Posts Tagged ‘Counter-Reformation’

Scorn not the least

February 21, 2017

Today is the anniversary of the death of St Robert Southwell, poet, priest, and martyr.


WHERE wards are weak and foes encount’ring strong,
Where mightier do assault than do defend,
The feebler part puts up enforcèd wrong,
And silent sees that speech could not amend.
Yet higher powers must think, though they repine,
When sun is set, the little stars will shine.

While pike doth range the seely tench doth fly,
And crouch in privy creeks with smaller fish ;
Yet pikes are caught when little fish go by,
These fleet afloat while those do fill the dish.
There is a time even for the worm to creep,
And suck the dew while all her foes do sleep.

The merlin cannot ever soar on high,
Nor greedy greyhound still pursue the chase ;
The tender lark will find a time to fly,
And fearful hare to run a quiet race :
He that high growth on cedars did bestow,
Gave also lowly mushrumps leave to grow.

In Aman’s pomp poor Mardocheus wept,
Yet God did turn his fate upon his foe ;
The lazar pined while Dives’ feast was kept,
Yet he to heaven, to Hell did Dives go.
We trample grass, and prize the flowers of May,
Yet grass is green when flowers do fade away.

This poem introduced me to the word “mushrump”, for which I am grateful. Southwell was a contemporary of Shakespeare and Donne, and, by my reckoning, is the second greatest Jesuit poet. He was executed under Elizabeth I on 21 February 1595, for the crime of treason (viz. for being a priest on English soil). Read more about him here.

St Robert Southwell, pray for us.

Reynolds: St Nicholas Owen

October 11, 2014

St Nicholas Owen
Priest-Hole Maker
Tony Reynolds
(Gracewing, 2014)
200 p.

The plight of Catholics in England during the tumultuous generations that followed Henry VIII’s self-investment of ecclesiastical authority has been a long-standing area of interest for me, and, of the many Catholic recusants who suffered and struggled through that period, St Nicholas Owen has long been a subject of particular personal interest. In most treatments of his historical period, covering the last few decades of Elizabeth I’s reign and the first few years of James I’s — roughly 1580-1610 — he appears only as a peripheral figure, fascinating but furtive. I was therefore delighted to see this recently published biography devoted to him.

Nicholas was from a staunch, working-class Catholic family in Oxford. As an adult he was, for nearly two decades, a special assistant to Fr. Henry Garnet, the Jesuit Superior in England. This, of course, at a time when merely being a Jesuit priest on English soil was sufficient grounds for arrest and execution. Nicholas was a layman (probably), and he was widely regarded among the Jesuits and the Catholic recusants as a man of discretion and trustworthiness. He was also a carpenter and a mason, and his principal claim to fame is as the probable architect of many of the most cunningly designed secret hiding places built into the homes of Catholic recusants. All of that romantic tradition of old English manor houses with sliding panels, false floors, pivoting beams, and rotating bookshelves owes much to St. Nicholas, and has its roots in the real, and decidedly unromantic, peril faced by priests of the time. The country homes of wealthy Catholic families served as harbours and safehouses for the priests ministering clandestinely to Catholics, but they were subject to sudden search by government-funded “priest hunters”. If a priest was present in the home at the time of a search, he would, if possible, retreat into a hiding place — a “priest-hole” — and wait out the search, sometimes for as long as 8 or 10 days. Nicholas’ ingenious priest-hole designs were credited with saving the lives of many Catholics, both priests and laymen, over a period of several decades.

In 1606 Nicholas was arrested in a series of general raids upon Catholic homes during the fallout from the Gunpowder Plot. When the authorities realized who they had captured, they had him tortured for information in the Tower of London. Records of these interrogations still exist, and in this book Reynolds does a nice job of showing just how little useful intelligence Nicholas yielded up under duress. After several days of torture his long-standing hernia burst and he died in the hands of his interrogators; the authorities put out a story about his having committed suicide, but Reynolds does a good job picking that story apart. St Nicholas Owen was canonized in 1970 by Pope Paul VI as one of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales. His particular feast day is 22 March.

