our third workshop.


    • The question of whether anti-Catholicism is “British” was noted as highly tricky. Papers in our first panel by John Wolffe, Alan Ford, Clotilde Prunier, and Paul O’leary outlined that a four nations approach to the topic is a fruitful one: this allows us to pay due diligence to the specific elements of English, Scottish, Irish and Welsh traditions of anti-Catholicism while noting that the boundaries between these traditions were porous. Consequently each tradition inflected and effected the others. The question then becomes whether this interactions amounts to something which we can term “British”.

    • We also noted three further areas for investigation:

      • 1) The extent to which the history of anti-Catholicism in Britain is indebted to/separate from equivalent traditions in Europe.

      • 2) The problem of America. We noted that in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, in particular, a “British” approach to the phenomenon of anti-Catholicism would necessarily include the relationship with America and other colonies.

      • 3) Transnational approaches. Particularly in studies of nineteenth century anti-Catholicism, the transnational has become the dominant paradigm.

    • These issues will be the focus on our second workshop.


    • Our session on social psychology provoked a very interesting discussion about the extent to which anti-Catholicism is unique as a prejudice/ideology and how closely it can be related to other forms of intolerance. The workshop concluded that a subsequent session drawing parallels between the forms and structures of anti-Catholicism and Islamophobia, racism, and anti-semitism would be very fruitful. Building on our discussions of the roles of stereotypes and conspiracy theories in maintaining these traditions was suggested as one way of doing this. Our fourth workshop will be dedicated to this theme.


The workshop also recognised that there are several gaps in our collective knowledge about the roles played by anti-Catholicism in British history:

  • The early Reformation: Most of our knowledge of anti-Catholicism dates from after 1570. What role(s) did it play in the reigns of Henry VIII or Edward VI in England? How did it shape the reformations in Scotland before 1560? The issue of origins is a crucial one.

  • The Enlightenment: What role did anti-Catholicism play in defining concepts like superstition, reason, liberty, toleration or priest-craft? What role did fears of absolutism play in stimulating discussion of democracy or government?

  • Intellectual History: Was “popery” used as an “other” against which central concepts in the history of ideas were formed?

If you know of anyone working in these areas, please get in touch!