Alternative Histories: Gunpowder, Treason and Plot

We don’t ‘do’ television here at the monastery but a quick skim through Facebook this morning produced a handful of interesting comments on the BBC’s latest period drama, ‘Gunpowder’. As a Catholic of a certain age, I’m familiar with the story of English recusancy; so it was fascinating to read the responses of those who aren’t. It set me thinking about the way in which alternative histories co-exist and the influence they have on succeeding generations.

I have only to see one of the tiny chalices and small Mass stones carried by recusant priests and I am back in the stifling heat of a loft where Mass is said quietly, with one ear always on the alert for danger. I am on the dark seashore waiting for a priest who has slipped across the Channel to bring the sacraments to my kinsfolk, knowing that if he is caught it means certain death. If I am male, I am forbidden a horse worth more than twelve shillings, fined if I do not attend the services of the Church of England, subject to all kinds of petty inconveniences and disabilities. If I am female and want to become a nun, I need a licence from the Bishop of London to be able to go abroad, where the only monasteries for Englishmen and women are. And all this while my fellow countrymen are bursting with self-confidence and creativity, laying the foundations of empire and much that is less controversial which we can glory in today. Yet for me, as for many Catholics, the alternative history, the hidden stream, remains powerful. How does it affect us?

I think, in the first instance, it reminds us that faith is precious and freedom of religion a hard-won blessing not to be taken for granted, that we must be willing to make huge sacrifices to preserve. Sacrifice isn’t a fashionable concept these days, but it is an essential part of the Christian vocabulary. I am not very brave myself, but knowing the sacrifices made by my forebears means I could never lightly give up Catholicism or accept any other form of Christianity, no matter how much I value and appreciate its followers and the insights it has been given. I am sure my Protestant friends would say the same, but perhaps the memory of ‘anti-popery’ gives a special force to my conviction. Either that or the natural stubbornness of the Wybournes!

Secondly, I think awareness of the way in which Catholicism survived in England makes us more conscious of the debt we owe to others and the interconnectedness of England and the Continent. I think of the other countries of Europe as being friends not foes—places that gave refuge to English Catholics when life was difficult for us here, and still welcoming today because we share the same faith and sacraments. We have a long history in common. The overseas foundations that played an important role in the lives of English Catholics from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries were followed in the nineteenth by an influx of mainly French and Belgian and later, Irish, religious who set up schools and other institutions over here. I was myself taught by religious who came originally from France, Belgium and Spain. Does the internationalism of the Church have a psychological effect? I’d say it does, but as the schools run by religious close and fewer clergy study abroad, one must question whether the sense of belonging to a larger whole is waning, and with it any lingering sense of the ‘foreign’ nature of Catholicism. At one time, to be a Catholic was regarded by many as being unpatriotic. Now, most people don’t care; or they try to stretch the definition of ‘Catholic’ to include whatever they want it to include. If people object to Catholicism nowadays, it is because of what the Church teaches, not because Catholicism is seen as ‘foreign’.

A few very personal ramblings which I make public for one reason only: although I have concentrated on something I know from the inside, the history of post-Reformation Catholicism in England, there are many such ‘alternative histories’ that inform the thoughts and feelings of our fellow citizens. It is easy to be dismissive — especially when one is ignorant of the peculiar force such a history may have for the one who shares it. It is also easy to be over-sensitive — especially if one is a bit wishy-washy about what one believes to be important oneself. What is not so easy is being willing to learn. One of the things I found strangely moving as I skimmed through those Facebook comments this morning was the repeated ‘I didn’t know that.’ I think of some of the people I have met — Vietnamese, refugees from Amin’s Uganda, Syrians — and find myself wondering what their ‘hidden histories’ are and how they affect their lives in Britain today. I have a hunch I might be shocked and shamed were I to find out.


9 thoughts on “Alternative Histories: Gunpowder, Treason and Plot”

  1. There was an interesting BBC4 series that I’ve been watching a few of, ‘British History’s Greatest Fibs” or some such. I found the second episode about the “Glorious Revolution” suprisingly insightful. It wasn’t called that when I studied history in the 90s, it was just presented as part of the story of “how we ended up without absolute monarchs in Britain”, and subsequently I’d never really sussed out the connections to the Jacobite rebellions or the history of ‘troubles’ in Ireland. Those, I’d figured, dated back to some of the atrocities of the civil war. Goes to show that you never do stop learning! Not seen the latest drama, but then, I don’t find time to ‘do’ much TV either…

  2. “I think, in the first instance, it reminds us that faith is precious and freedom of religion a hard-won blessing not to be taken for granted, that we must be willing to make huge sacrifices to preserve. ”
    Yes, indeed. I expect Arch Bishop Cranmer would have agreed with that point.

    • Would he? I think Cranmer, like his Catholic contemporaries, would have thought the idea that anyone should have a right to freedom of religion rather alien. It is a modern idea, although one that I hope we all value and would defend. In Tudor times one was expected to follow the religion of the kingdom, which is why it mattered so much what that religion was. That is also why we had Protestants burned under Mary and Catholics and other dissenters put to death under Elizabeth and subsequent monarchs. Even Britain’s adoption of article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights (given binding weight by the Human Rights Acxt 1998) doesn’t ensure religious freedom for everyone. By the Act of Settlement 1701 the monarch is required to ‘join in communion with the Church of England’ even though, since 2013, marrying a Catholic no longer disqualifies him or her from the throne.

  3. I’ve been told that our family originally lived in France as Huguenots and had to leave to Germany due to the State’s and the Catholic monarch’s violence against them. They left Germany probably with the wave of emigration with Bismarck’s policies. I converted to Catholicism when I was in college. I hope that my ancestors aren’t “rolling in their graves,” but relieved that, at least in America 1970’s, an individual could follow their faith without much hoopla (other than the family dinner table). I find it deeply disturbing that refugees are getting so little help and consideration, especially in my country –mostly populated by refugees and immigrants.

    • Yes, the flood of religious persecutions to which the world has been subject should make us all humble in the face of human need and suffering. We have one small planet on which to live. Shouldn’t we be helping one another rather than stirring up fear and hatred?

  4. The latest TV production “Gunpowder” fills me with great sadness that the Reformation led to the cruel death of so many dear souls. Both Catholic and Protestant officials inflicted arbitrary punishment, torture and painful execution upon Christians. God must have been weeping in Heaven as thousands of innocent people were summarily and viscerally dispatched for no good reason. Where was the love, grace and peace that we all aspire to?
    Until the start of the 16th Century, we were all Catholics and, if Henry VIII had not chosen to divorce Catherine of Aragon, we probably might have remained so. But we all became Anglican from 1535, Catholic from 1553 and Anglican from 1558. Our individual religious family heritages since then make fascinating stories. I admire greatly those who survived recusancy and continued to today as practising Catholics. My own lineage came through Methodism and I am the first to return to Anglicanism for several generations. However, I consider myself first and foremost a Christian. I accept wholeheartedly all those who follow the Lord whatever Church they belong to. More widely l love and pray for everyone on Earth, for their peace, sustenance and wellbeing, free from slavery, persecution, bigotry and torture. Safe in the peace, love and grace of our Lord.

  5. There are so very many things we should all be ashamed of in our various histories, whether we belong to a religion, nation, society, business, etc., but really, what we have done wrong is to permit evil men to become our rulers. Most evil things have been done in the name of the group, but actually motivated by wishes for personal power (and/or money)

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