Readers who do not know much about this absorbing period of English and Catholic history would, I expect, find this little volume fascinating. Reynolds does a good job introducing the main people within Nicholas’ world, and although the focus is on Nicholas himself, Reynolds is able to tell the broad story of the Jesuit mission through those crucial years. He also gives a concise but well-judged overview of the historical background which led to the straitened circumstances in which Nicholas and his Jesuit friends were forced to operate. On the other hand, those who, like me, have previously read some of the first person accounts surviving from this period, such as those written by Fr. John Gerard and Fr. Oswald Tesimond, will find much of the story familiar. Even in this case, however, Reynolds filled in some details drawn from official government records that I did not remember having seen before. There have been a few other books published in recent years covering some of the same territory — such as Michael Hodgetts’ Secret Hiding Places, Alice Hogge’s God’s Secret Agents, and Jessie Childs’ God’s Traitors — but I appreciated Reynolds’ rather more forthright admiration for Nicholas and sympathy with his cause. It’s a very nice little book.

Related Book Notes:

Duffy: Fires of Faith

May 31, 2011

Fires of Faith
Catholic England under Mary Tudor
Eamon Duffy (Yale, 2009)
263 p.

Mary Tudor’s short reign (1553-1558) has not been much admired. She attempted to reverse the religious changes wrought by Henry VIII and Edward VI, but her reforms were abandoned by her successor, Elizabeth I, and ultimately came to nothing, or next to nothing. And, it is said, her reforms themselves were badly conceived, poorly executed, and — speaking of execution — morally reprehensible: more than 280 people were burned at the stake for their religious beliefs during her reign. She is known to history as “Bloody Mary”.

In this book Eamon Duffy, a distinguished historian of late medieval and early modern English religion, attempts to rehabilitate Mary’s reputation. He re-examines the strategy conceived by Mary and her advisors, especially Cardinal Pole, to combat Protestantism, and he re-assesses the evidence for the plan’s success or failure. Had the effort been limited to burning heretics, we should find nothing to admire, but Duffy demonstrates that in fact the counter-reformation program was multi-faceted. It included a renewed emphasis on seminary training and effective preaching, publication of tracts and books aimed at correcting the errors of the Protestants, replacement of bishops by capable and articulate men loyal to the Catholic faith and the papacy, restoration of Catholic liturgy and devotion, re-furnishment of the churches that had been stripped and looted during Edward’s reign, and a renewed focus on the centrality of the Blessed Sacrament and the papacy to Christian faith.

Duffy also argues that, by and large, these reforms were quite successful, and would have resulted in a significant restoration of Catholic faith and practice in England had they been able to continue. Mary’s death brought an end to that possibility. Even so, the Marian initiatives during those few years gave shape and confidence to the Catholic recusant movement under Elizabeth, and it also had a considerable influence on the continental counter-reformation.

The most reprehensible aspect of Mary’s reign was, of course, the policy of burning intransigent Protestants. Duffy partly exonerates the authorities by demonstrating the great lengths to which they would go to avoid passing the death sentence, especially for lay people. Those who were executed sometimes appeared to actually want to die for their faith, and were openly provocative of and belligerent towards the authorities — and some of them were, I think it must be said, almost certainly mentally ill. This of course does not excuse the burnings, but it does signify that they were not all carried out in a spirit of bloodthirsty remorselessness.

Modern historians have tended to regard the Marian burnings as both morally disgusting — evidence of the backward, “medieval” mindset of Catholics — and as counter-productive, for, it was argued, the executions were more likely to inflame the hatred of the people against the regime than to effect a widespread re-conversion back to Catholicism. The most controversial and provocative claim that Duffy makes is that this latter expectation is false. He argues instead that, however it may offend our sensibilities, the policy of burning heretics was successful at combating heresy, and this was so simply because there was considerable agreement at the time that burning was a fitting punishment for heresy. Protestants, of course, did not agree that they should be burned; on the contrary, they thought it a suitable end for Catholics, but the point is that they thought it a suitable end. (Under Elizabeth, the shoe was placed on the other foot, and hundreds of Catholics were executed for their faith, though usually by strangling, disembowelling, and dismembering rather than by burning.)

It is difficult for me to judge the extent to which Duffy restores a fair portrait of Mary Tudor. Fires of Faith is written as a contribution to a long and ongoing conversation, yet this is the only part of that conversation that I have heard. Much of his argumentation is directed at changing the mind of readers who hold particular views about the period. The reigning presumption about Mary’s reign, says Duffy, is that it was saturated by incompetence. Since I do not hold that view, at least not in a considered way, I soon learned that I was not in the book’s target audience. My general impression is that Duffy raises many interesting points, and that his position is defensible, but, by the nature of the case, it is hard to present a true knock-down argument. His rehabilitation of Cardinal Pole, who has often been regarded as an incompetent and ineffective leader, is perhaps the most convincing part of the book.